It seems odd to be walking towards the forest fire rather than away from it, but walking into danger has never been a foreign concept to the Careers. They train their whole lives to volunteer for the Games, whereas people from other districts do everything they can to avoid being selected. If they willingly risk their lives to be a part of the Games, walking towards the flames must seem like childsplay to them. I, on the other hand, am resisting every instinct I have that screams “Run! What are you doing, idiot? Run!”
It’s still dark outside, but the glow of the fire not far ahead of us lights the way. Every now and again there’s a violent crash accompanied by a burst of light, followed by a sizzle. I’ve seen the Gamemakers use fireballs in past Games, it’s not unusual for them to add new threats to keep things interesting. It’s also used, as I’m sure it is in this case, to force the tributes into closer proximity with one another. To the audience, a murder is much more entertaining than a tribute dying from natural causes or Gamemaker-generated hazards.
My heart beats faster when I truly begin to feel the heat. What would happen if I subtly made my way to the back of the Career pack and took off in the other direction when they weren’t looking?
A sudden burst of light emerges from the trees and soars towards us, passing right in front of me and skimming my shirt, setting it ablaze. I pound on my chest with the palms of my hands to put out the fire, feeling the bubbling of blisters form on my skin. I drop to the ground and begin rolling, when suddenly a cool splash of water is dumped on me. I open my eyes and see Koiya standing over me, her empty water bottle tipped over. She reaches out her hand and I take it.
“Thank you,” I breathe.
Koiya simply nods. My chest is throbbing. But the rest of the Careers continue on like nothing had happened, and I do my best to follow, burrowing my nose into my shirt to avoid the smoke, though this makes me more aware of heat emanating from my burn.
My fear of being burned alive subsides when the wall of fire approaching from a distance comes to a standstill, as if an invisible glass wall is preventing it from advancing. The smoke, however, continues towards us, thick and choking.
“Looks like this is where it stops,” Cato says between coughs. “I say it’s safe to walk parallel to the fire, it’s not going anywhere. That’ll get us closest to whatever sad sons of bitches got caught in it.”
Cato leads, followed by Glimmer, Marvel, Clove, me, and Koiya taking up the rear. I bury my nose and mouth into the collar of my shirt to prevent myself from inhaling the smoke, but that doesn’t stop the stinging in my eyes or the stuffy, sweaty air I’m forced to breathe. About a hundred yards to my left the flames still linger, taunting us. Katniss was no doubt in the forest when the fire started, but was she far enough away to make a quick escape or did she get caught in the thick of it? I try to remember if I heard a cannon— no, I don’t think I did— which brings me a bit of comfort until I realize that the fire wouldn’t necessarily kill you immediately. Katniss may have survived, but she could be somewhere, somewhere very close, plagued with third degree burns, searing pain, and extreme vulnerability to any predators, including us.
“Do you think she was in there, Loverboy?” Clove asks, nodding to the fire, as if reading my mind.
“Could’ve been,” I say, struggling to get the words out over the thick black smoke. “If she was, she’s gotta be either dead or dying.” Some people might ignore the tributes who they know are goners, letting their own injuries and vulnerability take care of them. My feeble attempt to make Katniss seem like one of those tributes isn’t going to work. The Careers take no pity, they’ll kill anything with a heartbeat, whether it poses a threat to them or not.
“Didn’t hear a cannon,” she says. “I bet my throwing knives that she’s around here somewhere.”
We walk without speaking for awhile, no one daring to open their mouths to speak in the smoke of the fire. The only sounds are the crackle of the subsiding flames, the occasional cough, and the crunching of dead leaves and branches beneath our feet. The sun begins to emerge, dimly illuminating the sky with the light of dawn. In contrast, the smoke seems blacker now, still limiting our visibility. We’ve been walking for hours now, with no sight of another tribute. My throat is dry and pleading for water, my eyes stinging, my chest burning, and my leg still throbbing from the tussle with the boy from District 8. I walk with my eyes fixed on my feet, and I’m minutes away from collapsing with exhaustion when Marvel suggests we take a break.
We all agree immediately and start walking adjacent to the smoke. It thins as we walk further and further, eventually finding ourselves in the clearing where we’re finally able to breathe in fresh air. We all retrieve a bottle of water from our packs and chug it. Cato passes around a pack of beef jerky and we all gnaw on a strip. The rumbling in my stomach subsides as the meaty juices fill my mouth. The Careers chat quietly but their voices seem a million miles away. I’m staring off into the distance at nothing in particular, lost in thought. I think at one point I doze off, still sitting up, but my eyelids have grown too heavy.
“Hey, Loverboy!” Marvel’s voice snaps me out of my trance. “Did you hear what I said?”
