When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fin-
gers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the
rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad
dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did.
This is the day of the reaping.
I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the
bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her
side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed to-
gether. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not
so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely
as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was
very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.
Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest
cat. Mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of
rotting squash. Prim named him Buttercup, insisting that his
muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. I le hates me.
Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think
he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when
Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with
worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was
another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I
had to let him stay. It turned out okay. My mother got rid of
the vermin and he’s a born mouser. Even catches the occa-
sional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the
entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.
Entrails. No hissing. This is the closest we will ever come to
I swing my legs off the bed and slide into my hunting boots.
Supple leather that has molded to my feet. I pull on trousers, a
shirt, tuck my long dark braid up into a cap, and grab my fo-
rage bag. On the table, under a wooden bowl to protect it from
hungry rats and cats alike, sits a perfect little goat cheese
wrapped in basil leaves. Prim’s gift to me on reaping day. I put
the cheese carefully in my pocket as I slip outside.
Our part of District 12, nicknamed the Seam, is usually
crawling with coal miners heading out to the morning shift at
this hour. Men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen
knuckles, many who have long since stopped trying to scrub
the coal dust out of their broken nails, the lines of their sun-
ken faces. But today the black cinder streets are empty. Shut-
ters on the squat gray houses are closed. The reaping isn’t un-
til two. May as well sleep in. If you can.
Our house is almost at the edge of the Seam. I only have to
pass a few gates to reach the scruffy field called the Meadow.
Separating the Meadow from the woods, in fact enclosing all
of District 12, is a high chain-link fence topped with barbed-
wire loops. In theory, it’s supposed to be electrified twenty-
four hours a day as a deterrent to the predators that live in the
woods — packs of wild dogs, lone cougars, bears — that used
to threaten our streets. But since we’re lucky to get two or
three hours of electricity in the evenings, it’s usually safe to
touch. Even so, I always take a moment to listen carefully for
the hum that means the fence is live. Right now, it’s silent as a
stone. Concealed by a clump of bushes, I flatten out on my bel-
ly and slide under a two-foot stretch that’s been loose for
years. There are several other weak spots in the fence, but this
one is so close to home I almost always enter the woods here.
As soon as I’m in the trees, I retrieve a bow and sheath of
arrows from a hollow log. Electrified or not, the fence has
been successful at keeping the flesh-eaters out of District 12.
Inside the woods they roam freely, and there are added con-
cerns like venomous snakes, rabid animals, and no real paths
to follow. But there’s also food if you know how to find it. My
father knew and he taught me some before he was blown to
bits in a mine explosion. There was nothing even to bury. I
was eleven then. Five years later, I still wake up screaming for
him to run.
Even though trespassing in the woods is illegal and poach-
ing carries the severest of penalties, more people would risk it
if they had weapons. But most are not bold enough to venture
out with just a knife. My bow is a rarity, crafted by my father
along with a few others that I keep well hidden in the woods,
carefully wrapped in waterproof covers. My father could have
made good money selling them, but if the officials found out
he would have been publicly executed for inciting a rebellion.
Most of the Peacekeepers turn a blind eye to the few of us who
hunt because they’re as hungry for fresh meat as anybody is.
In fact, they’re among our best customers. But the idea that
someone might be arming the Seam would never have been
In the fall, a few brave souls sneak into the woods to harv-
est apples. But always in sight of the Meadow. Always close
enough to run back to the safety of District 12 if trouble arises.
“District Twelve. Where you can starve to death in safety,” I
mutter. Then I glance quickly over my shoulder. Even here,
even in the middle of nowhere, you worry someone might
When I was younger, I scared my mother to death, the
things I would blurt out about District 12, about the people
who rule our country, Panem, from the far-off city called the
Capitol. Eventually I understood this would only lead us to
more trouble. So I learned to hold my tongue and to turn my
features into an indifferent mask so that no one could ever
read my thoughts. Do my work quietly in school. Make only
polite small talk in the public market. Discuss little more than
trades in the Hob, which is the black market where I make
most of my money. Even at home, where I am less pleasant, I
avoid discussing tricky topics. Like the reaping, or food short-
ages, or the Hunger Games. Prim might begin to repeat my
words and then where would we be?
In the woods waits the only person with whom I can be
myself. Gale. I can feel the muscles in my face relaxing, my
pace quickening as I climb the hills to our place, a rock ledge
overlooking a valley. A thicket of berry bushes protects it from
unwanted eyes. The sight of him waiting there brings on a
smile. Gale says I never smile except in the woods.
“Hey, Catnip,” says Gale. My real name is Katniss, but when
I first told him, I had barely whispered it. So he thought I’d
said Catnip. Then when this crazy lynx started following me
around the woods looking for handouts, it became his official
nickname for me. I finally had to kill the lynx because he
scared off game. I almost regretted it because he wasn’t bad
company. But I got a decent price for his pelt.
