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The Hunger Games: Peeta’s POV. Chapter 18

Chapter 18

 

The new day seems strangely hopeful. Though the night was cold, the morning sun is very quick do its work, and I feel the heat radiate through my body. I wonder if Katniss is looking for me. 

It is not long after I wake that my question is answered. I hear the sloshing of water closer to the stream, and my name spoken in a hushed but desperate voice. I am laying at enough of an incline that I don’t have to muster the strength to lift my head in order to see the source of the noise. With my eyes cracked, I can just barely make out the dark-haired tribute wading in the water. Katniss. She’s too far away to call out to, but then she begins to move closer.

She’s looking down at the rocks, observing them closely for any signs that I was here. She rubs its surface and brings her fingers up for a closer look, observing the blood. My blood. I must’ve left a trail when I fled from Cato. Good thing she’s the one finding it rather than someone else.

When she’s close enough to hear me, I finally speak out. “You here to finish me off, sweetheart?” My voice sounds like a stranger’s, raspy as if I’d been smoking, but loud and clear enough to startle her. I smirk at my use of Haymitch’s nickname that irked her so much, though it should be a dead giveaway that it’s me and not some other incapacitated tribute who decorates cakes and is excellent at camouflage. 

She jumps and spins around, searching for the source of the voice. Her bow and arrow is in hand, ready to defend, but the look on her face is confused, inquisitive, maybe even excited. “Peeta?” she says, “Where are you?” She moves closer, still searching, until she’s just above me.

“Well, don’t step on me.” My voice is a bit stronger now, starting to sound more like my own as I’m overcome with joy at the sight of her. 

She jumps again, more so this time than the last. I open my eyes wide and smile, and a laugh escapes me as I observe her acting so startled and confused, like she’s heard a ghost. Finally her eyes meet mine, and a smile spreads across her face, causing mine to widen even more. 

“Close your eyes again,” she commands, and I obey. I feel her kneel next to me and rest her hand on my chest. “I guess all those hours decorating cakes paid off,” she jokes.

I smile back. “Yes, frosting,” I chuckle, “The final defense of they dying.”

“You’re not going to die,” she says, her joking tone gone. 

“Says who?” I counter, allowing my jokes to subside as well.

“Says me,” she says matter-of-factly. “We’re on the same team now, you know.”

“So I’ve heard. Nice of you to find what’s left of me,” I say, looking up into her bright grey eyes with my blue, tired ones.

She doesn’t respond to this, but instead reaches into her pack and pulls out a bottle of water, offering it to me. I take a swig, feeling the cool clean water rush down my esophagus like a flood in the desert. 

“Did Cato cut you?” she asks. So she does remember.

I give her the slightest nod. “Left leg, up high.”

“Let’s get you in the stream,” she says. “Wash you off so I can see what kind of wounds you’ve got.”

“Lean down a minute first,” I say, an idea hatching in my brain. She’s come to find me, so she at least has some sense of what she’s signed up for and what Haymitch expects of her. Now is the time for the story of the star-crossed lovers to continue. “Remember, we’re madly in love,” I whisper to her as she leans down, “so it’s all right to kiss me anytime you feel like it.”

I’m not sure if the audience heard this, but it doesn’t matter. Katniss bursts into laughter and that’s enough to make me fall, for real, all over again. “Thanks, I’ll keep it in mind,” she says, a wide smile still etched on her face. She digs her right arm underneath my shoulders and uses her left arm to support my head as she heaves me out of the mud, but her touch is comforting and gentle. This is the most that my body has moved in days, and it takes everything not to let out a gasp of pain.

But that is just the beginning. She uncovers the rest of my body and tries to urge me to pull myself over to the stream, but I am so weak that I can’t lift so much as a finger. If she weren’t holding it up, my head would fall immediately back to the ground. She has to drag me herself, and with one large tug she frees me from my resting spot that I’ve spent the last several days molding into, but as she does so, though I bite my lip and grit my teeth, I can’t help by cry out in pain. 

