Chapter 11

 

The countdown begins, like a bomb waiting to explode. I look around at my competition, all of us standing on our plates in a semicircle, equidistant from the massive golden horn spilling over with goodies. I notice the Careers, distributed throughout the lineup, adjusting their stance. They’re ready to charge the second the gong sounds, signaling the beginning of the Games. My feet seem to be frozen in place; I’m afraid even lifting my foot would set off the landmine underneath me that would blow me to pieces. Though my body stays still as a statue, my eyes dart all around, instinctually assessing my surroundings.

I’m in an open field. In the distance I see a forest of towering pine trees, growing denser with depth, the perfect hideout. There’s a lake to my right, a good source of freshwater but a bad place to get yourself caught, especially considering I can’t swim. Past the Cornucopia is a hill leading into a valley, but I decide it would not be wise to put yourself on lower ground than your enemies. I will go to the forest first, enough to be out of site from the bloodbath here in the middle, but close enough to keep an eye on what is happening.

Supplies are littered throughout the inside of our semicircle, but the most valuable and deadly items lie deep within the Cornucopia. Backpacks, blankets, first aid kits, pocket knives, and other useful commodities are scattered in the middle rung, still far too risky to go for. The closet item to me is a small paintbrush, not unlike the ones I used at the camouflage station during training. But even taking two steps to reach for that would cost me valuable time that I could spend running away. Lying just to the right of the brush is District 12’s signature drop biscuit, reminding me of home and tempting me as my stomach grumbles.

My eyes lock on Katniss, several tributes to my left. She’s looking intently at the Cornucopia, positioning herself. I follow her stare to discover a bow and a sheath of arrows, displayed like a gift, right in Katniss’ line of vision. They’re trying to lure her in, and she looks like she’s going to fall for it. I wish I could yell at her, tell her to run instead. She takes her eyes off the bow only for a moment and looks in my direction, and I give her a subtle shake of my head. Don’t do it. Please, don’t do it.

The sound of the gong. The thumping of feet as most of the tributes surge towards the Cornucopia. I jump off my pedestal and make a run for it in the opposite direction, as far away from the frenzy as possible, not bothering to pick up so much as a biscuit. Screams. The gurgling of people choking on their own blood. The whack of an axe hitting bone. The pleading of children taking their last breaths. I must not look back.

I’m suddenly very aware of the heaviness of my footfalls as I run. Thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk. I’ve made it to the edge of the woods, then go a little further until I find a place to conceal myself. A tall brush, thick with branches and leaves, is my refuge. I dive into it, scraping my face and hands and tearing into my jacket. But I feel safe here, if only for a little while. Through the brush I can barely make out the Cornucopia, still gleaming gold in the sunlight. The sound of screaming has grown fainter, partially because I’m father away, and partially because all the people that were crying out for help and mercy before are now lying motionless on the ground.

I’ve seen two dead bodies in my life before today. One was my grandfather at his funeral, I was about six. I remember his wrinkled face, his work-worn hands folded peacefully on his torso. The second was about two years ago, an old woman. I saw her as I was walking out of the market one day and back towards the bakery, a bag of flour slung over my shoulder. She was frail, her skin hanging off of her bones and her face hallow like a skeleton. A cup was inches away from her open hand, a small handful of coins and an apple core spilled from it. She had been begging. A pair of Peacekeepers came by and collected her, each grabbing an arm and dragging her limp body from the scene as people watched in horror. It was something I still hadn’t managed to shake from my memory even years later.

Now, I’m seeing something even more horrifying, something I know for sure that I’ll never be able to forget. Eight or so tributes, lying motionless in pools of blood, several others still helplessly defending themselves as the much larger and stronger Careers attack them viciously with their knives, spears, swords, and axes. My knees grow weak and my stomach churns. These are not victims of old age or starvation, like my grandpa or the woman outside the market. They are children. Children with families, homes, friends. Victims of injustice.

