Your longest-serving memories bleed in from when you were a little boy. Your mother grabbed one hand and your father the other. Running a little bit ahead of both, you swung yourself forward like a monkey between trees. That's what Mom and Dad were for you at this stage: the trees. Stationary, silent, stoic. You sent yourself upward swinging high in the sky. Their arms, like branches, dragged down with the weight applied. They refused to speak with you, refused to look at you. Looking back on it now, you should have asked them what was wrong. It would be the most courteous thing to do. But you were a four-year-old boy catching swollen air within your nostrils. How much substance could you really offer them?
The next thing you knew, three men in burning red outfits stood in your family's path. They wear masks across the top half of their face, and for the two on either side of the central man, fringe blocks their faces from being seen. You'd never seen people like these before. In fact, you'd never been in this place before, either. It's as if Mom and Dad wandered for hours. They knew their destination, however, as did these men. The tallest one reached his hand out to shake your father's. You examine the man's attire. He's got gold fringe and tips around the blood-red, something that the others do not. Maybe he's their captain. "This is Uncle Elio," your mother says. Your face turned up to her and then to Dad. They don't look troubled by the sight of your uncle. Instead, they are resigned. To what, you're not exactly sure. "He's going to take care of you from now on." Elio squats down and offers his elbow up to you. You smile and crash yours up to it. One of the other men picks you up. Your mother turns up against you one last time for a kiss on the cheek. "Be smart," she says, "and do what Uncle Elio and his friends tell you."
You don't resist as they carry you away from Mom and Dad. Elio speaks to you but you're too tired to make out his words after all of the playing with your parents on the way there. A few pats on your back later and they're silent. The calls of a horse startle you, but a youthful voice calms you down. They ride out and away.
A new home awaits you in the morning. It's colder than usual, and the walls are thick and made of stone. The ceiling is held up by pillars, and only a few windows at the very top of the walls offer sunlight. There's only one person in the entire room. A woman rocks in a wooden chair, dizzying herself twofold by watching the fan panels spin overhead. You walk up to her, rubbing your eyes and tugging at your shirt before you speak.
"Who're you?" Innocence lines your words. Her head rolls down to look at you.
"I'm your Aunt, Drea. How are you, little Novak?"
"That's not me! My name is Adrián!"
"Well, sweetie. I think Novak sounds cooler. It makes you sound like a big, strong superhero, don't you think?"
You agree. In many ways, it does. It brings anonymity to your being, a certain badassery that a four-year-old you didn't know you would be so grateful to have while you grew up in new conditions.
"You're going to be so happy here, little Novak. You won't live a moment without money and power. Uncle Elio and I want nothing less for you and the other boys and girls who come to play the game with us. The game's just starting."
Games? You like games. She gently twisted your curly black hair before going on. "You're one of our home-bred. If you do well, maybe you'll be the next team captain after Elio and I turn grey and old. Wouldn't that be fun?" With every word, Drea conditions to want money and power. All they ask is that you play your part and protect the family. Seems easy enough.
As the years went on, you grew bigger, faster, stronger, and smarter. Perhaps your most appealing attribute that came from your new home life was charisma. In school, when a rowdy student inevitably made a teacher unhappy and added to the homework load, you were the one to charm them out of it. You learned enough in school but Drea taught you to be wary; believing in your education means obeying it, but learning from your education means evading it. What they teach you in school is true up until something inconveniences you. Then, it must be circumvented.
While your cousins played with toy guns in the basement of the bar or smoked a joint out back, you were sitting with the adults in the room. The playmakers. Elio. Drea. Ruslan. They spoke of guns, drugs, and robberies. They discussed pushing some of the rural farmers out of their homes for isolated storage.
Elio points to you with his cigarette. You've been with him, living in his house for twelve years, but this is the first time he's ever acknowledged your 'participation' in these meetings. "Whaddya think, little Novak?"
"Yeah, you. Soon as I bite the dead, maybe even sooner, you'll be the one callin' the shots. They've all got smart mouths and minds but you got clever ones. What's the best area of Ten to keep our stock in?"
You begin to go through a few scenarios. There's a maturity about your voice, unafraid to speak. If you stumble or stutter, Elio's got fangs for eyes and they're ready to leap in your defense. "The borders," you say, but then shake your head, "they'd be smart, but they're the most isolated. If anyone comes lookin', that's the first place they'll go." You look at the map of Ten posted on the wall behind Elio. "Buy out two or three houses on the fringe of town. They've got meat cellars, and since we're such upstanding citizens…" You pull at your collar as everyone in the room laughs at the sarcasm you've picked up quickly. "I don't think they'd be any the wiser."
