I can’t believe I’ve actually said it. There’s no turning back now. The crowd is silent for just a moment, then bursts into commotion as they begin to understand what I’ve said. Even Caesar seems at a loss for words.
“Oh, that is a piece of bad luck,” he says finally, regret in his voice.
My eyes, which have been staring at my feet, look up to meet Caesar’s. They’re boring into mine, looking sad and pitying.
“It’s not good,” I nod solemnly. Now that I’ve confessed how I feel out loud, my pain is a million times worse.
“Well, I don’t think any of us can blame you. It’d be hard not to fall for that young lady,” he says. “She didn’t know?”
I shake my head, resisting the urge to look up at the screen projecting Katniss’ reaction. “Not until now.”
“Wouldn’t you love to pull her back out here and a get a response?” Caesar asks the audience.They scream their enthusiastic approval. They want to know her reaction as much as I do, but I have a feeling that her response to this is not a good one. I’m half-relieved when Caesar speaks again: “Sadly, rule are rules, and Katniss Everdeen’s time is already spent.” My own buzzer sounds, and Caesar turns back to me. “Well, best of luck to you, Peeta Mellark, and I think I speak for all of Panem when I say our hearts go with yours.”
I offer him a weak smile, a firm handshake, and a thank you, then return to my seat as a tumult of clapping and screaming explodes behind me. It appears as if I’ve really stolen the show; no other interview received that kind of reaction.
They play the anthem in closing and we all stand. I notice that on every screen is a projection of Katniss and me; it seems as though Panem likes the two of us together. Maybe they’ll change their minds when Katniss doesn’t feel the same way and slits my throat in the arena.
We filter back through the Training Center and all the tributes pile in the elevators to their respective floors. Katniss seems to be purposefully avoiding me and we split off into separate elevators. Mine contains most of the Career pack, who glare and snigger at me as we board.
“Sorry to hear about your situation, Loverboy,” taunts Cato from District 1. “It’s too bad she’s the first one we’re going for, otherwise maybe you could’ve had a chance with her.” I don’t respond and just keep looking straight ahead. They see Katniss and her score of eleven as a threat. It makes sense that they’ll try to go after her first, while they still have the power of numbers on their side. After they’ve all exited on their respective floors, I ride solo up the the 12th floor, left to think what more I can do to protect Katniss. I know I don’t stand a chance against the Careers, and if they have to go through me to get to her, they’ll kill me without hesitation.
Immediately after I exit the elevator, I hear the ding of the one next to me. As Katniss bursts into the flat, her eyes immediately lock with mine, looking livid. She launches herself at me, pushing me hard and knocking me into a pot on the mantle that shatters on the floor.
Suddenly I’m on the ground, cradling my bloody hands, which were cut up by the broken pottery shards when I reached out to attempt to break my fall. “What was that for?” I demand.
“You had no right!” she screams. “No right to say those things about me!” I can’t say I was expecting a loving confession that she’s liked me all along, too, but as I nurse my damaged palms, I’m upset that she’d take her refusal this far.
In that moment the elevator doors slide open again, letting in Haymitch, Effie, Portia, and Cinna. They take one look at the scene and their jaws drop.
“What’s going on?” Effie screeches. “Did you fall?”
“After she shoved me,” I say, glaring at Katniss as Effie and Cinna rush to help me up.
Haymitch seems angry now; “Shoved him?” he asks Katniss, outraged.
Katniss continues to argue rather than answer Haymitch’s question. “This was your idea wasn’t it?” she accuses him. “Turning me into some kind of fool in front of the entire country?”
“It was my idea,” I say as I continue to pick shards out of my bloodied palms. “Haymitch just helped me with it.” I don’t want Haymitch to take the blame for something that I initiated.
“Yes, Haymitch is very helpful. To you!” she growls.
Haymitch steps in between us because Katniss looks like she’s about one step away from shoving me back into the shattered mess. “You are a fool,” he says angrily. “Do you think he hurt you? That boy just gave you something you could never achieve on your own.”
“He made me look weak!”
