Prodded to Drown

Chapter 19

It comes back to me all at once: dark, vivid, and high-definition 3D.

I don't need to see it in three dimensions, because I was there. Real life is like five dimensions, at least.

We could have been a normal bunch of kids hanging out on the beach. Lance mucking about in a tide pool, shucking oysters to roast over a bonfire. Saul and Eve might have been off canoodling somewhere. That was OK: we didn't really like them anyway. Juliet and Laertes had been at the car, getting the marshmallows. There, they might have had a fight about where Laertes' loyalty really lay. She slapped him, and runs to confront the perpetrators.

Yeah, just some normal teenagers. Until she chucks the bloody cleaver.

Boom! A cannon sounds.

I can't cover both my ears and my mouth at the same time.

"Excuse me, Caesar," I say politely, pressing a finger to my mouth while attempting to wrap my arm around my head. "I have to go vomit now."

I stand up and stagger across the stage, but there is no escaping this. The place is full of screens, big and small, replaying my most successfully suppressed memories for the entertainment of the entire Capitol. How did I get here? Why would I agree to this? They had told me there would be no recap of the Games, just a quick interview and then I would be on my way home. Now I can't run from the true horrors of my mind, any more than I can get away from the flashing images, the lights, the tremendous sound that reverberates through my ears — the screens all around showing the dirty blonde head rolling, rolling, rolling …

"Just go! GO!" comes Laertes' voice, strangled and broken and amplified a hundred times, resounding through the amphitheatre and inside my brain. And suddenly I am there. I see him behind Juliet, his face dirty and twisted with anguish. He's clutching his leg, and everything is dark and hot and wet and red. I don't understand. I see Lance dropping to his knees and then falling headfirst into a shallow pool of water. But he doesn't quite fall headfirst, you know. The head rolls three metres and comes to a halt right at my feet.

His light golden eyes meet mine. Drained of life, mouth half open in surprise, he stares unseeing into my soul. That's when I start screaming.

I know I am supposed to run now, but my feet are frozen to the floor, my eyes fixed on the screen, and there I see something entirely new. There's a schuck! and a thump! and a splash! and Juliet joins her victim in the tide pool. The water turns a deep scarlet.

Boom!

And I see Laertes, tearing his spear out of Juliet's back and casting it away before falling to his knees and sobbing over his lover's body.

But where is Annie?

The scene changes, and I see her. She's screaming and screaming and screaming and running out of the forest, sprinting faster than she had ever done for any school sports day or any friendly race on the beach. She finds the coast as the evening grows scarlet, the horizon painted with blood, and keeps running across crags and rocks and doesn't stop, even when a third cannon booms.

Laertes had bled out. Annie is alive.

I can finally feel my legs but immediately step on the flowing tail of my dress in my high heels and fall face first to the floor, feeling the hard stones of the cave graze my hands and knees. I can still smell the sickening metallic scent of his blood that splattered my face. But I am not there, I remind myself desperately: I am at my interview. But is that even real? What is real anyway? I know, I remind myself: I am Annie Cresta. I survived the Hunger Games. I am on a stage in a stupid silky gown that is suffocatingly tight — I can't breathe. I am Annie Cresta and I am panicking, trying to stand up, trying to escape the horror of drowning as the arena floods on the screens all around, but I can only see the blinding lights all spinning — spinning — spinning — too fast and making me sick. I know the water is coming, I hear it inside my head like I did the night I lost my parents to the ocean. The great churning, engulfing, destroying waves begin to rush the arena — I see it on a million screens like looking through a fly's many eyes. Little Annie Cresta can't even move as she's swept up by the water. She can't survive it — she won't. But she is far away, and here and now I still cannot survive the water.

I watch, frozen in terror, as the pressure of the waves inside the arena becomes too much for the gigantic television screen. Cracks form slowly, creeping outwards from the centre and doubling — then the whole screen breaks and the torrents begin to flood in from every direction. The screams ring in my head, the water rushing, and I press my hands over my ears just before the current swarms and I go under. I gasp for breath, choking on cold water as it perforates my lungs and sets them on fire.

I am Annie Cresta, and I am drowning.

Opening my eyes, I see all the lights shining mistily through the clear water, sparkling like jewels in an underwater cinema.

I hold my breath, my body swelling as my eyes fog over. This is it. This is a beautiful, perfect death. It's finally over, I see —

A small boat riding on the crest of the moon. A merman with a bronze chest and a curly blonde head still fully fused to his neck. A green ribbon wrapped around a leather bracelet.

I am not drowning. This is a hallucination.