"You don't think the P-Ks will pick up on it?"
"They're smart because they obey orders. Their self-awareness isn't as keen. Couldn't even smell the shit stuck on their ass if it killed 'em."
Elio nods. He tells you and the rest of the adults that it was what he was thinking as well. Clever minds are precious things because they make strong leaders. They brought you here all those years ago training you to be just that. Not a runner, robber, smuggler. You are the actor, the playmaker.
By the meeting's end, the room clears aside from you and Elio. He lends you a cigarette of your own. Taking it in, you ask him a question that's been lurking in your mind.
"Why'd you pick me of all people? Why am I the clever one?"
"Well, your mama and daddy owed us some things that they couldn't exactly pay- sorry. I know talkin' 'bout your parents can be a struggle."
"It's not." You're detached, disassembled from that little boy you were before. It doesn't bother you because you're happy here with all the power Elio and the others have offered you. "I mean.. couldn't you and Drea just have your own kids to be an heir? Ain't blood stronger than water?"
"Well, Novak. I'll be straight with you: I can't have kids. Never could, never can. Some physical thing, I guess. Drea doesn't want a baby daddy other than me, and neither do I. You're our next best thing." He gets closer now, whispering. "That's why we won't ever put you in harm's way. You're precious cargo. If the dust suffocates you, all I've worked 'll go to shit from a power grab."
You nod along. "That mean I'll never be able to go have fun with the rest of 'em?"
Uncle Elio laughs. "When you're a little older, maybe. But for now, you've got a different role to play."
He offers you up and out so that you can go get high with your cousins. You rise and move like a puppet on strings, being guided down a hand-chosen path toward great success.
You learned at an early age that this land is yours for the taking, and you should be ready to take it. Elio's done in for years: turning one house into two, two to three, and three to an entire street block. He was resourceful, turning old grocery stores and butcher shops hanging on by a thread into his own personal headquarters, using any leftover paths or tunnels between them as private transport.
But you've never understood why he stopped at just a street block for his domain. It perplexes you that someone of his confidence wouldn't want to cast a wider net through District Ten. You know that he could do it if he really wanted to. Relations with the PeaceKeepers have gotten on quite well as the peace Elio has maintained is between District and Capitol. Anything else is fair game to torment or turn a blind eye. So long as you're not menacing with the big guns, this land is yours for the taking.
Elio laughed the first time you asked him to push out further. "I've gotta leave some for you kids to take. I don't wanna be too selfish."
And you want to take it. Your aunts and uncles installed a mandate within you for power and control. Domination might be a stretch, sure, but even that shouldn't have to be out of your grasp. Why must you wait until Elio retires from his position to take it, either? You've got guns, horses, and people who would follow you if you asked them to. Most of the underground trusts you, and those who don't are best to pretend. You have a grip on this group, this land, maybe even the District. Take it now while you still can.
Twenty-seven now, as the 90th Hunger Games are preparing to begin, you sit down with Elio for your weekly fireside chats. You scuff your boot toward the firewood to knock it back up into place. Your uncle talks about the most recent heist that Yury and Damaris completed on one of the trains traveling from Eleven out to the rest of Panem. Damaris and her group sabotaged the integrity of the tracks the day before, and all Yury and his squad had to do was shoot it down, ride in, and take what was theirs.
"It was impressive, truly, and the best part is that lotsa' it is that genetically modified shit that makes everything bigger and taste better." There's a stutter in the air. Just as soon as you think it's opportune to speak, Elio begins again. "I really like Yury. Good fella, loyal to us, too. You think we should give him a bit of a bonus for all the trouble?"
"Maybe, but I have-"
"I'm sure we have a bit of gold for 'em to accessorize with. You have any old chains?"
You kick the log up into the back of the fireplace, leaving Uncle Elio at attention. "I want to run for Mayor here in Ten, Elio."
His cigar bobbles in his mouth. "Why the fuck'd you wanna do that?"
"What better way to have control over the land. Ten is ours for the takin' if we want it bad enough." You walk back and lean in your chairs, legs kicked up against a tarnished ottoman. You've heard growing up that a common goal of a parent is to have their child be more successful than the previous generation. You are unsure of where you parents stood, but they clearly didn't have enough standing. Hell, they gave you up in order to pay their debts. Being mayor would certaintly be an improvement.
"You high or something?"
Maybe you are, but you shrug your shoulders and shake your head. You want this. It's the best way to maximize your influence, and it's what you've been trained to do all your life.
Uncle Elio has not retired yet, but that does not mean you don't have a role to play in setting yourself up for future success.