Brace Yourself

Chapter Seven: The Arena, Part II

Disclaimer: I do not own the Hunger Games.

Warnings: Graphic content, minor character death, brief insanity, feasible cursing.

Chapter Seven: The Arena, Part II

Lost and insecure
You found me, you found me
Lyin' on the floor
Surrounded, surrounded
Why'd you have to wait?
Where were you? Where were you?
Just a little late
You found me, you found me

-You Found Me, The Fray

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I head into the trees for hours, my back towards the mountain, my gait constant, my throat parched, my stomach growling. I look around me, spying fat rabbits that look quite delicious. After a while, I ponder using my knife to kill one of them (I can't very well use my blowgun, for fear of getting poison into my bloodstream when I eat the rabbit… although, they've probably been consuming the toxic plants, which is something to fear, as well). I have my knife out to kill one of the rabbits and everything, and then it strikes me that I forgot to get matches at the Cornucopia.

Stupid, stupid! Hearth, the boy from the Seam that Fauna's always obsessing over, used to enjoy spouting out random facts about survival techniques to anyone who was around to hear him back home. As I remember that I don't have any matches on me and that there isn't any flint lurking around, I recall his tales of rabbit fever and my face quickly contorts into a disgusted expression at the thought of catching the disease.

Eating rabbit is out of the question, so I turn to the bread and fruit I have in my pack. I was thinking about saving it for later, but desperate measures call for desperate times. As dusk approaches (rain clouds do not, sadly, as far as I can tell through the canopy that stretches above my head), I sit upon a fallen log and open my large pack, pulling out a loaf of bread and splitting it in half. I hold the two pieces up to my nose and the hearty smell of barely stale bread wafts into my nostrils, making me smile. I've torn into one of the half loaves with my teeth and, ultimately, eaten it in a matter of seconds, having stuffed piece after piece into my mouth.

It is not until the last crumbs are gone that I realise I probably should have savoured it, because I am definitely not allowing myself to have the other half of the loaf. Placing the thing dejectedly back into the pack and stuffing my knife into it as far down as feasible, I set out again, using the twilight hour to search for a good hiding place.

Oh, what am I thinking? I have a camouflage blanket now! I can sleep anywhere! I take it from my pack and search for a bush that is green and not the strange mauve hue most bushes take on, for extra precaution (who knows if the more prickly of bushes are poisonous?). I soon find a green bush and dive into it, taking as long I want to move around and make myself comfortable. Once I do, I tug the blanket through the thick leaves of the bush and make sure to drape it over myself as well as possible. As far as I can tell, the blanket works, as it turns the same shade of green as the bush and takes on what seems to be the same texture (although it continues to feel like a blanket to me).

However, I don't dare cover my head. I want to see the anthem; I want to confirm that I was correct in my guessing games today. Although I am completely sure of myself, it gives me a false sense of mental security to know whether or not my brain functions normally enough to distinguish screams. I know it's sick. But I also know that I have to keep myself sane somehow, and my solution is playing games, and afterward, checking the answer key.

Like the crossword puzzles Father used to buy from the stationary shop back home, I think. Myra always passed them by, but when I was bored, I would occasionally take a book of puzzles from the drawer they were stored in and entertain myself with one. I wasn't good at the crosswords, since it often asked about famous people originating in the Capitol, and I didn't pay attention to that sort of thing on television. But I could always get someone to help me out on the last few problems, and then I would compare the puzzle to the answer key.

They weren't much back then- just puzzles- but now, I wish for them dearly. Instead, I have to guess who has died each day, and watch the anthem to confirm my theories.

I am pulled from my musings quickly as the anthem plays and the Capitol seal shines through the trees (although sunlight never gets through easily, the seal always does- maybe the Gamemakers temporarily cut a hole in the canopy right above the tributes at this certain point of time? I wouldn't know). And then the faces are replacing the seal. Two from District Three- Intella Gently and her counterpart with the metal braces- and one from District Five: Anahita, with her heart-shaped face and wide blue eyes.

I was correct. I sigh in relief, glad I could interpret who died, and slump back down into my bush, pulling the camouflage blanket over my head. As the anthem plays once again, I sink into dreams of thirst, poison, death, and Hestia, cutting my hair off little by little.

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I wake up to the sound of voices.

It takes me a split second to realise that for one, I'm in the Hunger Games. Furthermore, when you're in the Hunger Games, the sound of voices is rather unfortunate... whether they are a) sounding in your head, or b) sounding next to you. As it happens, after a minute of listening intently, I find the two voices aren't just next to me, but belong to-

"This is a good place to stop, don't'cha think, Devon?"

Of course. It's the two boy tributes from District Ten.