She looks absolutely distressed now that she’s realized just how badly I’m injured. And the tears rolling down my cheeks, the blood flowing from the lip I’ve been biting, and the sounds of anguish that escape only begin to illustrate the excruciating pain I’m in. “Look, Peeta,” she says, “I’m going to roll you into the stream. It’s very shallow here, okay?”

“Excellent,” I say, as if she’s just told she’s planned a lovely walk in the park. She kneels down on the side of me that’s opposite of the river. It’s only a couple feet away, but rolling like a log across a rocky surface when I feel just about as fragile as paper mâché makes me a bit nervous. But this plan is as good as any.

“One, two, three!” she says as she pushes me forward. But when I cry out in agony, the loudest and most pierced sound I’ve made yet, she reaches out her hand to barricade me from rolling further. I’m still not in the water, but after that experience, I hope I don’t have to get any closer.

“Okay, change of plans,” she says with a shortness of breath. “I’m not going to put you all the way in.”

“No more rolling?” I ask, sounding relieved.

She shakes her head, “That’s all done. Let’s get you cleaned up. Keep an eye on the woods for me, okay?” she asks as she removes two water bottles from her pack and begins filling them in the stream. 

“Roger that,” I say, but my voice is so cracked and quiet that I don’t think she hears me. I can barely even see the woods from here, but I keep my eyes and ears alert as ever. 

She begins dumping the contents of one bottle over my body as the others continue filling and rubs away the mud and grime that encases me. It takes several rounds to clean me up enough to see my clothes and skin. When she is able to access my jacket, she unzips it and slowly unbuttons my shirt, biting her lips. Gently she removes them, again having to use one arm to lift my upper body and the other to shimmy them off. My undershirt poses a bit of a problem because the mud, blood, and tracker jacker puss has made it stick to my body. With a bit more water she works it loose and cuts it away carefully with her knife. I lay there shirtless, unmoving, as she assesses the damage. I try to keep my eyes on the woods rather than watching her inspect my body, but I can feel her soft touch moving across my chest as she feels my long burn and the various stings that are still swollen. 

She positions her elbows under my armpits and lifts my upward so my back rests against a large rock rather than the mud puddle I laid in previously. I commend her strength but, taking a good look at my body for the first time since the Games began, I can see that several pounds have been shred. What used to be muscle in my arms and shoulders has diminished rapidly. My skin, once healthy and glowing, is dry, cracking, and sunburnt. The skin on torso, now exposed, is clinging to my ribs. Katniss gently fills more bottles with water and cleans the dried mud from my hair, face, and upper body. She gingerly inspects my four tracker jacker stings, which I neglected to remove, and not-so-gingerly plucks them out. My face is contorted in pain as I try not to make a noise. But then she reaches into her bag, pulls out a handful of large green leaves and, one at a time, places them in her mouth. I think to question this odd behavior, but the intentionality that accompanies her actions prevents me from doubting her tactics. After a moment, she removes a sloppy, dark green wad from her mouth and pushes it onto one of my stings. The relief is immediate. She hold it there as I sulk into the rock, eyes closed gratefully, letting out ooooos and ahhhhs. She puts another leaf in her mouth, chews it, and places it against another sting. I thank my lucky stars that Katniss paid attention during the plant identification station, or maybe this is knowledge she picked up from her mother, who is a healer back in District 12. I wonder if there’s some sort of miraculous herbal treatment for my leg, too, but I don’t think I’d be that lucky.

After she’s covered all my burns in leaves and spit, she steals away to the river to wash out my shirt and jacket and lays them out to dry on the rocks. I fantasize about how it will feel to wear clean clothes. She then retrieves a tiny jar of cream from her pack and begins spreading the cooling lotion across the large burn on my chest, again providing immediate relief. I wonder where she got such medicine, but again, I am too weak and too indifferent to ask. Diligent in her work, like a nurse working in an intensive care unit, she places the back of her hand to my forehead, and it feels so cold on my skin. She shakes her head, troubled, and digs through her pack to retrieve a bottle of pills.