I bite my fist to prevent myself from making any noise. I can’t see the bodies very well from this angle, but I look as hard as I can for any sign of Katniss. I didn’t see her go for the bow, and none of the tributes fighting or on the ground seem to resemble her, so I assume she got out okay. I’ll find out for sure tonight if she’s still alive. Each night after dark, the Gamemakers play the anthem and project the faces of the lost in the sky for all of us to see. It helps us to keep track of who’s left, who to watch out for. Other than that, I’ll have no way of knowing where she is or if she’s injured, unless I find her myself.

I suddenly hear someone running toward me, taking short panting breaths. She stops at the edge of the forest, her long dark braid flinging over her shoulder as she pauses only for a moment to look behind her. Katniss.

She takes off again at full speed, going deeper into the woods. It looks like she managed to snag an orange backpack and a knife. She appears to be uninjured. I’m relieved to see her alive, and I feel an urge to catch up with her, but there’s no way I’d be able to keep up even if I did. I would only slow her down at a time when everyone else is hunting for her.

After a few minutes of looking around and listening carefully, I decide it’s safe to emerge from my hiding place. The Careers still seem to be occupied at the Cornucopia, checking out their weapons. I had considered trying to team up with them as soon as possible, but I can’t bring myself to approach them when they’re uninjured, energetic, and surrounded by brand new weapons that they’re just waiting to get dirty. I walk carefully and quietly to the denser part of the forest so as not to draw attention, then I break off into the run. The farther away I am from everyone else, the better. I’ll worry about trying to ally with the Careers later, but for right now, staying alive is my first priority.

I run fast, but not at full-speed, trying to conserve my energy. A few minutes later I hear sounds of feet hitting the ground from behind me, someone chasing me. My heavy footfalls must’ve given me away. I turn my head to look back, and I see a boy gaining on me quickly, but I don’t have time to recognize who. I look ahead and run as fast as I can, thinking of what I can do to defend myself when my speed fails to save me.

From the short glimpse that I got of him, I noticed that the boy is much smaller than me. The only reason he’d be coming after me is if he’s armed. I, on the other hand, ran away from the Cornucopia instead of towards it, thus have no weapons to defend myself. Only my size and my strength.

Ahead to my right, the forest floor begins to incline. To my left, there’s a steep drop off into a deep trench. Going up the hill will slow me down, and no doubt my pursuer will be able to catch up to me then. Going left, though I’ll tumble down the hill and end up at lower ground, will allow my pursuer the option to either leave me alone or risk losing his pace and potentially his weapon in order to follow me.

I decide to veer left. I lean down into the steep decline and curl myself into a ball, bracing myself for the tumble. I roll painfully down the hill, hitting some bumps and snagging on roots. Suddenly I feel a weight crashing on top of me, clenching onto my jacket. It’s the boy; he jumped onto me and has a knife in his hand, ready to use it but unable to control it because of the bumpy ride we’re on.

In the tumult the boy’s knife scrapes my upper left arm, slicing into my skin. I lock my uninjured arm around the boys head, cocking it backwards so he can no longer see where he’s aiming his knife. He flails it around aimlessly and I grab the wrist of the arm that’s holding it. Suddenly his grip on the knife loosens and he drops it, right as we’ve reached the bottom of the hill.

I stand up and release the boy, ready to fight now that he’s weaponless. But as I let go of him, he falls limply to the ground, his eyes wide open but lifeless. His neck is bent awkwardly to the side, broken. I’ve killed my first tribute.

I get a good look at him for the first time and recognize him as the boy from District 8. I’ve killed him, and I don’t even remember his name. I tell myself that I shouldn’t feel guilty, that I was only acting out of self defense, but I can’t help but hate myself for being responsible for ending someone’s life. How many more people will I have to kill? I don’t want to know.

Since I have no supplies of my own and since the boy will no longer need them for himself, I inspect him for items that might be useful. It looks like he managed to get some supplies from the Cornucopia and still get out of there in time to evade the Careers. I obtain a small black backpack that contains a pack of beef jerky, a small piece of foil, an empty water bottle, a pocket knife, a roll of bandages, alcohol wipes, a compact reflective blanket, and a roll of twine. A also remove his jacket and add it to the contents of the backpack, thinking it wouldn’t hurt to have an extra. And, of course, I don’t forget to retrieve the boy’s knife from the bottom of the hill before I leave the scene. I tuck it into a loop on my belt, then continue on, taking one last look at the body lying on the ground.