“He made you look desirable!” Haymitch barks. “And let’s face it, you can use all the help you can get in that department. You were about as romantic as dirt until he said he wanted you. Now they all do. You’re all they’re talking about. The star-crossed lovers of District Twelve!”
“But we’re not star-crossed lovers” Katniss snarls.
In one moment Haymitch is standing there, steaming from the ears, and the next moment his hands are gripping Katniss’ shoulders and pinning her against the wall. His face is frighteningly close to hers.
“Who cares?” he yells. “It’s all a big show. It’s all how you’re perceived. The most I could say about you after your interview was that you were nice enough, although that in itself was a small miracle. Now I can say you’re a heartbreaker. Oh, oh, oh, how the boys back home fall longingly at your feet. Which do you think will get you more sponsors?”
Katniss cringes at the smell of Haymitch’s breath, shoving him away and freeing herself from his grasp. She’s absolutely fuming. I don’t exactly know how I expected Katniss to react, but I was certainly hoping for better than this.
Cinna tries to calm her down. He wraps his arm around her waist and walks with her as she storms away from Haymitch. “He’s right, Katniss,” he says.
“I should have been told, so I don’t look stupid!” Katniss yells, whipping back around.
“No, your reaction was perfect,” says Portia. “If you’d known, it wouldn’t have read as real.”
“She’s just worried about her boyfriend,” I taunt as I pick the last shred of pottery from my hands.
Katniss’ face turns beet red. “I don’t have a boyfriend,” she protests.
“Whatever,” I say, too furious to say much else. “But he’s smart enough to know a bluff when he sees it. Besides, you didn’t say you loved me. So what does it matter?”
Katniss finally lets her shoulders relax and takes a step back. Her grimace fades instead into a face of confusion. Maybe even acceptance? Understanding? Everyone is silent as Katniss cools off, awaiting her final response.
“After he said he loved me, did you think I could be in love with him, too?” she asks concernedly. I had personally been too afraid to look up at the cameras to see her reaction, but maybe it was believable; maybe the audience thinks the feelings could be mutual.
“I did,” Portia chimes in. “The way you avoided looking at the cameras, the blush.”
“You’re golden, sweetheart,” says Haymitch. “You’re going to have sponsors lined up around the block.”
Katniss lets out a sigh, looking remorseful. She turns towards me. “I’m sorry I shoved you,” she says, making short eye contact and then looking back down at the ground.
“Doesn’t matter,” I shrug. “Although it’s technically illegal.”
“Are your hands okay?” she asks, sounding genuinely concerned and truly sorry. I look down at my hands, blood still seeping out of the deep gashes in my flesh, but my heart softens at her display of care.
“They’ll be alright,” I say.
From the dining room I can smell dinner and hear the sound of plates being set on the table. “C’mon, let’s eat,” says Haymitch, relieved to break the silence. We all take our seats at the table, but when I reach to set my napkin on my lap it’s immediately soaked in my blood.
“Oh honey, let’s go take care of that,” says Portia, and she leads me out of the dining room into the bathroom to patch me up. I rinse my hands in the sink and the water runs red down the drain. Portia helps me gently wash them with soap and carefully applies pressure with a cloth until the bleeding slows. She carefully administers some sort of ointment, and it takes everything I have not to scream out from the sting.
“I’m so sorry this happened to you,” Portia says as she wraps my hand in bandages. “And the day the before the Games!”
“It’s okay,” I say. “I should’ve saw this coming.” I can’t help but feel bad for myself. Not only did Katniss reject me completely, but she was so angry that she found it necessarily to try to physically hurt me on top of that. But the pain in my hands can’t even come close to matching the aching of my heart.
“Did you mean what you said?” Portia asks. “You really like her?”
I sigh, wondering why I still feel the same way about her, despite her averseness, despite the soon reality that she’ll be my enemy, despite the fact that this would all be a million times easier if I didn’t feel this way. But I can’t shake the feeling, and I know I won’t ever stop caring about her. “I really do,” I say finally.
“I think this is a noble thing you’re doing, dear. Trying to help her,” says Portia. “I think she’s starting to understand that, too.”
“I hope so,” I say. “This plan can only work if both of us are involved.”
“She’ll come around,” says Portia. “She’ll realize just how lucky she is to have you.”