“Swallow these,” she instructs, and again I oblige without question. She takes one last look up and down my upper half, double checking that she’s treated all the injuries she can. “You must be hungry,” she says next.

“Not really,” I reply, realizing that I haven’t eaten in forever. “It’s funny, I haven’t been hungry for days.” Testing my theory, Katniss removes what looks like a piece of roasted bird she must’ve caught, and holds it out for me to take. My stomach lurches and I turn away for the food; the thought of stomaching anything at this point seems impossible.

“Peeta, we need to get some food in you,” she says sternly, holding it closer still.

“It’ll just come right back up,” I say. But Katniss refuses to move on without making me eat something. She removes a pack of dried apples and, one tiny piece at a time, holds them out to me. Out of obligation rather than hunger, I reluctantly accept her offer. After about four tiny bits, I can’t bring myself to accept anymore, and I shake my head in refusal. This clearly upsets her, and I know she’s right. If I have any chance of getting better I need to eat, but now just does not feel like the time. I try to cheer her up by saying “Thanks. I’m much better, really,” even though I’m feeling more depleted now than ever. Since she found me, though I am so grateful for her care and treatment, all the movement and sun exposure has been painful and exhausting. “Can I sleep now, Katniss?” I ask, trying not to sound too desperate or helpless, though I definitely do.

“Soon,” she assures me. “I need to look at your leg first.”

Uh oh. Here it goes. Even I haven’t seen the full extent of the damage that Cato’s sword has done to me, and I don’t think I’m ready to. As gently as she can, though it still hurts, Katniss removes my boots and socks. Then, she holds her breath as she unbuttons my pants and slowly wiggles them off of me, stripping me down to my undershorts. I close my eyes, not wanting to see the reality of my injury that causes Katniss to gasp.

I open my eyes. Looking at the exposed, oozing gash in my leg causes me to experience the pain all over again. It’s gotten much worse, raw and swollen, and now that it’s uncovered, I can smell the rotting flesh. Flies buzz around it as if that part of me was an animal carcass. 

Katniss’ face says it all. If she were any more animated, she’s practically be turning green with eyes the size of lemons. Despite her appalled initial reaction, I watch her take a deep breath through her mouth and try to compose herself.

“Pretty bad, huh?” I break the silence.

“So-so,” she says, shrugging her shoulders, but I know she’s covering up how she really feels: there’s no way I can fix this. However, she forces herself to have an optimistic composure, not wanting to add fire to my claim that I am, indeed, dying. “You should see some of the people they bring my mother from the mines,” she says. I try and picture victims of mine explosions, covered in third-degree burns or maybe even missing fingers or limbs. Has she really had experience with that kind of thing before? After another deep breath, Katniss further inspects my wound. “First thing is to clean it well,” she says. She seems unsure, but it’s a good start.

She gets to work, filling and dumping more bottles of water over the entirety of my lower body. In the same way she treated my other injuries, she tends to the minor scrapes, burns, and one additional tracker jacker sting that I hadn’t even noticed on my legs. After handling what she can, she pauses again at the gash running up my left thigh. Yes, it’s a bit cleaner than before, but now what?

“Why don’t we give it some air and then…” she trails off, unsure of how to finish the sentence.

“And then you’ll patch it up?” I suggest hesitantly. I’m equally as clueless as she is; the worst injury I’ve ever treated was burns from the oven or occasionally icing a lump inflicted by my mother’s rolling pin. Deep, debilitating leg lacerations are far out of my realm of expertise.  

“That’s right,” she agrees, but still seems unsure of how exactly to do that. “In the meantime, you eat these,” she says, lifting my hand and placing a few dried pears in my cupped palm. She goes back to the stream to wash off my pants and sets it to dry on a rock alongside my shirt and jacket. As I watch her, I honor her request and eat the pears. It takes all my strength to lift my hand to my mouth and hold the pear pieces up for me to nibble on, little by little. I see her unload her first aid kit, deciding what, if anything, can help with my situation.

