The sound of whimpers reached my ears and as usual I was up in an instant, heading down the hall to his room. Picking him up from the rickety peeling crib, I held him and shushed him in a soft whisper. Slowly he calmed and his whimpers gave way to soft gurgling and coos as he tangled his tiny hand in my dark curls. Smiling down at him I sighed trying not to think about what lay ahead in the day. Reaping day.
“That's right, little bug, mommy's got you. Everything is just fine, I'm here.”
I felt overwhelmed and had to fight hard not to cry when he released his grasp on my hair and smiled up at me, his big green eyes shining. If a year ago, you had told me I would have something to lose if I went into the games, aside from my aunt, I would have laughed. Now, looking down into those eyes, I had more to lose than ever.
Of course my mistake had cost us. It was more things we needed to take care of him, medicines for me, more food. We were already on the bottom rung and for a while now we have already been barely scraping by. I was signing up for extra Tessera each month and it helped, but I wanted to be able to do more. I know winning the games would ensure that, but it also meant risking it all for nothing if I lost. It was something I had been battling myself over since he was born.
Of course, the only time he was mine was here, in our home. In public, Espee cradled him and claimed him as her own. We had planned that from the moment I told her of my folly, because even though my age made me a child in the eyes of the law, having a child myself might not. We didn't want to take any chances, because without the Tessera there is no way we could make it.
My brother had said he would help out after our mom died, but was on one of his few lucid days. He spent most of them high on morphling or doing stupid things trying to find another fix. It pained me to see him like that, like her. Maybe it was because I feared finding him like he found her; slumped over in a chair, skin tinged in green, the life in her eyes gone.
I shook the image away quickly and held tighter to Gauge, heading to the kitchen where I could hear my aunt preparing breakfast. Making sure he was secured in the discarded old car seat that we had attached to a chair with baling wire, I helped her finish the food and serve it. It was fancy compared to most meals, with actual sausage links instead of thinly pounded patties, jam on fresh biscuits, and enough eggs to go around. I didn't question where they came from, just smiled and forced myself to push the food past my lips.
Truth was, despite how good it smelled and looked, I wasn't hungry. Every bite I took felt like it might come back up. Finally, between feeding myself and feeding Gauge I managed to get it all down. While my aunt cleaned up in the kitchen and sang to keep him entertained, I went to wash up and get ready for the reaping ceremony.
After bathing, I combed out my hair to get rid of any tangles and let it dry in it's natural state as I pulled out my special occasion dress and shoes. It was a simple mint green dress made of lace with a leather belt at the waist. The shoes were leather woven flats with flower accents. I had gotten them with the money the capitol gave us after my father's accidental death. It was a small amount for such a huge loss, I see that looking back now, but things hadn't been so hard then. Mom and dad had both been working, Cam had been signing up for Tessera, even aunt Espee had been helping out when she could.
Slipping the dress over my head and buckling the belt around my waist, I looked in the small plain mirror above the sink. I had changed over the years and now the dress that I had bought large was snug to my womanly form, the belt I had needed to make it fit, now nothing more than a decorative accent. Slipping my slender feet into the leather flats, I grabbed my glasses from the shelf and put them on. I was just getting ready to find my aunt when she appeared in the doorway, her eyes shining with tears.
“You look so grown up, Aero. Your father would be proud.”
I wasn't so sure of this, but I didn't voice that and just nodded in response. I watched as she removed something from the pocket in her apron and held out a pink and white sparking mass to me. I reached out taking silky fabric in my hands. Upon closer inspection I saw it was a silk scarf with mirrored accents and a braided silk headband with a flower that matched. I stared at the expensive looking items for a moment and brought my eyes to hers which were now overflowing.
“These are from your wedding, I saw them in pictures. They're beautiful.”
“They are yours, Aero. I want you to have them to wear, for good luck.”
I forced back the tears that were threatening to show and embraced her as I hadn't anyone in a very long time. After a moment she broke them embrace whispering that we were going to be late to the square if I didn't hurry. She helped me slip a quick set of thin braids in my hair which she wrapped delicatly around the band on my head and left the rest of my curls loose. Settling the scarf around my neck she smiled a bitter sort of smile and then left me to myself for one last moment before facing my fate.
I heard her tending to Gauge in the front of the house, as I dug through a dusty box under the few things hanging in the closet. Numerous pictures painted in bright colors, some small trinkets, official documents. Finally, I found it. I pulled out the ring my mother had given me shortly before her passing and her words filled my head once more.
“Aero, one of theses days you are going to realize you can fly away from here. You are going to soar like a bird in the sky and not like those great mechanical beasts we help create. No, you will have a different kind of wings.”