Portia finishes wrapping and clipping my bandages, and we head back to the dining room. They’ve already finished the first course by the time we arrive. Since this is the last dinner that we’ll be eating in the Capitol, they went all out. It’s a feast of all of our favorites from the past few days, complete with a roast pig centerpiece, just like the one the Gamemakers had during the private training sessions. It’s unfortunate that I can’t enjoy the food much. My wrapped hands don’t allow for much movement and cause me to fumble with my silverware so they food hardly ever reaches my mouth. But thanks to the events of the past couple hours, I’m not feeling too hungry anyway.
After dinner we move into the sitting room to watch the replay of the interviews. Katniss looked unforgettably beautiful and got quite the response from the audience, especially when she talked about her sister. Watching my interview over again was strange, seeing myself transition from the charming and funny baker’s son to the pathetically tragic sap. Effie and Haymitch commend me for my presentation and my execution. Even Katniss gives me a sad-polite smile when we watch as I again confess my feelings for her in front of all of Panem. I hope what Portia said earlier was right; I hope Katniss does come around. I want her to see that my purpose is not to embarrass her, demean her, or force her to like me back, but to help her and to give her the best chance she can get.
When the recaps are over, Haymitch switches the TV off, but no one says anything for awhile. The Games begin tomorrow morning at ten, but we need to use the early hours of the morning to get ready, be transported to the arena, get suited up, and be on the pedestals when the countdown begins. The stylists will travel there with us, but Effie and Haymitch will be off to the Games Headquarters where their work of lining up sponsors and carrying out strategy really begins. Now is our time to say goodbye.
Effie, in tears, hugs Katniss and I, so tightly that her long fingernail claws dig into my back. “Good luck to both of you. I know you’ll do so well,” she says. “Thank you for being the best tributes I’ve ever had the privilege to sponsor.” She releases us, and I myself am almost about to tear up until she says “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I finally get promoted to a decent district next year!”
Haymitch isn’t nearly as gushy. He crosses his arms and looks us up and down, as if assessing us one last time.
“Any last advice?” I ask.
“When the gong sounds, get the hell out of there. You’re neither of you up to the blood bath at the Cornucopia. Just clear out, put as much distance as you can between yourselves and the others, and find a source of water,” he says, more serious than ever. “Got it?”
“And after that?” I ask, hoping for more.
“Stay alive,” he says. Classic Haymitch. Katniss and I nod, realizing that any more advice at this point would just be white noise. We’re as prepared as we ever could be, and whatever happens, happens.
Haymitch heads off to bed, followed by Katniss, but I stay behind to talk to Portia. She’ll be with me until the moment I’m put into the arena tomorrow morning, but I’m not sure if I’ll be in the right state of mind to thank her and give her a proper goodbye.
She takes my hand and inspects my bandages, which are dotted with blood that’s leaked through. “This is my first year as a stylist, you know,” she says out of nowhere.
“Really?” I say. “It doesn’t show, you’re so incredibly talented. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for all your hard work.”
“It’s the least I could do, really,” she says. “Cinna and I both chose District 12 because we wanted to help the underdogs. And Peeta, there’s no one else I’d rather have. I never realized how hard it would be letting you go.” Her voice cracks as if she’s about to cry.
“It’s okay,” I tell her, pulling her into a hug. “You have helped me so much.”
“I’m so sorry, Peeta. I’m so sorry you’re here. You don’t deserve this. I just wish there was more I could do一”
“You’ve done so much already,” I say, shushing her. “It’s not your fault that I’m here. I’m just unlucky. The odds aren’t in my favor.”
“Don’t say that,” she sniffles. “You have a chance; you can make it out of there, I know you can.”
In my head I’m thinking no I can’t, but instead I tell Portia “I’ll try.”
She reluctantly lets go of me, wetness glistening in her eyes and tiny streams of black running down her cheeks. She brushes the hair off of my forehead and kisses my cheek. “You should get some sleep,” she says. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I head back to my room, intending to crawl into bed but knowing that I won’t be able to sleep. I take a shower, wiping away the makeup and the gel and the smell of roses and the blood from my hands, realizing this will probably be my last shower, maybe ever. I dress in soft cotton pajamas and re-wrap my hands in clean bandages. When I open the bathroom door leading back to my room, there’s someone sitting on my bed: Haymitch. How long has he been there?