"Yeah, Willie, this 's a decent place. There are a few good bushes 'round we can sleep in, and there are 'nuff trees to build a trip wire with a can attached to see if anyone's comin'."

"Least we got that can."

"Sally probably thought that can wouldn't'a done much good; ya know she ain't real nice. Well, Sally!" Devon says this loudly, directing it towards the sky, as if taunting his mentor. "We can use anythin' we can get our hands on down here in the 'rena, so keep on sendin' those cans over, if you please!"

Sally Moole, winner of the twenty-eighth annual Hunger Games, is forty years old and one of the most mean-spirited mentors out there. She's infamous for sending her tributes useless things, such as paper clips, a flask full of bacon grease, and once, an extremely stale fruitcake. Miraculously, her tributes always find ways to use these items to their benefit. The paper clips were unfolded and wrapped around a metal pole until the object resembled a reasonably flimsy albeit decent spiked mace; a branch with one end wrapped in cloth stuck in the bacon grease and then lit on fire, creating a torch; the fruitcake slammed into another tribute's head until they died from extreme brain injuries. Sally Moole doesn't try to accomplish anything, but she gets her tributes out of the arena as often as any mentor (except for Jacen Iridescent), so her tactics are annoyingly admirable.

But I doubt those from District Ten like her much, as she never sends food, water, or medicine, like any regular mentor would. Many of Sally's tributes have died from infection or wounds bleeding out because she doesn't send antiseptic or bandages. It's no wonder Devon seemingly hates her.

Meanwhile, Willie laughs that innocent, childlike laugh of his. If I were not mistaken, I would have thought the boy was even younger than Hemlock, considering his bright eyes and naïvety to everything that matters (death, killing, the Hunger Games). I pity him. I do.

However, the pity soon vanishes as I realise the pair from Ten are standing right next to my restingplace and won't be on the move anytime soon. If they plan on making camp here, it could be days before they leave… and I cannot stay in a bush, unmoving, for days! If I emerge from the bush, though, the rustling will surely alert them that someone is near. Damn it, damn it, damn it. I am such an idiot! I clutch my blowgun tighter at my side and wrack my brains for a solution out of this nearly impossible-to-solve dilemma.

Well, they're bound to both leave at some point, right? Maybe they'll get hungry enough (assuming they don't have packs) that they'll both go foraging for blackberries or something. But no- they probably have packs. So then, I'm sure Devon has a knife that he can kill some rabbits with (also assuming they think that the rabbits aren't poisonous), and he might tug Willie along on the hunt with him. That's the best scenario I can think of; I'm not even going to consider the worst scenario.

After this solution is constructed in my mind, I can do nothing but wait, listening to the voices of a gullible twelve-year-old and a protective eighteen-year-old from District Ten, wishing they would fade away and let me leave my temporary bed in peace.

I wait for hours.

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It's about midday when Willie begins to complain that he's hungry. From what I can hear, Devon gives him a slice of bread (I wish I could open my pack now and cut myself a slice too!), but it simply "isn't enough." I direct annoyed thoughts at Willie- this is the Hunger Games, get used to your stomach growling- but I can't deny I'm absolutely joyous. My feet have fallen asleep, as have my legs, and it would be a simple gift to stretch them again- to run again! If Willie's hungry, then they will go searching for food, and will finally let me be.

"Fine, then I'll be goin' off to hunt a rabbit then," Devon announces, and I hold my breath in anticipation. "Willie, take care of yourself. Whatever ya do, don't eat anythin'... from the arena or the pack!"

I realise that even if Devon goes hunting, then Willie will most likely stay behind. And no matter how aggravatingly naïve he is, I cannot kill that twelve-year-old boy. Defeated, I sigh to myself, attempting to massage my legs from beneath the camouflage blanket… and that's when I hear Willie call, "Wait up, Devon!"

From what I can tell, Willie runs after Devon, who is already fifty metres away- much too far away to be able to make out what they are saying. But much to my relief, the low murmuring far to my right disappears soon enough and I don't hear anyone return. Did Willie ask to hunt with his ally? Did Devon comply? The thoughts swirl around in my head for minutes in which I can hear nothing but the rustling of trees and the calls of songbirds. The minutes are agonizing, but after ten or so, I start to wonder if Willie really is gone off hunting.

After twenty minutes, I work up the courage to rise out of the bush. I struggle to remove the camouflage blanket, as we are both inside of the bush and the density of the branches and leaves are constricting. Soon I've managed to pull it off me, and then I sit up, pushing the branches away with one hand so they don't catch me in the eye. The other hand holds my blowgun, just in case, but I'm quite positive that both Willie and Devon are gone.