“Look what I shot,” Gale holds up a loaf of bread with an ar-
row stuck in it, and I laugh. It’s real bakery bread, not the flat,
dense loaves we make from our grain rations. I take it in my
hands, pull out the arrow, and hold the puncture in the crust
to my nose, inhaling the fragrance that makes my mouth flood
with saliva. Fine bread like this is for special occasions.
“Mm, still warm,” I say. He must have been at the bakery at
the crack of dawn to trade for it. “What did it cost you?”
“Just a squirrel. Think the old man was feeling sentimental
this morning,” says Gale. “Even wished me luck.”
“Well, we all feel a little closer today, don’t we?” I say, not
even bothering to roll my eyes. “Prim left us a cheese.” I pull it
His expression brightens at the treat. “Thank you, Prim.
We’ll have a real feast.” Suddenly he falls into a Capitol accent
as he mimics Effie Trinket, the maniacally upbeat woman who
arrives once a year to read out the names at the leaping. “I al-
most forgot! Happy Hunger Games!” He plucks a few black-
berries from the bushes around us. “And may the odds —” He
tosses a berry in a high arc toward me.
I catch it in my mouth and break the delicate skin with my
teeth. The sweet tartness explodes across my tongue. “— be
ever in your favor!” I finish with equal verve. We have to joke
about it because the alternative is to be scared out of your
wits. Besides, the Capitol accent is so affected, almost anything
sounds funny in it.
I watch as Gale pulls out his knife and slices the bread. He
could be my brother. Straight black hair, olive skin, we even
have the same gray eyes. But we’re not related, at least not
closely. Most of the families who work the mines resemble
one another this way.
That’s why my mother and Prim, with their light hair and
blue eyes, always look out of place. They are. My mother’s
parents were part of the small merchant class that caters to
officials, Peacekeepers, and the occasional Seam customer.
They ran an apothecary shop in the nicer part of District 12.
Since almost no one can afford doctors, apothecaries are our
healers. My father got to know my mother because on his
hunts he would sometimes collect medicinal herbs and sell
them to her shop to be brewed into remedies. She must have
really loved him to leave her home for the Seam. I try to re-
member that when all I can see is the woman who sat by,
blank and unreachable, while her children turned to skin and
bones. I try to forgive her for my father’s sake. But to be hon-
est, I’m not the forgiving type.
Gale spreads the bread slices with the soft goat cheese,
carefully placing a basil leaf on each while I strip the bushes of
their berries. We settle back in a nook in the rocks. From this
place, we are invisible but have a clear view of the valley,
which is teeming with summer life, greens to gather, roots to
dig, fish iridescent in the sunlight. The day is glorious, with a
blue sky and soft breeze. The food’s wonderful, with the
cheese seeping into the warm bread and the berries bursting
in our mouths. Everything would be perfect if this really was a
holiday, if all the day off meant was roaming the mountains
with Gale, hunting for tonight’s supper. But instead we have to
be standing in the square at two o’clock waiting for the names
to be called out.
“We could do it, you know,” Gale says quietly.
“What?” I ask.
“Leave the district. Run off. Live in the woods. You and I, we
could make it,” says Gale.
I don’t know how to respond. The idea is so preposterous.
“If we didn’t have so many kids,” he adds quickly.
They’re not our kids, of course. But they might as well be.
Gale’s two little brothers and a sister. Prim. And you may as
well throw in our mothers, too, because how would they live
without us? Who would fill those mouths that are always ask-
ing for more? With both of us hunting daily, there are still
nights when game has to be swapped for lard or shoelaces or
wool, still nights when we go to bed with our stomachs growl-
“I never want to have kids,” I say.
“I might. If I didn’t live here,” says Gale.
“But you do,” I say, irritated.
“Forget it,” he snaps back.
The conversation feels all wrong. Leave? How could I leave
Prim, who is the only person in the world I’m certain I love?
And Gale is devoted to his family. We can’t leave, so why both-
er talking about it? And even if we did . . . even if we did . . .
where did this stuff about having kids come from? There’s
never been anything romantic between Gale and me. When we
met, I was a skinny twelve-year-old, and although he was only
two years older, he already looked like a man. It took a long
time for us to even become friends, to stop haggling over
every trade and begin helping each other out.
Besides, if he wants kids, Gale won’t have any trouble find-
ing a wife. He’s good-looking, he’s strong enough to handle the
work in the mines, and he can hunt. You can tell by the way
the girls whisper about him when he walks by in school that
they want him. It makes me jealous but not for the reason
people would think. Good hunting partners are hard to find.
“What do you want to do?” I ask. We can hunt, fish, or gath-
“Let’s fish at the lake. We can leave our poles and gather in
the woods. Get something nice for tonight,” he says.
Tonight. After the reaping, everyone is supposed to cele-
brate. And a lot of people do, out of relief that their children
have been spared for another year. But at least two families
will pull their shutters, lock their doors, and try to figure out
how they will survive the painful weeks to come.
We make out well. The predators ignore us on a day when
easier, tastier prey abounds. By late morning, we have a dozen
fish, a bag of greens and, best of all, a gallon of strawberries. I