I smiled ruefully at the small bird that perched on my ring. I know now that she had been talking about the drug, how it took her somewhere else, how she felt like she was flying. As a child though, it had meant more. It had given me hope. I needed a bit of hope right now, so I slipped the small bird onto my finger and headed for the door.
Espee had bathed and dressed Gauge in a simple brown one piece and matching pants and was now wearing a white and pink flowered sundress as we headed to where the masses of District 6 had already begun to gather at the square. I kissed Gauge on the head and smiled as she wished me well and fell back into the crowd and I was herded into a sign in and then into a roped off are with the other females.
In the crowd I saw many faces I knew from school and around town, but when I spotted her I shoved the others out of my way. She did the same and soon we were standing side by side, just as we always had been. Fascia was a year younger than me, but somehow we had always been friends, from the first moment we met in school. She was wearing a soft purple dress dotted with small silver flecks and her usual pigtails were in braids that fell over her shoulders. She was a tiny waif like thing, but was deft with a needle and thread, and sharp as a tack. Currently, she was shaking like a leaf.
“Bonnie said not to worry, but I can't stop. If that woman pulls my name, what am I going to do, Aero,” she whispered, her big blue eyes searching mine for the answers.
“She won't. There's so many kids here and you don't have to sign up for the extra Tessera, so she won't draw your name, Fascia.”
“But what if she does? Bonnie is too old to volunteer for me now,” she whimpered tears beginning to track down her cheeks.
“ Then -” I thought about the question for a minute and it was suddenly clear to me. She saw the determination set in and shook her head at me as I gave her my answer. “Then I will.”
“No, you can't,” she squeaked out. “You have too much to lose, Aero. So much more than I do.”
“Gauge and Espee deserve better. Hell, we all do, Fascia.” I patted her head softly and looked her in the eyes, “Besides, who said I planned on losing,” I whispered so others wouldn't hear.
She hugged me then and stayed that way as Liviana took the stage, chirpy as ever and we began the torture that is the reaping. Nervous eyes flicked around searching out family and friends as they stood with bated breath, hoping their names weren't drawn. I stood there hoping for the opposite.
“Ladies first,” Liviana chimed as she began the drawing.
I watched her dainty hand swirl around in the bowl and pluck a single slip of paper out. I thought of Gauge and his beautiful smile, his chubby little cheeks. I thought of Espee and how I could repay her for all she had done. I thought of everyone around me who needed the food, needed what I could bring back by winning.
A broad smile crossed liviana Silver's face as she held up the slip and read aloud, “Fascia Spring!”
I felt Fascia's fingers dig into my shoulder, her entire body go rigid at my side. I heard her whimper and saw the peacekeepers heading our direction. I pried her hands off of me and moved under the dividing rope into the main path. I stood there for a moment, her eyes pleading with me, not to do it, to come back and let her go instead, but I couldn't.
“I volunteer as tribute,” I called out willing my voice not to shake and winning the battle.
The woman's smile widened and she clapped her hands together and then waved me up to the podium. Fascia had hurried to the boundary and thrown her arms around me, her forehead against mine. “I'll worry about Gauge and Espee. You worry about coming back.”
I nodded tears spilling from my eyes as she stepped back and the peacekeepers urged me to head toward the platform. I walked slowly, carefully, knowing everybody was watching. As I made it up to the podium, Liviana smiled at me and pulled me to her side in front of the microphone.
“And your name, dear?” Her voice echoed and she gave me a pleasant but expectant smile, waiting.
“Aero Stringer,” I reply softly, looking out over the crowd to my aunt, who is teary eyed and hugging Gauge tightly to her chest. I wipe the tears away from my cheeks, shifting my glasses in the process. I move them back and wait patiently for her chirpy evaluation of me.
“Lovely dear, and you volunteered, such a brave act. There must be someone very dear to you in this crowd then, yes?”
I thought of my baby boy, my aunt, Fascia and the tears came quickly. I sniffled polite as I could and nodded, shuffling my feet. “Yes, Ma'am. Very, very dear.”
She handed me a fancy handkerchief and I dabbed at my eyes as she continued with the ceremony. I stood there waiting, hardly paying attention as I thought of everything I had learned over the years and the secret training I had been doing to prepare myself. I had studied the games over the years, knew how certain aspects worked, and what skills I needed to work on.
I was only pulled from my thoughts when a familiar looking boy walked confidently up the stairs and took his spot at the microphone introducing himself to all of Panem. He was tall, about six and a half feet, with dark hair and green eyes. He was muscular, probably from lifting parts, and had a hardened look about him.
“Pilot Bearing,” he said in a gravelly voice and Liviana beamed at him.