Soon, I'm standing upright, and am facing an orchard of fruit trees. Surely they didn't make camp here. Then there'd be packs and a shelter and whatnot… of course they wouldn't have made camp just to pack it up and leave it again… and why would they leave it, anyway, vulnerable to thieves?

Suddenly, I hear a branch crack. And then I'm whirling around in the bush, raising my blowgun to just beneath my lips, coming face to face with a certain boy from District Ten, who is staring wide-eyed and wielding an enormous butcher knife. "Who are you?" He asks in a shaky voice. "Why were you in that bush?"

I am too shocked to answer- He's here? Wasn't he hunting? He's been silent these past twenty minutes? What is going on?- and so I step forward, out of the bush, holding the eye contact between the young boy and myself. I see this scares him. "D-don't come any closer! Or I swear- I swear I'll kill you!"

"You don't want to kill me," I say, calmly, after collecting myself. "And I don't want to kill you. So, if you would just let me retrieve my things from this bush, I'll be on my way, and Devon will never know I was here. Don't you worry, Willie."

"H-how do you know my name?" The boy pushes his sweaty, dirty blonde locks away from his forehead, his hazel eyes wide with fear, his arm extended so the butcher knife is pointed a metre away from my chest. "Devon told me to take care of myself- told me to kill if I had to- there is no reason for you to kill me- but I have to kill you because you will! You will kill me!"

"I said I wouldn't kill you," I exclaim, but it's no use. Willie has suddenly turned into a raving mad boy who doesn't know who he is or what his morals are. In an instant, I have taken his innocence and naïvety from him, and he doesn't know what to do without it. So that's why he comes flying at me with the butcher knife; that's why he lets out a war cry louder than any scream I've ever heard; that's why I lift my blowgun to my lips; that's why I blow. Because I am giving him freedom to become innocent again, in death.

The boy, when hit in the neck with the dart, suddenly stops. Time seems to slow down as the butcher knife falls from his grasp and he teeters back and forth in front of me, pulling the dart from his neck and staring at it dazedly before it drops to the ground. And then he is coughing violently, spraying blood all over my face, choking and screeching and crying and gasping. I cannot do anything but stare as he lifts his hands from his mouth, his bloody, bloody hands, and then turns his accusing hazel eyes towards mine. His face has gone white, his lips covered in what looks like red paint, and then Willie from Ten is reaching out to me, pressing a hand to my chest.

After this, time assumes its normal course, and Willie is collapsing, falling, coughing, choking, writhing, dying.

Boom.

All I can do is look down, where Willie's handprint and memory will remain forever: on my chest, and in my heart.

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Myra is kneeling in front of me. Her hands are on either side of my face, and she is sobbing. Why is she sobbing? I'm sobbing too. Why am I sobbing? "I killed that little boy," I tell her. Oh, yes. That's why I'm sobbing, my tears falling towards the forest floor. Tears of blood, making a red pool on the ground. Blood... Willie's blood. "I'm a monster, Myra. I'm a monster."

"Breathe. Breathe," she chokes out, and there's blood pouring from her mouth, coating her chin, dripping into the depths of existence. Have I killed my sister, too? If she's dead, then why is she talking? Is my sister a ghost? "It's okay to be a monster."

Somehow, this strikes me funny. I laugh. Laugh, laugh, laugh. And then I'm clutching my sides and Myra is clawing at my face and there is more blood, more blood, and I'm screaming. Screaming at the body of the boy in front of me, who lies in the midst of the pine needles, replacing Myra. Where is Myra? I look around, and she is gone. Is she simply in my memory? Is this arena my memory? No, because it seems so real- like Willie's body- like the blood pouring out of his mouth. But that was a while ago. Now there's only a pool of blood. And the blowgun that has killed him... I clutch it in my hand.

My hand! I have to let go. I have to let go of this thing that I have inflicted pain with. But why can't my hand let go? It's because I'm a monster. A monster. A monster that- what was that? Who is screaming now? Is it me? No, it's not me. Is it Myra? No, Myra is gone. This is a man's scream. What's his name again? Oh, yes. Devon.

Devon, Devon, Devon. I turn to see him, and he is running very slowly. Or quickly? I can't tell. Everything's blurry. Blurry like a crystal. But aren't crystals clear? That's right- how funny- what am I doing?- Laughter, laughter, laughter.

Devon, Devon, Devon. Have you seen the boy I killed? Have you seen how he lies, motionless, on the ground? Have you seen that scary pool of blood that came gushing out of his mouth? Have you seen the death I have inflicted? Do you realise I'm a monster now- who cannot breathe- because monsters can't breathe... But to kill you, I have to breathe, and I have to kill you because I have to survive. For someone. I don't remember who I'm surviving for, but I know I cannot die. And you're broken, too, Devon, so I'm giving you a free ticket to death. I giggle. Free ticket to death. Laughter, laughter, laughter.