She returns to my side with the kit and sets it down. “We’re going to have to experiment some,” she says. Sounds good to me; at this point, something is aways better than nothing. I hope that the experimentation doesn’t involve amputating my leg; I’m not sure if I’m ready to part with it just yet.

She plops another handful of leaves in her mouth and begins to chew them, like she did for the tracker jacker stings. Once they’ve turned to mush, she presses them into the wound and I try my best not to wince from the pressure. As a result, a large amount of yellow pus escapes the wound, and it makes it so hard to keep down the pears that I struggled to swallow in the first place.

“Katniss?” I say, steering her head away from the sight. I think what she might need right now is some comic relief. This situation is, clearly, much worse than she had expected. “How about that kiss?” I mouth to her, giving her an exaggerated wink.

She explodes in laughter, momentarily enjoying the irony of the most non-romantic situation two people could ever be in. I will say, this is not how I’d hoped a first date with Katniss would go. However, she did get me to strip down, so I must’ve done something right.

“Something wrong?” I ask, trying to maintain my innocent yet dead-serious tone. 

Her laughter dissipates, quickly turning to distress. “I… I’m no good at this,” she says. “I’m not my mother. I’ve no idea what I’m doing, and I hate pus!” She lets out a few groans of disgust as she forces herself to remove the leaves, rinse the pus, and then places newly chewed leaves in the wound again to remove even more.

She must be used to gore, to some extent. Maybe she’s never seen anything quite like this, but like she said, sick people are brought into her house often, and I’m sure she has to clean and gut the animals she kills as well. “How do you hunt?” I ask her, emphasizing the last word.

“Trust me,” she says. “Killing things is much easier than this. Although for all I know, I am killing you.”

This makes me chuckle. “Can you speed it up a bit?”

“No,” she says sternly. “Shut up and eat your pears.” I guess she doesn’t appreciate my light-hearted jokes about death.

A little while later she’s completed three rounds of pus draining. It was painful and absolutely revolting, but on the bright side, the swelling and redness have gone down.

“What’s next, Dr. Everdeen?” I ask, feeling a little bit better now that I’ve eaten my pears and gotten used to the rancid smell.

“Maybe I’ll put some burn ointment on it. I think it helps with infection anyway. And wrap it up?” she says, the last word was said as a question rather than a statement. She wipes down the wound again, applies some of the burn cream, and retrieves gauze and an elastic bandage roll from her first aid kit. She wraps the injury gently, covering my entire leg from my calf up until my upper thigh, just beneath my undershorts. 

She seems troubled for a moment. “Here, cover yourself up with this一” she hands me a small backpack, “一and I’ll wash your shorts.”
This almost makes me laugh. “Oh, I don’t care if you see me,” I assure her. I’m half dead, and she’s already seen the mutilated inside of my leg, now why is she worried about seeing me naked?
“You’re just like the rest of my family. I care, all right?” she says angrily. She turns to allow for some privacy as I remove my shorts. Slowly and painfully, I shimmy them over my wound, and when they’re off I toss them into the stream so Katniss doesn’t have to turn around to retrieve them. 

“You know, you’re kind of squeamish for sch a lethal person,” I say to her as she washes my shorts in the river. Oddly, this reminds me of the first night in the train, where she was appalled by the thought of washing Haymitch after he’d taken a dip in his own vomit. “I wish I’d let you give Haymitch a shower after all.” Indeed, it would’ve been good practice.

My mention of Haymitch allows her to change the subject. “What’s he sent you so far?”

“Not a thing,” I say. I wonder if Katniss expected that’d I’d receive anything. She probably has no idea how desirable she is to sponsors in comparison to me. “Why, did you get something?”

“Burn medicine,” she responds shyly, sounding ashamed that she’s received special treatment. “Oh, and some bread.”