“What are you doing here?” I ask. “I thought you went to bed already.”
“I did,” says Haymitch. “Couldn’t sleep. Plus, I had an idea.”
“More advice besides ‘stay alive?’” I ask.
“Sorta,” he says. “I mostly just wanted to check in and see how you’re feeling about this whole thing, but I didn’t want to ask while Katniss was around.”
“I mean, how do you expect me to be feeling?”
“Scared, nervous, betrayed, heartbroken, I don’t know kid, the list goes on,” he says. “Do you still like her even after she busted up your hands?”
I look down at my poor bandage job. I’ll have to make sure Portia fixes me up again tomorrow morning. “They’re fine, it’s not a big deal,” I say. “I probably would’ve done the same thing if I were her.”
“I wouldn’t have,” Haymitch says bluntly. “I’m smarter than that. Hurt my only ally and the person that’s trying to save me more than anyone? I’m not that stupid.”
“She’s not stupid,” I say. “She’s just… headstrong. And do you think she sees me as an ally?”
“I think she’s starting to see that what you did today helped her. And I’m sure she’ll play along, if that’s what it takes to survive. But that’s it. I don’t think that means she necessarily likes you or trusts you completely,” Haymitch says. “I’m not sure what she’ll do tomorrow. If she meets up with you immediately and wants to work together, great, but I have a feeling that’s not going to happen. After what she did to you today, I think she’s still probably pretty skeptical. Like I said yesterday, you might still need to earn her trust”
“Hey Haymitch,” I ask, remembering something from earlier. “I was in the elevator with the Careers today, and they… they said that Katniss was the first one they were going for.”
“I’m not surprised,” he says. “It’s an obvious strategy to kill off your biggest threats first.”
“How do I protect her from them?” I say, scared by the thought. “Even if the sponsors did believe our love story, they can’t bring her back to life if the Careers get their hands on her.”
He considers this for a moment. “You could ally with them,” he says suddenly.
“What?” I say. “Ally with the Careers?”
“Hear me out. They want Katniss. You know Katniss better than they do. They might see you as their ticket to her. They might even want to use you as bait. Either way, you have an in.”
“And if they let me in, I can better protect Katniss from them,” I say, finishing Haymitch’s thought. “I could mislead them. Maybe I could even pick them off in their sleep.”
“Don’t go that far. That’s a quick way to get yourself killed. The second they feel like you’re misleading them or you’re a threat to them, you’re a goner,” he says. “But it’ll give you a chance to keep your eyes on them. You can’t protect Katniss from them if you don’t know where they are.”
“Okay,” I say, understanding his point. “I’ll try to ally with the Careers. Assuming they don’t kill me first.”
“Just convince them that they need you. Use your charm,” he says, smirking at me. He gives me a slap on the back. “You can do this. Now get some sleep.”
Haymitch Abernathy: District 12’s drunkard mentor who fell off the stage at the reaping, the guy who punched me in the jaw during our first real conversation, the man who promised to do everything he could to help us, the friend who knew I liked Katniss before I even told him, and now, the closest thing to family I’ve had all week walking towards the door. My heart sinks at the realization that I’ll probably never see him again.
“Wait!” I say, stopping him right before he flicks off the lights and closes the door behind him. “Thanks Haymitch. For everything.” There are so many things I want to say to him, but I don’t know how to put them into words.
“Of course,” he says. “I’d wish you luck, but luck is for suckers. Go show them what you got, Peeta.” And with that, the door clicks shut and he’s gone forever.
I crawl into bed but lay awake, rerunning the conversation in my head. The new challenge of allying with the Careers has my mind swimming. Voluntarily teaming up with the notoriously savage killing machines doesn’t seem to be in my best interests, but if it will allow me to keep an eye on them and keep them away from Katniss, I’ll do it. I’ll just be sure to sleep with one eye open.