In a whirlwind second, my head broke through the surface of the water and I choked and gasped for air, water droplets dancing electrifyingly off my face and shuddering down my body. I felt the hard, smooth ground under me and it was dry: there was no water, there never had been. My dress was made of ruffles and ruffles of a slippery material and I was sitting in a mound of it, panting heavily on the floor of the stage. I looked around at the scene: Caesar halfway out of his seat, and the entire audience on the edge of theirs.

The recap had ended, and everyone had just seen me fall. The rest had been in my head. Shakily, I got to my feet and dusted down my dress.

"Whoopsie daisy," I said sheepishly.

The theatre roared with laughter. Caesar was up and beginning to walk over, but I held my hand up to stop him. He paused uncertainly, sending a curious grin at the crowd.

What would silly Annie do next? What stupid nonsensical speech would she come out with? What cute anecdote would she have for us tonight?

I was still shaking violently, but as the memory of freezing cold water dissipated out of my body, I was instead consumed with a red-hot anger.

I ripped my microphone furiously from the strap of my dress and cleared my throat, trying to gather a few thoughts. What could I even say to these people?

I gazed around at the spectators, the deformed, inhuman lot of them, and brought the mic to my lips.

"There is a theory," I began, "that there are infinite universes. And these universes are all connected by slight similarities, and slight differences. For example, there is a world where mermaids don't exist, or where clownfish aren't happy at all, or where people don't put on bizarre face paint and peculiar hats and sit in a big room watching a silly girl trip over her dress on a stage. There's a world where I don't exist at all. Where I was never born, or where fish never grew legs and crawled up on land to become amphibians and birds and hoofed-things and things with opposable thumbs and then, eventually, humans." I pointed at the screen. "There are worlds where I died in the Hunger Games, and worlds where some other district child is standing before you right now, victorious. And, finally," I said, bracing myself for the finale. The only reason they hadn't stopped me yet was that they hoped I was about to burst out in a triumphant gloat. I inhaled, and pointed out at them. "There are infinite worlds where it was you."

My mic was cut off immediately. I threw it on the floor. Caesar was rushing over. "Thank you, all of you!" I shouted, roaring over the din as murmurs and stirrings erupted from the crowd. "This has all been perfectly horrible!"

My words were drowned out but I had already turned around and was marching off the stage. What did it matter, anyway? Most likely they didn't know what I was talking about.

"Annie Cresta, everyone!" Caesar cried, and uncertain applause tittered behind me. As I escaped the curtains and lights and screens, people began rushing at me. I pressed my lips tight and barged my way to the nearest trashcan to puke.

Finally.

I wiped my mouth, and breathed heavily. This whole thing had left a bad taste in my mouth, and not just because of the passage of my stomach contents. These mutant, barbaric people had just put me through hell and back and then showed me a home movie of my vacation. But here I was, standing. Shaking, sweating, and fuming; but standing nonetheless.

The Games had always been unbeatable. No matter what the result, I was coming back with only half a soul. But this was the first time I had beaten my own mind's games against me.

I turned around, ready to beat whoever got in my way from this spot to District 4. Gloriously, the first person I saw was Holden. Poor, pathetic Holden, wearing a long veil of ocean blue that matched my dress. He looked like he was being engulfed by a wave. I held my breath, realising this was his intention. This material felt just like water. It was designed to make me look like I was drowning.

Very sensitive, you despicable little man.

My fist clenched automatically as he rushed towards me, flipping the veil out of his face and opening his mouth in a perfect circle, which I presumed was in order to utter the word "no" which, given the chance, would probably have been followed by the word "my" and then the word "GOSH." However, he didn't get a chance to say any of it, because as soon as he exposed his perky little nose, I punched.

There were screams, and cameras flashing, and the stylist was splayed out on the floor. I just looked down at my hand with a small, "Ow." I didn't know how Finnick did it. It didn't make me feel much better.

My eyes widened as I remembered the bracelet.

"Where's Finnick?" I asked aloud. People looked at me in confusion, or anger, or terror, but nobody answered me.

"Somebody yell for the guards!" yelled the young lady helping Holden to his feet.

"Instead of yelling for someone to yell for the guards, why don't you yell for them yourself?" asked a man nearby who was eyeing me nervously.

"Because I'm doing one thing already," moaned the woman. "Oh, well. Guards!"

"Guards! Guards!" yelled the man, and turned to me with his pointing finger wielded. "You'd better stay here while we wait for the guards to arrive."

"I sure will do that," I said.

"Good," he said, looking rather proud of himself.