Wow, bread? Now I’m a little jealous. Surely a crummy drop biscuit wouldn’t have set any sponsors back that much. Some of my appetite has returned, and I would love a little taste of home. “I always knew you were his favorite,” I tease.

“Please, he can’t stand being in the same room as me,” she says.

“Because you’re just alike,” I say under my breath. It’s true. Both Haymitch and Katniss are hard-headed, determined people. She has much more in common with Haymitch than I do. The only difference is I made an effort to have pleasant interactions with him, rather than purposefully hostile ones. She ignores my comment, or perhaps she doesn’t hear it.

“Your clothes are still drying,” she points out, “maybe you should get some rest while we wait. You’ll need your strength.”

“Good idea, sweetheart,” I say teasingly. I lay my head down on the rock and close my eyes. Today, though I’ve only moved a few feet, has been absolutely draining. I pull the backpack over me to cover myself out of courtesy, and I drift to sleep in moments.

 

I awake some time later to Katniss gently shaking my shoulder. “Peeta, we’ve got to go now,” she says.

“Go?” I ask. The thought of relocating sounds painfully impossible, considering I can’t walk, let alone crawl. “Go where?”
“Away from here,” she says. “Downstream maybe. Somewhere we can hide until you’re stronger.” I wonder when, and more importantly, if, I will ever be stronger. But she’s right, we’ll be sitting ducks if we stay here much longer. 

She helps me redress, and it feels good to finally be wearing clean clothes. I finally realize just so happy I am that she is here. Talking to another person, getting helped out of the mud, and being treated to the best of her abilities, has made me feel immensely better.

Though it’s excruciatingly painful, I cooperate with what she does next. She places my arm over her shoulder and heaves me to a standing position. All the blood drains from my face, and at one point I accidentally put weight on my bad leg and I scream; feeling like any moment I’m going to crumple and pass out. 

“Come on. You can do this,” Katniss encourages me. I muster all my strength to not resist, and help as much as I can, as we make our way downstream, meandering through the shallow water rather than the rocky river bank.

She does most of the heavy lifting, but I do my best to limp along, bearing weight with my right leg but keeping my left leg elevated. We haven’t even made it that far, but my breathing is growing heavier with every step, my heart is racing, and my vision is becoming blurry. She sets me down on the edge of the stream and helps me sit up, pushing my head between my knees so I can close my eyes and take deeps breaths. I guess we’ve made it over a hundred feet from our original spot, but I wonder just how far we have to keep going, because I don’t think I can take it anymore. Tears welling in my eyes, I want to beg Katniss to stop, but I must do what she says. I can hear the words Haymitch said to us as we entered the Remake Center. Don’t resist. No matter how painful, no matter how hopeless it all feels, no matter how much you’d rather just lay down and give up, don’t resist. And, of course, I remember his signature mantra, stay alive. Surely I cannot do that if I don’t let Katniss do what she thinks is best.

She lifts me again and, in the same way, we hobble further downstream. She’s practically carrying me at this point. We make it about half the distance we did on our first attempt, but my heart is racing harder now, my breaths are heavier, my vision blurs, and in my anxiety and sickness, I am shivering. 

Unsure of where exactly we’ve stopped, I allow Katniss to set me down, and I resume the head-between-knees position, catching my breath. She leaves my side for a moment to inspect our new location. I lift my head to see her collecting needles and entering a small cave formed by boulders only a few feet away from me. She emerges from the cave a minute later after unloading her packs, and comes back to help me again. She drags my towards the opening in the rock, and I grit my teeth and again try to help as much as I can by pushing off the rock with my good leg. 

Once inside the cave, Katniss helps me wiggle into a sleeping bag she’s set up and props me up on a rock. I am so numb and exhausted that I hardly register where I am or what’s going on around me. I stare blankly ahead of me as Katniss bustles about and forces more water and pills into me. She tries to give me more dried fruit, but I seal my mouth shut, refusing it. After that journey we made downstream, my stomach is churning, and I know for sure that anything I take in will certainly come back up. She puts the food away, frustrated, and busies herself with making a cover for the cave, but seems to grow more frustrated still.