My body is thumping with adrenaline as I walk further along the ravine. As I walk, I notice a sharp pain in my left ankle that’s causing me to limp. I must’ve twisted it while I was coming down the hill. I stick through the pain for a bit longer until I’m far enough away from the boy’s body. I sit down on a rock, elevating my left leg, wishing I had ice to help reduce the swelling. But I’m as close to getting ice as I am to getting water, which my parched throat has been reminding me nonstop ever since I began running. While I’m sitting, I decide to also tend to my left arm, which is oozing blood. The rolling must’ve also rubbed dirt into the wound, so I decide to use one of the alcohol swabs to clean it before wrapping it up with the bandages. I assess my hands as well, still wrapped with the bandages Portia helped to apply this morning. Though they’ve gotten dirty and are tearing in places, I decide not to replace them. I need to conserve my first aid supply as much as I can, because you never know when you’ll need it again.

While I sit, I notice that the subtle noises of birds and insects chirping disappear, and suddenly everything is eerily silent. Then one bird lets out a single, high-pitched note. As if on queue, a hovercraft like the one I took the morning appears seemingly out of thin air several hundred yards behind me where the dead boy still lies. I giant metal claw lowers down over him, clamping around his limp body and lifting him upward. Once he’s inside, the hovercraft disappears as soon as it came. The soft noises of the forest come back to life as if nothing had happened. I silently wonder what happens to the bodies after they’re removed from the arena.

After my short break, I continue walking. My throbbing ankle protests, but I figure since it would pain me even more to run and staying in one place is too dangerous, walking is a decent compromise. Plus, at this pace, I’m better able to observe my surroundings, get acquainted with the place where I’ll be spending the next weeks, if I’m lucky.

The ravine tilts upward and eventually I’m level again with the forest floor. Sunlight streams in through the trees, which have grown taller and thicker, and leafy plants line the ground. I wish I was better at identifying these plants, but almost everything I learned in the training center seems to have disappeared from my mind. The foliage is vibrantly green, and I wonder if that means rain is common here. My tongue and throat are dry and desperate for even just a drop of water. As I walk I can hear the faint sounds of birds chirping or flapping their wings, and the occasionally rustle of leaves which startles me until I realize the culprit is only a rabbit or a squirrel. Katniss must feel right at home, I think, feeling a bit more hopeful.

Then I hear the first cannon, signifying the death of a tribute. One fires off after another, and I count the shots silently. Six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven… eleven. Almost half of the original pool of tributes dead before the first nightfall. The first couple hours of the Games are always the most action-packed, and a great deal of tributes often die in the struggle at the Cornucopia. They usually wait until the fighting has ceased before they fire off the first cannon; t’s hard to keep track in the beginning when everything is happening all at once. From now on, the sound of a cannon will immediately proceed the death of another tribute. To some of the tributes in the arena, this sound is music to their ears. For me, I’ll always find myself wondering who it was this time, worrying about Katniss.

I hear whoops and hollers coming from not too far away. It can only be the Careers. Who else would celebrate at the news of eleven innocent deaths? As I hear the rustling of leaves and the voices growing louder, I quickly dart off to try and conceal myself. I don’t know exactly what direction they’re coming from, so hiding behind a tree doesn’t seem like the best option. I find a thick cluster of brush much like the one I hid in at the beginning of the Games and burrow myself into it, pulling the branches in towards me, clutching my knife to my chest.

“Did you hear that?” says a female voice. “Rustling, over there.” I can make out a group of tributes paused in their steps, listening. One of them has her hand pointing in my direction.

“An animal?” suggests another girl.

“No, couldn’t have been,” answers the first voice. “Much too big.”

I’m frozen. The group moves closer, quietly, readying their weapons. I recognize the girl from District 2, Clove, who’s currently leading the pack and must’ve been the one speaking. She has a knife in her hand. It looks like each of them has acquired their weapon of choice.

“Do you think it’s her?” the second girl asks.

“We’ll find out, won’t we?” says the boy from District 1, sounding annoyed. “Does it really matter who it is?”