Devon, Devon, Devon. Closer now. Closer. You can see the whites of his blank eyes, can't you? The one you thought of as your little brother? Willie from Ten. He left a handprint on my chest. Where's the handprint gone? Has it washed away from Myra's tears? Or are they my tears? Oh, no- the handprint's gone! IT'S GONE! No, no, silly, the handprint is still there. Good. Willie's still alive. No he isn't! I've killed him! I've killed him? I don't remember killing him. Yes, you do! Laughter, laughter, laughter.

Devon, Devon, Devon. You're holding a rabbit. Were you going to give that to Willie? Was he going to eat it with relish, complimenting you on your fine catch? Too late now. Too late to take him with you on your hunting trip- too late to prevent his insanity, to prevent his attempted murder. He tried to kill me, so I killed him. Now I'm mad, like he was. Or am I mad? Either way, I've still killed him. There's still a handprint on my chest. You're still running after me. And my blowgun isn't loaded. It's not loaded? Oh, oh! Not enough time, not enough time, not enough time. If I had more time, I'd kill you, too. Funny, I never thought I was a murderer. Laughter, laughter, laughter.

Devon, Devon, Devon. Silly man, you're running at me with a butcher knife! A butcher knife! A butcher knife? Didn't Willie have one? It's on the ground... isn't it? Where is the knife? Where is it where is it where is it? There it is. I pick it up and I scream. You're screaming too. This whole time you've been screaming. You are such an idiot, Devon. You're supposed to be quiet in here- in this arena. But I'm not quiet either. Maybe because I want to die. No! I can't die! I can't die! I can't! I have to survive! Not that I want to survive. Ha, ha, ha, I don't want to survive any more, but I have to. For somebody I can't even remember. Laughter, laughter, laughter.

Devon, Devon, Devon. I'm standing up... lifting the knife... dodging yours... stabbing you. Devon, Devon, Devon. You're dead now. You're dead. There is a cannon, and you're dead. Boom, boom, boom. But there's not three- there's one! Something must make it echo. Maybe it's me. Maybe I'm the one who is making it echo. No, silly, you can't make something echo! Silly girl! Laughter, laughter, laughter. I'm a monster... I'm a monster...

A monster that can kill; will kill; has killed.

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I wake up to a slight beeping noise. My face is unusually warm and as I open my eyes I can see nothing but sunlight. Squinting against the brightness, I push myself up on one hand to survey the area. No. It can't be. I look away and then again gaze around the clearing I lie in, but it is still in the same state. I pinch myself, but I am not dreaming.

There is blood everywhere, and when I touch my face, dried blood flakes off. I am extremely confused, not able to remember how I got into this situation, when I spy the bodies. The bodies of two boys I never really got to know. And then it all comes rushing back. Willie and his handprint, Devon and his screaming, the butcher knife, the sudden darkness that surrounded me everywhere I looked.

I have to choke back a sob at what I have become, but I cannot dwell in my memories for long, because there is a loud thunk from behind me. Scurrying to my feet and whirling around, I shuffle into the fighting stance they taught us at hand-to-hand combat, just to realise my opponent is a parachute.

A parachute?

It quickly strikes me that Alder refused to help us in the arena, since I received a training score of seven. So why is there a parachute now? I stumble over to it cautiously, picking up the flimsy thing. Attached to the parachute is a small contraption that beeps continuously and, inside it, is a note written in scrawled handwriting.

It reads:

To Miss Donner-

It is of great importance that you evacuate from the area, as we would like to retrieve the bodies of the tributes that you killed approximately one hour and forty-seven minutes ago. Please do so in good time, or else we may have to take extra measures. May the odds be ever in your favour.

-Sorphigan Pronx and company

I laugh (a bit hysterically) as I read the note, and once having perused it, I look to the sky and nod once. I then proceed to gather my things, trying desperately to ignore the corpses of the boys from Ten, for whenever I do, I experience a vision from my memories that shakes me drastically. I have to put their deaths behind me. I have to keep reminding myself that they are in a better place now.

After stuffing the camouflage blanket that I have repossessed back in my pack, I take up my blowgun (remarkably clean of blood) and reload it with another poisonous dart. I then look over the items of the packs Willie was sitting next to before his murder (for yes, I am now a murderer of innocent children, to my utter desolation and dismay) and find some foodstuff that is worth salvaging. I retrieve from the packs' depths another loaf of bread and a few apples. How wondrous! as my tongue feels swollen and I cannot wet it, and the apples will have juices in them to suck. I really do need water, but looking at the sky and its ever-puffy white clouds, I don't think it will rain.