I feel so bad for her. She expected to find an ally, and what she got was a helpless wreck that will hold her back far more than help her. It makes me feel selfish for the gratitude that I have now that she’s here with me. If she hadn’t shown up, I honestly do wonder how long it would’ve taken me to die under that rock. “Katniss,” I say feebly, beckoning her toward me. She kneels at my side and pushes the blonde locks away from my forehead dripping in cold sweat. “Thanks for finding me,” I say, offering her a weak smile, which she returns.

“You would’ve found me if you could,” she says. I suppose she’s right. If I were able-bodied and thought I could help protect her, thought that we had a fighting chance of going home as a winning team, I would’ve sought her out the moment the announcement faded out. But instead, she’s stuck with more dead weight that she doesn’t need. Despite the treatment she’s given me, I’m not too optimistic of getting better without the help of miraculous new medicine. Chances are, I’ll still die here in this arena, and then any hope I have of a relationship with Katniss outside of the Games will die along with me. 

“Yes,” I agree. “Look, if I don’t make it back一”

She cuts me off. “I didn’t drain all that pus for nothing.”

“I know,” I say. “But just in case I don’t一”

She cuts me off again. “No, Peeta, I don’t even want to discuss it,” she says, placing her fingers over my mouth to prevent me from argument further.

“But I一”

She finishes my thought for me, but not in the way I expect. Before I realize what’s happening, she’s leaning forward and kissing me. I close my eyes, and I kiss her back. The feel of her lips on mine sends a rush of heat through my cold and feverish body, resurrecting me in a way that sloppy leaf globs and burn medicine could not.

She breaks away from the kiss and pulls my sleeping bag up a bit more, like she’s tucking me in. She places her hand under my chin, forcing me to look into her eyes.

“You’re not going to die,” she says. “I forbid it. All right?”

“All right,” I whisper in agreement. 

She leaves the cave and I allow myself to close my eyes and drift off. I am so fatigued that I’m asleep in seconds. In my dreams I hear a distant voice calling my name, and no more than a moment later I’m roused from my sleep; I open my eyes to seeing Katniss’ face in front of mine, kissing me awake. Instinctively I jump, this being the last thing I expected. While I’m surprised by this method of getting my attention, I certainly don’t have a problem with it. Gleefully I gaze up at her, wondering if she’s doing this because she wants to or because she feels like she needs to, for the audience. 

“Peeta,” she says, holding up a small golden pot covered with a lid. “Look what Haymitch has sent you.”

My heart leaps at the assumption that the pot contains my medicine. But when she lifts the lid, steam rises from it, revealing that the pot isn’t filled with medicine, but with warm broth. She inches it towards my lips, but they remain sealed shut. I’m still afraid I won’t be able to stomach anything. 

Katniss is taken aback by my resistance. When I was little, soup was always the ultimate cure for any sickness. So why does it now seem so repulsive? 

“C’mon, Peeta, it will make you feel better,” she says. “You need liquids.” I still crinkle my nose as she holds it closer.

“Okay, fine,” she says. “How about this: one kiss for one sip?”

I consider this for a moment. Surely one sip at a time can’t be too bad. “Sounds like a pretty good deal to me,” I say, smirking at her. 

True to my deal, I take my first sip of broth. The warm liquid runs down my throat and I can almost feel it splashing into my empty stomach. With each sip I feel better, but I still nurse the pot, knowing that more sips means more kisses. Why take it all in one big gulp when you can drag it out a bit longer? When I’ve drained the pot, Katniss leans in for another kiss, and I, not wanting it to end, lift my hand to cradle her head and pull her a little bit closer. We both lay there entangled with one another, my heart fluttering, her lips locked to mine. In that moment, for the first time in days, all of my pain fades away.

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