I am not like the Careers. The Hunger Games is a sport to them, and they take great pride and pleasure in killing people. Year after year I’ve seen innocent kids mamed, mutilated, and murdered at their hands, and they leave the bloody scene with a smirk on their face and a spring in their step. Not me.
Growing up, I’ve always prided myself in my gentleness and my integrity, especially considering those things were lacking in my home. When my mom would hit me, I wouldn’t fight back. When my brothers would mock me, I would take it. Not because I was weak, but because I was strong. I didn’t want to become one of them, hardened by the desolation of life. I miss my cakes and my piping bag, which I clutched like a stress ball, painting images of happiness despite the sadness in my heart. The flowers, the colorful icing, the exactness of the strokes, the looks on people’s faces when they saw my work displaying in the window, it all put me at peace. It brought me hope, reminded me that maybe life wasn’t so bad. Where will I find that hope now? It can only be found in the prospect of Katniss going home.
I try closing my eyes, counting sheep, reciting the family’s sugar cookie recipe in my head, thinking of anything other than the Games. But it’s no use. I throw off my covers, tired, frustrated, angry, resisting the urge to turn over my desk in rage.
I need to cool down, clear my head. I remember Cinna showing me the roof on my first day here. That seems like a lifetime ago. I throw on a sweatshirt, quietly shut my bedroom door, and retreat to the stairs leading up to the roof.
I immediately hear the sound of celebration coming from the streets below, and I move closer to the rail to investigate. The square is full of chattering people, a band is playing, people are singing along, glasses are clinking. I can faintly hear announcements from below, saying things like “Happy Hunger Games Eve,” “bets can be placed at the bar,” or “enter your guess for how many tributes lost on day one.” They’re enjoying their final celebration of the tributes, who they pampered and fed and cheered for over the past week, and yet who they’ll be sending into the arena tomorrow. Seems odd that one day they love us, and the next they’re placing bets on who will die first. I wonder how much money I’ve got on my head.
“You should be getting some sleep,” says a voice from behind me. I jump, startled, until I realize who the voice belongs to.
“I didn’t want to miss the party. It’s for us, after all,” I say to Katniss.
She joins me next to the railing, taking in the view of the Capitol and the moonlight shining over us. She leans further over the railing, inspecting the happenings below. “Are they in costumes?” she asks.
“Who could tell, with all the crazy clothes they wear here?” I shrug. “Couldn’t sleep, either?”
“Couldn’t turn my mind off,” she says.
I understand. It must be even worse for her, missing Prim, missing Gale. “Thinking about your family?” I ask.
“No,” she says sadly. “All I can do is wonder about tomorrow. Which is pointless, of course.” She looks down at my poorly bandaged hands. “I really am sorry about your hands,” she says, and her apology sounds genuine. Maybe she feels guilty that she’s putting me at a disadvantage, but what difference does it make?
“It doesn’t matter, Katniss,” I say with a sigh. “I’ve never been a contender in these Games anyway.”
“That’s no way to be thinking,” she says.
“Why not? It’s true. My best hope is to not disgrace myself and…” I pause, wondering how to phrase my next though.
“And what?” she presses.
“I don’t know how to say it exactly. Only… I want to die as myself. Does that make any sense?” I look at her, her face illuminated by the city lights and the bright full moon, but she’s shaking her head. “I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not,” I explain.
“Do you mean you won’t kill anyone?” she asks.
I don’t want to think about it, but I know that if I have any hope of sustaining myself, I’ll have to. “No, when the time comes, I’m sure I’ll kill just like anybody else. I can’t go down without a fight. Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to… to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games.”
“But you’re not,” she says. “None of us are. That’s how the Games work.”
“Okay, but within that framework, there’s still you, there’s still me. Don’t you see?”
“A little,” she shrugs. “Only… no offense, but who cares, Peeta?”
“I do. I mean, what else am I allowed to care about at this point?” I demand, this time looking her right in the eyes. She has to be feeling the same thing in some way, doesn’t she?
She takes a step away. “Care about what Haymitch said. About staying alive.”
There’s more to it than that. There’s honor, there’s dignity. But Katniss’ goal is much different than mine. “Okay. Thanks for the tip, sweetheart,” I say, smiling at her teasingly, purposefully using Haymitch’s nickname for her that she hates so much.