They’re looking for Katniss, no doubt. Sure, any tribute that gets in their way in the process is dead meat, but she’s their primary target. Think, dammit, think, I coach myself. How in the world can I get out of this alive? Is this my one and only chance to strike up an alliance?

“Come out come out,” taunts Clove. “We’re not going to hurt you.”

That’s a lie. Why wouldn’t they hurt me? They have every reason to. Unless I gave them a better reason to keep me alive…

“If you’re looking for Katniss, she’s not here,” I speak out.

“Is that Lover Boy?” yells Cato, the District 2 male tribute, sounding thrilled. I bet he just can’t wait to kill me, seeing as I stole all of his thunder during the tribute parade and the interviews. I see him looking around for the source of my voice.

I tuck my knife into my belt and slowly emerge from the bushes, holding my hands high. They all smirk, pleased to have another easy target. Clove grips her knife and looks like she’s about ready to throw it into my chest when Cato reaches his hand in front of her to stop her.

“Where’s your girlfriend, Lover Boy? We’ve been looking for her,” Cato says.

“She’s not with me,” I say, honestly. “But if you don’t kill me, maybe I can help you find her.”

Cato looks to the others. In addition to Clove, I recognize Glimmer and Marvel from District 1. A couple of them shrug their shoulders as they lower their weapons.

“Go on,” Cato says, after getting approval from the rest of his alliance.

“I know her better than you guys do, I could help you track her down,” I say. “All you have to do is keep me alive.”

“And why should we trust you?” he says skeptically. “I thought you were in love with her.” The others snigger at his mocking tone.

“She rejected me that night after the interviews,” I say. Not a complete lie, although they can’t know that we’re still planning on playing up our romance. After I’ve said the words, I worry that the sponsorships will fall away if people begin to believe that Katniss doesn’t love me back and I’m now trying to help to kill her. But hopefully they see it as what it is, an act to help me win the favor of the Careers. Maybe Haymitch, knowing my plan, can let the sponsors in on it, creating an even more exciting plot twist.

“Besides,” I continue playing up the role, “things change now that we’re in here anyway. She’s just another opponent to me now. A threat, someone that needs to be taken out. We’re not so different, you and me. We all have the same goal.”

Cato and the others nod approvingly. “Okay, fine, Loverboy,” he says. “We won’t kill you this time. But you have to do everything we say. No funny business.”

“No funny business,” I agree. Cato drops his sword and we shake hands. The others look at me menacingly, but keep their weapons down. Everything is going to plan.

“So, where’d you get the knife and the backpack?” Cato asks. “We didn’t have the pleasure of making your acquaintance at the Cornucopia.”

“I nicked it off of another tribute. The boy from eight, I think.”

“Impressive,” says Cato, looking down at my bloody knife. He must think that I brutally stabbed the boy, when in reality the blood that stains the knife is actually my own. I can’t let the Careers know that I killed the boy on accident, holding his head in just the right position so that the jarring tumble down the hill snapped it for me. “We only counted ten at the Cornucopia, so that explains the eleventh cannon,” he says. “I guess we have you to thank for that.”

I nod, managing to fake what I hope is a menacing smirk.

“So,” prods Marvel, refocusing the group, “where do you suppose she went?”

“I saw her head for the forest at the beginning,” I say. “I’d be willing to bet this is where she’ll be most of the Games.” I don’t want to completely lie to the Careers. Like Haymitch said, as soon as they suspect I’m steering them in the wrong direction, they won’t hesitate to kill me. I need to choose my words and my actions carefully.

They follow me as we trek through the woods. Night is beginning to fall when Glimmer suggests we take a break. We find a place to sit on some large smooth rocks, and the Careers begin to pull out their water bottles, which I suspect they snagged from the Cornucopia and were able to fill up at the lake. My throat begs for water, but my own bottle remains bone-dry, as I haven’t yet found another place to fill it.

Marvel pulls out a package of beef jerky which he distributes amongst the group. My stomach grumbles upon smelling the food, and I regret not eating and drinking more from the bounty at breakfast. I don’t expect him to share any with me, which makes me all the more surprised when he hands me a strip along with his own bottle of water. I accept it gratefully, glugging the water and tearing into the jerky with my teeth and chewing it slowly, appreciating the delicious juices filling my mouth.