I’m not sure how long I’ve been out, but my perplexed look seems to answer his question.
“I said,” he continues, annoyed, “that I think your girlfriend must be around here somewhere. Any idea where she might be?”
“She’s not my girlfriend,” I say. “But I’d assume she’s just like everyone else, probably looking for water. Maybe if we can find water, we’ll find her.”
“He’s got a point,” Cato says, tipping his own water bottle upside down to confirm it’s empty. “Plus we have to fill up, too. There’s gotta be some stupid pond or something around here, and if nobody’s found it yet then they’re dumber than I thought. If we don’t find her, we’re bound to find someone else.”
We start walking back towards the smoke, bracing ourselves by digging our faces into our shirt collars once again. The sun has already made its full arc across the sky and night is falling again. The smoke seems worse this time, and the heat is on the verge of unbearable, maybe because we’d just been basking in the glory of clean air for a few hours. Clove is leading the way this time, crouched down and feeling for dampness in the ground, searching for a path to water. For awhile it seems as if she’s found nothing, and meanwhile I’m just following the tracks of the person in front of me, staring at my feet and desperately trying not to choke.
Suddenly our train of people comes to a standstill, and I nearly bump into Glimmer. Cato and Marvel are stopped in their tracks, pointing straight ahead, leaning over and mumbling to one another.
“What is it?” Glimmer intrudes, trying to suppress a cough.
“I think it’s your girl, Loverboy,” Cato smirks, then immediately breaks out into a run.
The rest of the Careers follow, and I, reluctantly, join in. Is it really her they saw? My heart trembles with a mixture of panic, anticipation, and pain. Part of me hopes it is her just so I can see her again, so I can know that she’s alive and uninjured. But then again, she could be hurt, vulnerable, and an easy target to the Careers. Then what would I do? Protect her at all costs, yes, but does that mean that I might die today, too? I don’t know what lies ahead, but I know it won’t be a joyful reunion. Someone is going to have to go down, whether it be Katniss, me, or, in some backwards scenario, one of the Careers.
As we run I try to convince myself it’s someone else they saw, it is getting dark after all. It could just be a deer. Just not Katniss; anyone but Katniss. But when I see the small, nimble figure navigating through the woods ahead一 a figure with a long dark braid flapping against her back as she runs一 I know it’s her.
By the splashing sounds the water makes as she bolts out of the pond, it’s evident she’s managed to find water, I can just see the moonlight reflecting it. Coughing and with my hair plastered to my forehead with sweat, I try and keep up with the Careers as they charge after her, shouting chants of triumph. Though the smoke stings my eyes and the water is difficult to trudge through, I keep my gaze fixed ahead on Katniss, desperately trying to keep track of her as if this was my last chance to see her. For a moment I think I’ve lost her, until I see a dark figure quickly scaling a tree in the distance with the agility and speed of a squirrel. The Careers notice her too, but by the time we’ve reached the base of the tree she’s far out of our reach. I place my hands on my knees, crouching over, trying to catch my breath, and I finally allow myself to take my eyes off of Katniss, confident that she’s not running off anytime soon.
The Careers seem perplexed for a moment, as if assessing their plan of attack now that their prey is not in the palm of their hands as they’d expected. While tree climbing has always been one of Katniss’ strong suits, clearly none of the Careers share the same mastery, as none of them jumped at the opportunity to follow after her. The stillness that falls seems eery, one may even describe it as awkward, as the Careers and Katniss size each other up, neither knowing what to do next.
Katniss is the first to speak. “How’s everything with you?” she calls, a tone of exuberance evident in her voice. I can’t help but smirk. The teasing question, the fact that she has the physical strength to speak up at all, gives me hope that she is, and will be, alright. She’s managed well so far, considering she escaped from the bloodbath at the Cornucopia with a backpack, which I notice she has flung over her shoulder. By the look of her ripped and scorched jacket and significantly singed hair, she sustained some scathing in the fire but nonetheless made it out alive.
The Careers seem momentarily alarmed by ther cheerful but taunting demeanor, but decide to play along. “Well enough,” Cato retorts. “Yourself?”
Katniss responds without skipping a beat. “It’s a bit warm for my taste,” she says, and I stifle a laugh. I’m silently thankful that I’m standing at the back end of the Career pack so they don’t notice the grin that flashed across my face. I quickly stop myself and plaster back on my stoic expression, just in case the Careers glance back to assess my reaction to Katniss. To distract myself, I pull the knife out of my belt loop and begin shining it with the hem of my shirt. “The air’s better up here,” Katniss continues. “Why don’t you come on up?”