Please let it rain, I think, after stuffing the apples in my backpack and keeping one out for myself to munch on hungrily during my... journey to nowhere.

The five minutes set by the Gamemakers are up, and I must evacuate as told. I am just about to step out of the clearing when I catch sight of Willie's pitiable corpse. Unable to look away, I feel I desperately need some sort of closure. And so I turn and touch three fingers to my lips, holding my hand out to the two dead tributes that were once Willie and Devon from Ten.

This gesture is a sign of love and respect, back in District Twelve. It is a sign that we often use at funerals. And I am paying my last respects, for I will not visit their funeral, even if I make it out of these wretched Games.

And then I walk away from the clearing, my blowgun in one hand, the apple in the other, and an imaginary hand pressed to my heart with the three-fingered salute, showing respect and love for the handprint Willie left there.

I do not look back.

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I only come to a complete stop when I see the fluffy, golden squirrel. It sits in front of me, chattering away in that high-pitched language squirrels tend to constantly use, looking about as harmless as a butterfly. Then again, the butterflies here aren't exactly harmless- I've seen the stingers on them, and the evidence of their poison (Frond from District Four, whom I saw when retrieving extra supplies from the Cornucopia, fell victim, of course). Maybe that's why I get the feeling that this squirrel is intent on injuring me.

"You going to kill me too?" I ask it, my voice barely above a hoarse whisper (I am so thirsty), raising my blowgun to my lips.

Instantly, the squirrel goes from harmless to fearsome. I suppose it realises that I can see behind its cute façade and knows it will never fool me. Its teeth, sharp and pointy, glint as the squirrel bares them, and then it is flying at me ruthlessly, with murderous intent. The dart in my blowgun intercepts it with accurate precision, and the squirrel drops to the ground, dead. Like Hemlock, hit in the head. Like Willie, the blood so red. Like Devon, coherent words unsaid. Dead, dead, dead.

I quickly shrug off my backpack, unzipping it and pulling out the pouch of extra darts, which I conveniently placed on top of all my other things. I take one dart from the pouch, careful not to touch the poisonous tip, and reload the blowgun. Don't want to be caught off-guard by a random tribute without the gun loaded!

I'm about to return the pouch to my pack when I hear more chattering from behind me. Damn it. Should have known there'd be more.

I turn to find three squirrels, conversing with each other, taunting me. I'm furious, but keep my movements slow as I reach into my pouch and extract another two darts, pinching them between the fingers of my left hand. Now, I am regretting not retrieving Willie's butcher knife from Devon's heart. I need a weapon that will not run out of projectiles! There's a knife at the bottom of my pack, but it's too late to get that, too.

It is not until I stand up that the squirrels quit their squeaking and launch themselves at me. I manage to take the first one down in seconds, diagnosing it with the red cough, and then reload my gun with one of the darts I hold in my hand, proceeding to hit the second, killing it instantly. The last, however, is lucky enough to latch itself onto my arm, biting down hard enough to draw blood. I take the last dart in my hand and plunge it into its furry body. It lets go of my bleeding forearm and is dead before it touches the fallen leaves.

This time, my guard is completely up. I take up the pouch and load my blowgun again. There are five squirrels now, and I take four darts in my left hand, ready for battle. When they fly at me, I hit one... two... three with my blowgun, and then jab two darts into the remaining squirrels' fuzzy stomachs, but not before they take good chunks out of my biceps.

Why are the Gamemakers targeting me? I wonder. Are they so set on rendering me weaponless that they must send flesh-eating squirrels to waste my darts? Before they can send any more of the evil rodents, I turn my face towards to the heavens, and address the Head Gamemaker.

"Sorphigan Pronx!" I call. "I am quite curious as to why you are making me waste my weapons. Do you want to leave me vulnerable to other tributes? Do you want them to kill me? Do you want to kill me? And then, why are you using such a pathetic means of killing me off, when you could simply send a parachute in my direction after attaching a bomb to it? A quick, gruesome death… but I suppose the audience wouldn't like that." I smile, trying to disguise how hoarse my voice sounds. "To put it simply, the only point of sending the squirrels is to doom me to a drawn-out death, and as I am assured that the audience would rather see me go into battle with a tribute rather than something Gamemaker-made, I believe you should let me travel in peace."

Sorphigan Pronx seems to take my words into full consideration, because he sends no more squirrels... and he sends no bombs, either. I spend a full five minutes waiting to see if he truly is heeding my request, and finally, realising that there is no point in standing in the same position for so long, I bandage my arms and gather up my things. I have wasted nine darts on the squirrels and I grimace as I look into the pouch, pulling one out to reload the blowgun for the fourth time today. I wonder if there are more darts back in the Cornucopia, but I've already turned back once; I don't want to turn back again.