This only upsets her. “Look, if you want to spend the last hours of your life planning some noble death in the arena, that’s your choice. I want to spend mine in District Twelve.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me if you do,” I say. Like my mother said, she’s a fighter, that one. Memories of my mother and the last words she said to me make me bitter. “Give my mother my best when you make it back, will you?” I taunt.
“Count on it,” she says, frustrated, then storms off.
I don’t turn around to watch her go, but I hear the door slam. I make sure to wait a few minutes before heading back inside myself, wanting to avoid running into her again and provoking her more.
I manage less than an hour of sleep. My mind floats in and out of thoughts about the arena that awaits me in the morning, thoughts of how to reconcile with Katniss and convince the audience that we could be in love, thoughts of how I’ll die. Murdered by one of the Careers? Dehydration? Animal attack? Drowing?
Part of me wishes I had Katniss’ attitude of kill or be killed. An extreme determination to go home and not even consider the other and more likely possibility. I wonder if I’ll end up killing anyone. I can imagine the tribute’s family back home hating my guts, cursing me for being responsible for their child’s death. I try to tell myself that it wouldn’t be my fault, it would be the Capitol’s, that I’m simply trying to survive just like anybody else. But if I kill an innocent person who’s just like me, just trying to make it through another day, I’m just another mutt created by the Capitol to do their dirty work.
I finally manage to drift off to sleep again, but it seem as if three seconds after I’ve closed my eyes, Portia is knocking on my door and barging in without waiting for my invitation.
“I wish I could let you sleep, dear,” she says, “but it’s time to get up.”
“That’s okay,” I say, sitting up. “There was no chance of sleeping anyway.”
I dress in simple gray sweatpants and a loose-fitting shirt. I will receive my tribute’s uniform when we arrive at the catacombs underneath the arena. When I emerge from the room I search for Katniss and Cinna, but there’s no sign of them. Portia guides me up to the roof, which offers a much different view at dawn than it does at nighttime when the city lights are sparklingly and the moon shines brightly. The sun is just beginning to rise in the east, deceivingly hopeful. Suddenly, a hovercraft materializes in the sky and a ladder is lowered down to roof just in front of me. Portia gestures for me to climb on, and I reach my hand out to grab a rung and place my feet. Immediately I feel me body freeze up, paralized by some sort of current, and the ladder is swiftly retracted, placing me inside of the hovercraft. I’m still frozen to the ladder when a woman in a white lab coat approaches me, holding a scary-looking syringe. My face contorts into an expression of uneasiness, but the woman gently lifts my forearm and explains that she’s inserting my tracker for the Games. I want to cry out when I feel the needle puncturing my tender skin, but my lips are unable to move. Now that the tracker is embedded under my skin, I’m permanently flagged, and the Gamemakers will be able to detect my location every moment of every day. Now at least they’ll know where retrieve my body from.
The current finally lifts and I’m able to breathe freely again. Portia appears shortly after, looking unsettled from her personal journey up the paralyzing ladder. We’re led to a room where breakfast has been laid out for the two of us. I do my best to eat as much as I can, but I can barely take in more than a piece of toast before my stomach starts to curl and my meager breakfast threatens to make a reappearance. I drink some juice, take a bite of a piece of sausage, but otherwise my plate remains untouched. Portia seems to understand, and she doesn’t try to make conversation or convince me to eat more.
I rise from the table and approach the window, thinking the beautiful view may be able to calm my nerves the same way the roof used to. The high-rise capitol buildings have faded into the distance, looking like no more than toy building blocks. We’re soaring over the mountain range, with their snow-capped tips peeking out of the fluffy clouds. I wonder if this is what dying will feel like, when your soul leaves your body and you drift off somewhere far, far away, feeling peaceful and weightless, as every bad memory and tragic moment from your life fades into nothingness.
Suddenly the windows go black, and my peaceful view, the last thing I had to hold onto, is ripped away from me. They do this because we’re approaching the arena; they wouldn’t want to give it away or give an unfair advantage to someone who sees it before the others.