It’s obvious that this enrages the Careers, who have finally faced something that they must admit they were not built to do. Despite being the largest in the group and the tribute most likely to snap the small branches leading up to Katniss, Cato steps up to the challenge. “Think I will,” he says, making his way to the trunk to begin climbing.
“Here, take this, Cato,” Glimmer pauses him, offering her bow and arrows. Cato promptly refuses them, patting the sword her has tethered to his belt.
“No,” he says, “I’ll do better with my sword.” Smart choice on his part, I think to myself. From what I recall none of the tributes demonstrated the same aptitude for archery during training; none come even close to holding a candle to Katniss’ ability. Cato’s sword work, however, is deathly intimidating, and that is an understatement. The upside, however, is that in order to use his sword, he has to be an arm’s reach from Katniss, and by the fragile-looking branches he’ll have to climb to reach her, I’m certain he won’t come even close.
My prediction holds true. He scales maybe fifteen feet of the tree before grabbing a bad branch that breaks with a loud snap and sends him crashing to the ground. He roars in agony and rage before jumping to his feet and dusting himself off, frantically looking around as if hoping no one saw his pathetic attempt. Katniss has climbed a little higher and must be at least fifty feet up at this point, becoming harder and harder to pick out among the dark trunk and leaves.
“Are you okay, Cato?” Glimmer coos, trying to sweep the pine needles off the back of his shirt. He whips around, his face aflame with anger, slapping her hand away.
“You think it’s easy, why don’t you give it a try, Glimmer?” Cato yells. “Go on!”
Glimmer swings her quiver and bow around her back and gingerly grabs the first hand holds on the tree. Her success is no better than Cato’s 一 she makes it about ten feet up and panics when she hears the first cracking of a branch, and she quickly climbs back down.
After witnessing the failures of the first two, no one else seems up to the task. Glimmer retrieves an arrow from her quiver and loads it into her bow, sloppily pulling the string backwards and making some feeble attempt to aim. She misses Katniss by a landslide. On her third shot the arrow is launched in Katniss’ general direction and for a moment my heart drops, thinking maybe this time her aim is true. The arrow ends up sticking into the trunk several feet away; Katniss wrenches it from the tree and swear I see her triumphantly wave it above her head. The little light that was left from the dusk is fading and, even with a good aim, the nearing pitch backness eliminates any chance of the Careers getting at Katniss tonight. I know she is safe up there, at least for now. However, I can’t stop every possible attack strategy from shuffling through my head as I try to predict what the Careers might be planning now. Burn the tree and run. Chop it down. Set a trap with Glimmer’s bow and arrow as bait. I decide to propose a counter-option, anything to give Katniss more time and discourage them from considering more sensible plans.
“Oh, let her stay up there,” I say. “It’s not like she’s going anywhere. We’ll deal with her in the morning.”
The Careers shrug their shoulders. “Okay, Loverboy,” Cato says. “You have a point. We’ll set up camp here for the night. But if she’s not here in the morning, you’re gonna pay.”
I give him a confident nod. Katniss isn’t stupid enough to try to escape with a pack of angry Careers below her. Every part of me wants her to find a subtle way out, but there’s no chance. On the other hand, I haven’t thought far enough ahead to consider how we’ll handle her if she’s still here in the morning. Maybe buying time isn’t enough.
By torchlight, we roll out sleeping bags and share a sleeve of crackers, apples, more jerky, and a bottle of water. Cato makes it clear that those on watch will have to be extra vigilant. He also tells me that I will not have a watch shift. They, understandably, still don’t quite trust me, perhaps afraid that I’m in cahoots with Katniss and plan to take out my shift partner while helping her escape. I don’t have a plan to get Katniss out, nor do I think she’d accept my help. I wonder what she thinks of me right now, seeing me ganged up with the Careers. Can she read between the lines? Or have I become a good guy gone savage in her eyes, nothing more than another predator for her to pick off?
I crawl into my sleeping bag, not sure what the daylight will bring. Nonetheless, I’m thankful that I’m not on watch and have an excuse to get some rest. If rest is even possible. My body aches from the past few days’ events, and I am overcome with every type of exhaustion imaginable. However, I fight to keep my eyes open just a bit longer to look up into the tree where Katniss has settled. I can barely make out the dark mass resting over a net of branches. It looks like she’s found a sleeping bag as well, so I’m glad she’s keeping warm as the night grows colder. I get chills thinking about her shivering, tired, hurt, having experienced God-knows-what since the Games started. It feels like a lifetime ago that I stepped off the pedestal and saw her whole and unscathed. I fight not to overthink about morning, but soon enough, fatigue gets the better of me and I fall into an anxious sleep.Add to favorites