I set off into the wilderness, and not for the last time.

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It's around four in the afternoon when I begin to hear a loud rumbling noise in the distance. I jump, thinking it is a cannon, but it lasts much too long for that. Then, after a long pause, it sounds again, and I think it is the mountain turning into a volcano- well, I wouldn't be surprised if it were, what with the bad vibes I've been getting from it! But all my theories are dashed when the rumbling (after multiple pauses) gets louder, louder, louder- I turn my face toward the skies- and the rain comes pouring down.

Rain! Rain! It is beautiful; it is sweet; it is replenishing. My tongue, once so dry, is instantly wet again. My cracked lips are coated in a fine sheen of water. I let out a sigh of relief and drop my pack to the already soaked ground, bending to extract my empty water bottles and the blue bowl. I look around to find that I am near a banana tree and go over to it, bending the leaves in such a way that the rain will slide down them and into the bottles and bowl. Then, I rip half a leaf off of the tree, holding it to my mouth to form a sort of funnel to catch more rainwater.

The water is so sweet it is almost unbearable, but so deliciously wet that I drink and drink until my stomach cannot hold any more. Then, I sink to the ground, running my hands through my short, wet hair, giggling like a girl that has survived all seven reapings with her mind and body fully intact. Except… I haven't. My joy is spurred by rain, after two and a half days of nothing but an apple to quench my undying thirst.

I giggle and giggle, soaked to the bone in the midst of the rain that is falling in sheets, until I look at my chest. My chest. Willie's handprint. The handprint that was once visible is now washing away; washing away like Willie's memory is washing away as I drive it out of my thoughts. And then I cannot drive it out any more- the memories are plaguing me- blood and death and coughing and screaming and stabbing. I have killed two boys. I am a monster. Myra is here now and she's telling me it's okay to be a monster; to be Maysilee; to be myself. She is beginning to scratch my face off. Or am I scratching my own face off? Either way, it hurts- it hurts- and I deserve the pain, no matter how much pain there is.

I am curled up in a ball, and I can't breathe. "Breathe!" Myra shouts. "Breathe!" There's screaming, but it's far, far away. There's somebody saying, "Oh, dear," but that's in another world- an alternate universe. I feel like I'm floating up into the air and in a certain direction, but that must be in my imagination, because everything is stable. Everything is clear. Everything is in black and white except for the handprint, the red handprint, which is slowly fading- dying- before my very eyes.

I thought it would remain forever, but it's slowly dawning on me that the handprint and the damage that came with it will only last temporarily. The physical handprint and the physical damage, that is. The emotional handprint and its own form of damage will haunt me until the day of my death.

Maybe I should die. Then I will be rid of everything that has ever tried to break me. Not to imply that I will deliberately kill myself, but the freedom that comes with death might relieve me from the damage- might make me happy. And Snow knows what I wouldn't give to be happy.

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I awaken to the sound of singing.

Well, not singing, exactly. It is more of a comforting, quiet humming. However, it is loud enough to hear clearly, and the tune is quite relaxing. I don't open my eyes, but as minutes pass, I slowly become aware of what is around me: I am on dry ground; there are blankets surrounding my shivering body; there is the faint crackling of a fire and the smell of smoke; the humming is female, but I cannot distinguish whose mouth it emits from.

I have the sense that I should be frightened, but I'm not. I have the sense that I should be wailing and sobbing- but I don't remember what to cry about. I am content to lay here in my cocoon and forget where I am (in the arena of the 50th Hunger Games) and what I should be doing (which I can't exactly figure out, hence the absent sense of urgency).

But the time comes where I cannot bear to keep my eyes shut one second longer, and so I slowly peel them apart. The scene that meets my eyes consists of branches tied together with twine. A branch-plank. Rolling over, I can see out of a small triangle, riddled with dead leaves and bark, met with the view of trees and the sun shining through their leaves. Instantly, it all clicks, and I laugh, listening to my caretaker as she hums. "Rosalina!" I call, and the tune immediately stops, the song replaced with the image of her face through the triangle.

"You're awake!" Rosalina practically squeals- her smile, in all its glory, taking up the bottom half of her face as she peers through the small space.

"Awake, yes," I reply. "And reunited with my ally. How in the world did that occur?" Rosalina lifts the branch-plank off me as I say this, and I am slowly sitting up, brushing the leaves out of my damp, cropped hair. I frown at the dampness. There's no water in the arena. How is my hair wet?