Minutes later the hovercraft lands, and we’re ushered back to the ladder. This time we’re lowered down through a tube that leads to the catacombs beneath the arena, and another official greets us and leads us to the Launch Room, where I will have my final preparations. At home, they call it the Stockyard, the place where animals are held until they’re inevitably prodded into the slaughterhouse.
Inside, Portia instructs me to clean up a bit before the tribute outfits arrive. I splash some water on my face, brush my teeth, and Portia helps me re-wrap my bandages. A package that I suspect contains my clothes pops out of shoot in the door, which was locked as soon as we entered the room. No escaping now. Portia unwraps the package, laying out each article: basic undergarments, brown pants, a green T-shirt, a hooded black jacket with an insulated inside and a water-resistant outside, a thick brown belt, and a pair of leather combat boots.
As I dress, Portia speculates about the arena. “Couldn’t be somewhere too cold, clothes aren’t thick enough,” she says as she helps me put on my jacket. “Not too hot either. This jacket is designed to be very versatile, however, so it could be anywhere in between.”
I’m slightly relieved that the arena probably won’t be in an extreme climate, but I know it wouldn’t make much of a difference anyway. My stomach tightens now more than ever, knowing I’m just minutes away from the start of the Games. For all I know, I could be dead twenty minutes from now. Part of me feels like the tributes that die on day one are lucky; they don’t have to endure the weeks of starvation and pain and fear that are sure to follow. If I weren’t so determined to play out the love story and keep Katniss alive, I would probably just end it all immediately, step off my pedestal before the countdown ends so I’m blown to bits before I even have to begin to face the horrors of the arena. But I can’t do that. Stay alive, I can almost hear Haymitch’s voice. I wish he was here. He would understand what Portia never could.
“Are you ready?” asks Portia, before immediately regretting her question. “That was a stupid question, I’m so sorry Peeta. You can never truly be ready for something like this.” Her long fingers squeeze my arm and she rests her head on my shoulder, her large poofy curls brushing my chin. “I can’t imagine how you must be feeling right now.”
I wish I could respond to her, tell her that I appreciate her kindness and her presence there with me, but the words get stuck in my throat, blocked by dread.
“Is there anything I can do for you? Do you want to talk?” she asks gently.
“No,” I say, “you’ve done all you can, and I am so thankful.”
A tear runs down her cheek, streaking a line through her makeup. “You deserve to win this, Peeta. I couldn’t have asked for a better tribute.”
A smile faintly at her kind words. But just because you deserve something doesn’t mean you’ll get it. You don’t win the Games by being a good person, just like Katniss said on the roof last night. You win by killing innocent people, by tearing families apart. Even if you are the last one standing, a totally different person walks out that arena than the one who entered.
A woman’s voice on the overhead speaker announces that it is time to prepare for launch. I rise from my seat, using every muscle in my body to prevent myself from trembling. Portia pulls me into one last hug, wrapping her arms tightly around me.
“I want so badly to see you again, Peeta,” she says, taking my face in her hands and forcing me to look into her tear-soaked eyes. “But if protecting Katniss is what you want, do what you know you need to do. Remember who you are.”
I nod. I am Peeta Mellark: a baker, a creator, a son, a friend, a warrior, a protector, a lover. And I will not let the Games take me before I have fought the good fight.
I step onto the loading pad, a circular metal pedestal in the middle the room. Almost as soon as I’m on, a glass tube lowers over me, trapping me. I press my hand on the glass, and Portia’s hand mirrors mine. Her lips mouth good luck, and as the plate below me begins to move upward, I blow her a kiss and wave goodbye. Soon she is out of sight, and I’m encased in darkness.
I can see a light at the end of the tunnel, yet it symbolizes anything but hope. As the light grows brighter and brighter, I smell fresh air, feel a strong breeze, and finally, I see the twenty-three other tributes, standing on their pedestals, facing a shiny golden Cornucopia overflowing with weapons, food, supplies, and other deadly temptations.
Then suddenly I hear the familiar voice of the distinguished announcer Claudius Templesmith, amplified like a voice transcending from the heavens above.
“Ladies and gentleman, let the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games begin!”Add to favorites