Just as the last gleam of light disappears over the horizon, the sound of the Panem anthem surrounds us. We look expectantly up to the sky, knowing that the anthem signals the beginning of the death recap. A head shot of each fallen tribute is projected in the sky, captioned by their district number. The deaths are presented in order of the district. The first face to appear is the girl from District 3. Then the boy from District 4. I wonder what happened to him, considering the Career tributes aren’t known to be among the first to die, but I’m much too afraid to ask. Maybe one of the other tributes gave them a run for their money at the Cornucopia and was even able to pick one of them off. My guess would be Thresh, who could’ve easily crushed him to death. The boy from District 5 is dead, as well as both the tributes from Districts 6 and 7, the boy from 8, whose face I now recognize all too well, both from 9, and the girl from 10. That makes eleven total, matching the number of cannons fired earlier today. Then the screen cuts out and the sky is black again. Our brief connection to the outside world is gone.

“Eleven gone, twelve to go,” announces Cato, looking smug.

“Who should we go for next, besides Katniss?” asks Glimmer.

“Whoever is stupid enough to get in our way while we look for her,” Cato says, matter-of-factly.

Now that it’s dark, Glimmer and Marvel retrieve a couple flashlights from their packs and fick them on. The rest of us create torches using a box of matches they’d also snagged from the Cornucopia. We continue walking deeper into the forest. Cato and Glimmer walk in front of me while Clove and Marvel take up the rear. I have to force myself to look straight ahead, despite how paranoid I am about the fact that Clove could kill me in a second from behind. She always has her knife in her hand, constantly twirling it between her fingers, as if itching for her next opportunity to use it.

My body is begging for sleep, but I resist the heaviness of my eyelids. I can’t remember the last time I got a decent rest, and it would be a miracle if I could sleep soundly in the arena, completely vulnerable, with the Careers prowling around me.

It’s much cooler at night. As we walk, I can see my breath. I wrap my arms around my chest to keep myself from shivering. With my hunger, my tiredness, my aching leg, the gash in my arm, the cuts and scrapes and bruises up and down my body, and now, the chattering of my teeth, it’s hard for my body to decide which pain to focus on.

We’ve been walking for awhile now, and no one is speaking. The Careers seem extremely alert, their heads turning in every direction, scoping for victims. I generally keep my head down, carefully watching my footing in fear that I’ll injure my ankle worse if I trip on something.

Suddenly I hear Clove whisper from behind me. “Hey, look!”

My eyes finally leave the ground and look ahead. There’s an unmistakable cloud of smoke coming from a fire no more than a mile ahead.

“Looks like we’ve found our next victim,” Marvel sneers.

“Do you think it’s Katniss?” Cato asks me. “Is she good with fire?”

“She’s good at making fires, but she’s not stupid enough to do it in the middle of the night,” I say. “She’s not going to give herself away like that.”

“Fair enough,” Cato says. “Too bad, really. Stupid people make life easier for us.”

“Well what are we waiting for?” Clove demands. “Let’s go!”

We break off into a run in the direction of the smoke, and I can almost see the Career’s licking their lips savagely, waiting for their thirst to be quenched by blood. The glow of the fire grows brighter and larger, and soon we’ve reached a small clearing.

The girl who started the fire has fallen asleep beside it, but before I can even decide which district she’s from, the Careers are already on her. She awakes abruptly, panic-stricken. Cato’s sword is drawn back over his head, ready to strike.

“Please, please don’t kill me!” the girl pleads. Glimmer and Clove have already grabbed her arms and legs and are holding her down. She’s squirming and kicking frantically, trying to free herself, but to no avail. Cato has no mercy. By the time I’ve blinked my eyes, his sword has pierced her body and she’s screaming in agony, choking on blood and tears.

The girls release her, stepping away victoriously. “Twelve down and eleven to go!” exclaims Cato again. I wonder if he’ll do this after every tribute he’s killed. I pretend to cheer and hoot along with the other tributes, but in this moment I feel anything but triumph.

“Should we check her for supplies?” I suggest, trying to hide my terror, but my voice is feeble.