We went through the motions and when we shook hands, I was surprised that his grip wasn't bone crushing. It was gentler than expected and he even smiled at me a bit. I wasn't sure if it was part of his game or not, but I grudgingly returned it in front of the crowd and once the anthem played us out, we were whisked away by peacekeepers to the, for most of us, final goodbyes.
My family came first. Espee cradling Gauge, and my brother who I hadn't seen in the crowd. He seemed alert and I realized he was actually lucid. Espee handed the baby to me and I cuddled him trying not to cry as I kissed him and as I spoke.
“Fascia and Bonnie will be around to help. Turner said he'd help with food, but I know you can manage.”
“You stay safe, and come back to us, you hear me, Aero. You're smart and you can do it, you know.”
My aunt hugged me tightly, and placed a tender kiss on my forehead, stepping back, but letting me hold tightly to my son as long as I could. My brother who had been hanging back against a wall stepped forward then, a wry smile crossing his cracked lips.
“You can, Space Cadet. You can win this thing, More talent in your left nostril than most of them, Sis.”
It was a rare moment of kinship between us as he embraced me cautiously, but I grappled him as if he were the last solid thing on this Earth. I felt the tears streaming down my cheeks, but this time I wasn't playing up for cameras, for a sympathy vote. This time it was unbridled out of love and I didn't care whether it hurt or helped my game.
Wiping my eyes on his sleeve, I smiled and nodded as he pulled away and went back to the wall. I held up Gauge in my arms, smiling at him and looking into those huge green eyes of his. This is why I had made the decision. This is why I had to come back. To see those eyes every day, to hear him talk, see him run and play. He was my reason.
“You be good, little bug. Be good for mommy -” A peacekeeper entered the room and I knew my time was almost up. “Be good for me, okay? Be good for Espee and keep the Astronaut out of trouble, little bug. I'll be home soon, I promise.”
I kissed him and stroked his dark curls one more time before Espee took him and the peacekeeper escorted them out. The last thing I heard before the door closed was his crying and it just made me even more determined to win and come back home.
Next and last was Fascia, her face red from crying as she entered she ran to me and threw her arms around me sobbing. I hugged her tightly and we went over her part while I was away. She promised to take care of them for me, all of them. When she tried to take my hand in her own my ring got in the way and she looked down gasping. Confused I asked her what was wrong and she held up my hand and pointed to the bird.
“This is very special, Aero. Such a little bird, with such a big heart,” she said smiling slightly.
I was still very confused at her words, but smiled back. As the peacekeeper returned to fetch her she looked in my eyes on our final embrace and whispered, “If you are looking for the truth, just open your mind and look inside.”
And with that I was alone once more, but not for long. Soon there were meals of extravagance and train trips that had me working on strategy and getting to know the other tribute from my district. Pilot was the eldest of 4 kids, worked in the aerospace sector of the district, and was very nice, but not extremely bright. He was a talker and talked about his strategy and skills openly, which was good for me. True he could have been feeding me false information, but I highly doubted it.
When we reached the capitol we went through the motions. I was lucky enough to get a decent stylist and team, who worked their magic on me. I trained and made sure to learn new skills to compliment the ones I already had. I made a showing with the game makers, and got a decent score and was told I did swimmingly during the interview portion.
I was going through the motions though, anticipating the arena, sizing up the competition. There were a few who stuck out in my mind as ones to knock out of the running as soon as possible and I noted them to Pilot, making a pact of sorts with him. I wasn't fond of the idea of teaming up, leaving my life in the hands of anybody but myself, but he had some good selling points and muscle that I lacked.
The morning of the games I sat there confident in my plans, in my skills; confident that I would get to go home alive. While I waited for the routine to begin, I looked at my ring closely. Fascia had known something she couldn't say, but it had passed inspection and been allowed as my district token, so what could be so special about it? I recalled her parting words and tried to figure out the riddle she had given me.
After several minutes of deep thought, it came to me, but surely the committee that inspected it would have thought to look. Sure enough, I studied the beak of the bird and saw very well hidden a seam that ran from the beak along the wing and ended at the tail of the bird. Slipping my fingernail into the nearly invisible crevice, I felt it give and the tiny bird opened up to a hollow space minus a tiny folded up piece of paper. I unfolded it and read in my mothers aged script “fly away, little bird, fly away.”
I smiled softly at the hope I had felt as a child at those words and flipped the little bird closed just as there was a loud knock on my door signifying the day had begun. I hurried to open it and there was Pilot with a grin on his chiseled face, with Laviana and our mentor heading down the hall. I stepped out into the hall and closed the door behind me.
“Ready to fly, Aero,” he asked chuckling at his own joke.
“Like a little bird,” I said in reply ignoring his confused expression and heading down the hall toward whatever the arena had in store for me.