The rain danced down the taut bowstring and collected on Takeru's fingertips, making it difficult to concentrate on the task at hand. Steadying his resolve he let the arrow fly as the remaining water leaped from the string violently. In the distance a guttural squeal could be heard, followed by the soft lyrical feminine voice of his lifetime friend Gail exclaiming at his side, "Nice shot, Takeru, now let's collect the boar and get out of here before the district authorities see us."
"This one wouldn't last a second in the Games…are you REALLY prepared to take her place?"Takeru and Gail have always been close, but in recent years they experienced an even closer partnership when they were forced to take over their fathers' business following their tragic deaths in a fire caused by an oven gas leak. Takeru's father, a sausage maker, and Gail's father, a bread baker, made an impressive synergistic partnership that provided food for the people during the "Dark Days" when the districts rebelled against the Capitol and the Capitol responded in turn by cutting off food supplies. Times were tough, but not as tough as they were just after the global war. To Takeru and Gail though, this life was all they knew and they felt proud to honor their fathers' memories by continuing their noble legacy.
They snuck the boar back to their shop for processing but were startled by the sound of a young girl's weeping. Sakura, Takeru's sister, was curled up in a fetal position crying in a corner of the shop.
"What is it, Saki?! Did something happen to Mother?! Tell me!" Losing another parent so young was not something Takeru could swallow easily and the mere thought of it almost made him vomit on the spot.
Gail shot him a scolding look for his abrupt language and kneeled down lovingly by Sakura's side. "What is it, sweetie?"
Sakura sprung up and hugged her like she was trying to hide from the world inside a single embrace.
Giving Takeru a slightly worried look, Gail said to Takeru's little sister, "It's okay sweetie, tell us what's going on."
Three words escaped Sakura's sobs and they were the three words no one wanted to hear.
"I've been chosen."
The words hung in the air just out of reach of Takeru's comprehension and all he could utter as his brain played catch up was, "NO!"
The door burst open and Capitol authorities dressed in white uniforms and helmets poured into the shop. Some of them eyed the boar on the table while others strode over and snatched Sakura away from Gail.
"WE'VE FOUND HER!" one of the authorities shouted out the door, and a large man dressed in a mustard-colored Captain's uniform strode into the shop and removed his black gloves. "Do you know what the punishment for illegal hunting is?" he asked, grilling them with a fiery voice. "I can tell you it's fairly severe." The Captain grabbed the hair of Sakura which was packed neatly in a bun and yanked her head up so she was looking directly at him. "But it's nothing compared to the punishment for running from the reaping."
"LET HER GO!" Takeru shouted, "TAKE ME INSTEAD, I VOLUNTEER!"
The Captain eyed Takeru's bold defiance carefully with a raised eyebrow and then glanced back at Sakura's fragile wisp of a frame. "This one wouldn't last a second in the Games…are you REALLY prepared to take her place?"
Takeru glanced at Gail and then at Sakura knowing it could be the last time he saw either one of them again and whispered, "I am."
The authorities released Sakura who fell to the ground sobbing again and after the Captain quickly bound Takeru's hands, pausing only briefly to relish in the victory, he shoved him through the open door. Takeru barely had enough time to utter the words, "Tell mom I love her and be brave, Saki," before Gail and Sakura were left all alone in the shop.
* * *
It's customary for all the contestants from the various districts to be paraded, towards the training center, through the streets of the Capitol, in order to generate interest and sponsors for the Games. The people of the Capitol are very different from that of the surrounding districts and Takeru was immediately taken aback by all the elaborate cosplay costumes and lavish excess they demonstrated. It was a stark contrast, to say the least, from the poverty and starvation that accompanied the thirteen districts. A familiar voice said, "Don't you just love the styles here? My mother sometimes brings me home dresses from the Capitol…but…I guess…I won't be wearing them anymore." Pita, the other contestant taken from their district, was a young girl that Takeru went to school with. He never paid her much attention growing up as she was always too timid and materialistic for him. Pita grew up in a richer part of the district than Takeru and while Takeru was more concerned with feeding his family and neighbors, Pita was more concerned with what she would wear to school. What Takeru didn't know was that Pita was only timid around him, because she secretly had a crush on Takeru.
Upon arriving at the training center, the two of them were separated from the other district's competitors and introduced to their mentor, who introduced himself only as Mitch.
"Hey Mitch." Takeru disrespectfully greeted him like they were old friends. Pita stared at Takeru with both envy for his bravery and horror for his disrespect.
"SILENCE!" Mitch snapped back unamused by his insolence, "I am your mentor, not someone to be tri…(hiccup)…tri… (hiccup)…trifled with."
Pita knew he spoke the truth; the mentors were often chosen from the winners of past Games and as such should be afforded a great deal of reverence and respect…though…she couldn't help but notice that Mitch was intoxicated.
Over the next couple of months Takeru and Pita trained with Mitch in order to better their survival chances in the upcoming Games. They consumed greater and greater quantities of food from day to day only to be exceeded by their exercise regimen. Mitch taught them highly bizarre survival techniques with odd names like "The Kobayashi Shake" and "The Solomon Method." Naturally, training closely with Pita under such extreme conditions, Takeru began to notice that he was developing feelings for her. He could feel them well up deep from inside him, like a sausage that just wouldn't stay down, especially when she called him by her newly developed pet name, "The Tsunami." However, in the back of his mind, he knew it wasn't meant to be, as they would soon be competing against each other in the Games.
The day of the Games seemed to come more swiftly than the arrow released from Takeru's bow on that distant fateful day of illegal hunting with Gail. Gail… he thought wistfully. He missed Gail and at times longed for her in ways he never explored before in his mind. She had a sassy strength to her and was always hot dogging to show up Takeru at any chance she could, something he now hungered for. He knew she would look after his little sister as her own and take Sakura under her wing in running their sausage business back home. There was comfort in that, which was enough to cause Takeru to steel his nerves against what could only be described as fear for what was about to go down.
The contestants were led through an underground complex to individual circular black platforms inside giant glass tubes which disappeared into the ceiling. Takeru took his place on his platform and briefly scanned the other contestants, knowing what lay ahead for them. His eyes locked with Pita's; she was standing on a platform a few down from his. They nodded knowingly at each other as the circular black platforms began to rise up into the glass tubes carrying the contestants with them. A loud speaker started echoing a countdown in a deep menacing voice as the contestants prepared themselves for the horrors that awaited them above.
Could you survive, with indigestion fighting against you?