"Sir, you should look up the word sarcasm in the dictionary," I said. "You'll find that a lot of things make more sense that way."

The man gaped at me, and I just looked at Holden with a frown. These people all deserved a little punch in the face, but no matter how many punches, most of them would probably never learn a thing. I was briefly grateful that Grammy and GaGa moon hadn't witnessed me being so violent. Despite the whole being in the Hunger Games thing, they wouldn't want to see me like that.

Holden had already gathered a mighty mob, fortunately drawing attention away from me and giving me enough time to slip out through the crowds before the guards could make their way through the masses of people packed like tinned sardines. The last thing I heard my abhorrent stylish say was, "Annie Cresta punched me in the face. That was so … awesome." Then he voice merged into all the others as I ran to the elevator.

Just before I reached it, I was grabbed by a strong arm which pulled me back. I turned, panicking, before I saw huge tears welling in a pair of diamanté eyes.

Esmé.

I swallowed, breathing fast. I could see the commotion behind still so close and I needed to make my getaway now or never. I didn't know if I'd be in more trouble for what I said onstage or for punching my stylist, but I knew I had to disappear before finding out.

I looked at Esmé, wondering what evils lay beneath those three inches of makeup. Did she realise that as a Capitol citizen, and an employee of the Games, she had endorsed all this death, all this suffering as much as the Gamemakers, or the President himself? She had seen what this had put me through: she had behind the scenes information about my condition, my romp at the Clinic, witnessed first hand what my life had become because of this. But did it make a difference? Was her loyalty to the Capitol stronger than her supposed sympathy for me?

Most importantly, would she turn me over for giving her bestie a broken nose?

Esmé gave a great sniff as if in response to my thoughts, and blinked back her tears rapidly. "Annie, you did so well. I don't know how you held yourself together like that onstage in front of everyone, but …" The tears began to spill. For some reason, I expected them to be made of jewels too. "Oh, Annie, I can't apologise enough. I told them — the only condition I asked was that they wouldn't show you the recap. I knew you weren't ready."

I sighed. I never really gave her enough credit. Of course she wasn't evil. She was just as much a pawn as I was, whether she knew it or not. "It's OK. It's over now."

She drew me into a big hug, which I made an allowance for in my personal bubble space due to the sensitive nature of the conversation. "You are the strongest person I have ever met," she whispered wetly into my hair. To be able to stand up again and again after everything and keep going." I pressed my lips together as they had begun to wobble and my own tears threatened to pour. But as I looked over Esmé's shoulder, I saw the unsarcastic man pointing exaggeratedly in our direction and a group of white armour-clad guards finally spotting me. "Esmé, we need to get out of here. Right now."

The elevator magically beeped into existence at that moment, and I turned around to see it full of people.

"Excuse me," I said, frantically trying to push past the hordes dribbling out but they were all moving so slowly. I could already hear the guards' shouts as they approached.

"EVERYBODY!" screamed Esmé at the top of her lungs. "HOLDEN RYE JUST GOT PUNCHED IN THE FACE BY THE VICTOR!"

I turned around to her in astonishment as every single person in the elevator gasped.

"Yeah, right back there!" Esmé finished, and suddenly they were all rushing out at breakneck speed to see the spectacle. We ran into the now abandoned elevator and as I turned, I saw the guards getting knocked back by the storming crowd of journalists, photographers and socialites eager to scavenge the gossip. I managed a tiny laugh as the doors swept shut, and turned to Esmé, beaming.

As we went down, the sounds of the stage room gradually disappeared and I felt my mind was finally beginning to clear. On that stage I had been forced to face my fear, and I had been forced to see a lot of things I thought would only exist in my nightmares. I looked down at my dress, my hair flowing in waves down my shoulders, my arms which had been treated quickly to look pretty and free of scars for the cameras. In fact, my whole self had been made to look free of scars, internal as well as external. This place tried to make me look like a woman when all I was was a girl who had been away from home too long, and seen too much horror to bear it anymore.

I looked down. "Esmé, can I go home now?"

She swallowed determinedly, her face turning rather serious. For a moment, she looked almost like a person. "The train is in the station. I'll call Finnick. But we have to run before the guards follow. Or worse, the paparazzi." I nodded, briefly distressed at the mention of Finnick's name, but I was too exhausted to worry about him right now.

"I'm sorry for hitting Holden," I said, yawning as the doors opened.

She grabbed hold of my hand and leaned down to whisper into my ear. "The bastard deserved it."

I gaped at her, and she grinning manically back. Then she removed her high heels, hitched her dress up around her knees, grabbed my hand once more, and ran.

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