My clothes are damp too, and although my lips are chapped, there's moisture to them. I'm contemplating these changes and wracking my brain to conjure up a memory of water (to no success) as Rosalina explains:

"Yesterday, late afternoon, there was a thunderstorm. I'm sure you remember- I'll bet you were as thirsty as I. And I was so thirsty, I drank about a gallon and a half!" She laughs. "But that's beside the point. After I got my fair share of rain water, I was walking back toward this camp (which I left behind to find a banana tree), and I just happened to come across you, on the verge of madness, seemingly attempting to claw your face off and screaming something awful.

"I thought you were Platina, at first, what with the short hair- is that why you cropped it? to look like Platina? pretty ingenious of you- but then I thought to myself, 'Platina wouldn't be screaming like a banshee in the midst of the arena,' and it turned out to be you. And I'm so glad I let myself have second thoughts on your identity, because if I had passed you by, I doubt we'd ever cross each other again. ...Anyways, when I finally got around to dragging you back to camp, along with your full water bottles and pack, you'd gone unconscious. Now it's around ten o'clock in the morning, judging by the sun's position.

"Well, that concludes my version of last evening's events. Care to indulge me on why you were shouting so loudly? Must have been something terrible to induce that. But, on second thought, we are in the Hunger Games," she finishes, with a sombre, twisted smile.

I can do nothing but stare at her tale. I cannot remember any of this... I simply cannot remember! I clasp my hands together and squeeze, frightened at my sudden, supposed amnesia. "I have no recollection of that occurrence, Rosalina."

She, who is leading me over to a log near a small fire, freezes in mid-step, and then her head is turning ninety degrees to face me. The rage in her gray eyes is considerable. "The birds do," she hisses. And then she proceeds to turn her head back in the other direction, a placid, slightly worried expression crossing her features as if she has said nothing of any importance.

"Excuse me?" I recoil, feeling as if something has gone horribly wrong now that Rosalina's episodes are occurring during daylight.

"What?" Rosalina looks perplexed as she sits upon a log opposite the fire, picking up a stick to stir around the jumble of blazing wood and ashes. "All I said was that I was worried about you. Is that so horrible that one should recoil as you have?"

"Rosalina… you said nothing of the sort."

Rosalina cocks her head to the side, staring at me warily. "Yes, I did. Mays, I think you're imagining things… Which is totally normal, after whatever you experienced that made you scream so loudly." I sigh, trying to forget her momentary lapse, and she continues. "Now, I suppose you're hungry. I am. What have you eaten since the beginning of the Games?"

I think back. "A couple of beef strips; half a loaf of bread; maybe a bit of dried fruit? I'm not sure, Rosalina. Everything has been happening so fast."

She takes this as her cue to remove her backpack from her shoulders and rummage through it, pulling out a full loaf of stale bread. "We'll share," she says, tearing the bread down the middle, as evenly as possible. "Tell me if you need anything more after that, I have another loaf and you have a few as well. They're going stale, so we need to eat them quickly."

As she hands me my bread, I have a sudden urge to ask her a question. "Who died yesterday? You never told me."

"Willie and Devon from Ten," she replies, zipping up her pack nonchalantly. "Why do you ask?"

But I do not answer, for it all comes rushing back. Willie with his naïvety and innocence, Willie with his dirty blonde locks of hair and wide, hazel eyes, Willie coming at me with a butcher knife and Willie coughing blood and Willie leaving the handprint on my chest and Willie dying, dying, dying. Devon with his protective nature, Devon with his screams of rage, Devon running at me with his own butcher knife and Devon with the other knife in his chest and Devon dying, dying, dying.

Myra, telling me I wasn't a monster. Myra, clawing my face. Myra, who is my twin sister, and is thousands of kilometres away from me now… possibly even further than that, in terms of memories. Myra, whom I probably won't ever see again.

And myself. Myself- killing, turning into a monster, breathing, screaming, sobbing, and going completely insane. There are less important things too: the waiting, the three-fingered salute, the squirrels, the rain and the joy that came with it. But the only words that come out of my mouth are: "I also ate an apple."

"What?"

"I ate an apple, Rosalina," I look at her intently, staring into those gray eyes that are oh-so-much-like-Haymitch's but don't quite reach the amount of depth that his can. "I remember now. I ate a red apple. From the Cornucopia, that is… I'm not so brainless that I'd eat something originating in the arena."

"Okay..." Unsure of what to say, my friend (and ally) takes a large bite of her bread, chewing it methodically.

I shudder, thinking of the coughing; thinking of the handprint; thinking of the apple. "It was a red apple, Rosalina. A bright crimson... just like Willie's blood."