They consider my comment and then go to work turning out the girls pockets and rolling over her unresisting body. It appears as if the girl has nothing except the clothes on her back. She may have been smart enough to not risk her life in the bloodbath at the Cornucopia, but at the end of the day, her fate is no different than the rest of them.

“Nothing,” Clove says. “Just this stupid patch in her pocket.” She throws a knitted cloth on the ground, woven in beautiful patterns with colorful thread. I finally recognize that the girl is from District 8. The cloth must be her token from home. Everyone is allowed one, something personal from their district which they’re allowed to take in with them, supposing it doesn’t give them some sort of unfair advantage. Usually it’s something wearable, like a locket or a bracelet or a pendant. I never even thought to bring one, though I can’t imagine what it would’ve been.

“Better clear out so they can get the body before it starts stinking,” says Cato.

We all agree and abandon the girl’s limp body, oozing from the chest with blood. When we come upon another clearing a couple hundred yards later, Glimmer breaks the silence. “Shouldn’t we have heard a cannon by now?” she asks.

“I’d say yes,” says Clove. “Nothing to prevent them from going in immediately.” I almost hadn’t noticed the absence of the cannon fire, but now that she mentions it, it does seem awfully weird it wouldn’t have gone off immediately after we’d left the scene.

“Unless she isn’t dead,” Glimmer returns.

“She’s dead,” Cato insists. “I stuck her myself.”

“Then where’s the cannon?” says Clove.

“Someone should go back, make sure the job’s done,” says Glimmer.

“Yeah, we don’t want to have to track her down twice,” agrees Clove.

“I said she’s dead!” yells Cato, snarling at the two girls.

“We’re wasting time!” I interject. “I’ll go finish her and let’s move on!”

No one tries to argue with this, although Cato is still fuming. “Go on, then, Lover Boy,” he says. “See for yourself.”

I clutch my knife and torch and venture off back in the direction of the fire. Turning the knife over in my hand, realizing what I’m about to do, I’m beginning to regret volunteering for the job. I’d hoped it might be a demonstration of my allegiance to the careers, proof that I’m not the softie they’d expected. Maybe if I could really prove to them that I’m just as ruthless as they are, they might see me as more valuable to their group. But I think the real reason I stood up was because, if the girl from eight really isn’t dead, she’s probably hoping that she would be. If Cato’s blow didn’t kill her, the agony she must be consciously experiencing right now is worse than death itself.

Soon I’m back in the heat of the fire, and I see the girl lying on the ground, bloody and limp. She appears to be dead from a distance, but as I get closer, I can hear her faintly gasping for breath, and I can see that her hand has moved to her stomach to cover up the wound. I approach her slowly, setting my torch in the dying fire, then I kneel down beside her. Her eyes are wide open, and there’s a flicker of movement in them as she senses my presence. She gasps again, louder now, panicked, but her lungs are straining for air that they cannot hold. Blood gurgles from her mouth, a tear has stained her dirty cheek.  

“Shhhh,” I hush her, trying to calm her, taking her free hand in mine. I wish I could tell her don’t worry, everything’s going to be okay, I’m not going to hurt you, but that, of course, would be a lie. But I tell myself that not killing her would be even more cruel than what I’m about to do.

I see her token, the small square of colorfully sewn fabric, thrown to the ground a few feet away. I reach over to retrieve it, and I place it in her hand, closing her fingers around it. Her breathing has slowed; she’s not struggling for air anymore.

“Close your eyes,” I say softly, and she does, slowly, painfully. “Think of home. It’ll all be over in a moment.”

She manages to move her head down ever so slightly, like a nod, as if granting me permission. It appears that the original wound was just above her stomach. Agonizing and debilitating, yes, but wouldn’t cause immediate death. I want to close my eyes when I strike the blow, but I don’t want it to take more than one shot; she’s been through enough pain already. So I make sure to position my knife carefully, raising it in the air, directly above her heart. And then I bring it down quickly.

Warm red blood flows from the new wound and covers my hands. I remove the blood-soaked knife from her flesh, looking down at what I’ve done. Both tributes from District 8, dead on day one. Because of me.

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