Understanding floods her eyes a split second later, and then I'm crying into her shoulder and she's patting me on the back and murmuring into my ear that it's okay, that it's all going to be okay- and it's not! it's not! because I've killed two boys and I can't take it back- oh how I wish I could sink to the ground and just die! I tell this to Rosalina and she, such a wonderful friend, whispers in my ear that she needs me and I can't ever leave her- that I can't die.

I promise her that I won't. That I won't leave her- that I won't die. But we all know these words hold an emptiness to them, for we all die in the end. It's the Game that kills us. Physically, forty-seven of us will die. Mentally, we all do... even the winner. It's inevitable. I'm beginning to understand this now.

All of it is inevitable.

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We stay in the camp for a couple hours, tending to the fire, making sure it doesn't grow so large that the smoke will drift up through the trees, therefore notifying other tributes of our position. My damp clothes and hair slowly dry, but my mouth does not, as we now have six bottles and two bowls of water to share between the two of us. Also, as the bowls cannot be covered, it doesn't make sense to conserve the water in them, so we allow ourselves to take generous sips out of the two bowls every couple minutes or so.

I've soon recovered from my "meltdown" (for the most part), and somewhere deep inside myself I swear that I will not show my weaknesses and flaws again until these Games are over. Then again, I'm probably promising myself not to show weakness until my death, which could or could not be as far away as it seems. Either way, I'm putting on a show for the cameras. It's what the Gamemakers want, after all- and they don't have to send squirrel-mutts to prove their point.

I narrate the story of Hestia cutting my hair the other day and it makes Rosalina laugh. "Your stylist really is the most shallow person I've ever met- to leave your hair down when it was obviously going to become tangled in the first minute of the Games!" She chuckles. "At least Rosea didn't put cosmetics on you. It's a wonder Augusta even liked her."

This reminds me of Augusta's petty crush, and I giggle as well. "Rosea wasn't that bad," I say. "And I began to like her, towards the end. But I do admit, her refusal to tie up my hair was a poor decision." Then it hits me that we are in the Hunger Games and we are talking about our hair, and I giggle even more.

"That reminds me, would you re-braid my hair? It's falling out."

I comply, still smiling to myself, and undo her braid, running my fingers through her slightly matted, greasy black hair (the fact that we do not have enough water to expend on bathing is a bit of a downfall).

As I'm re-braiding her hair, we strike up another conversation: this one not so light-hearted but not pessimistic, either. It's a game, almost... she tells me one wish, I tell her another. Rosalina wishes for a shower, I wish for a warm bed to sleep in. Rosalina wishes for her friends, I wish for mine. Rosalina wishes she knew why she got a two as a training score, I wish that I had received an eight. The list seems never-ending. "If wishes were tesserae," Rosalina admits, "'Rosalina Dark' would be the only name in the girls' reaping bowl."

"Then thank Panem that wishes aren't tesserae." I tie off the end of her braid with the hair band she gave me and smile at her. "Now, are you up for some protein? We have plenty of beef strips to spare."

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One of Rosalina's wishes comes true, a bit past noon. And it might be fate, it might be pure luck, it might be a coincidence, or it might have been planned, but of all people, it is her brother that stumbles into our camp just as we are putting out our fire.

He isn't quiet, not the least bit. At first we think it is some sort of mutt, tromping through the woods in our direction, because no tribute can make so much noise and get away with it! I raise my blowgun to just below my chin, hesitant but ready to kill anything that stumbles upon our makeshift camp. Rosalina is without a weapon, so I unzip my pack and pull out my extra knife, tossing it to her (it was originally at the bottom of my pack, but after the squirrel incident, I placed it on top of the rest of the things, next to the blowgun darts).

Rosalina looks at the knife at her feet (she didn't catch it), a look of shock and disgust and hesitancy crossing her features as she struggles to figure out whether or not she will pick it up. In the end, the battle is won by her sense of preservation, and she reaches forward to grip the knife by the handle so tightly that her knuckles turn white.

Whoever or whatever it is approaches at an alarming rate. The crashing increases until it is all but deafening. It seems to come from behind us, in front of us, all around us… and then there is a single pause in which time seems so stop.

Following this is a loud war cry emitting from a human boy as he flies at us from behind. It scares Rosalina and I half to death and we whirl around, stumbling backwards out of reach of the dark, curly-haired thirteen-year-old boy's award-worthy spin-hook kick (that would be near fatal if it hit one in the head). Following this is another momentary pause as he lands on his feet, running in one direction to wane the momentum that must be acquired for such a kick.

And then… "Tyler?"

There is a flurry of motion as Rosalina rushes at Tyler, dropping the knife I entrusted her with and enveloping him in an embrace. He returns it, looking pleasantly shocked and a bit exasperated as she whispers words in his ear that I cannot distinguish. Nor do I want to distinguish them- this is a moment between both siblings that should not be broken by an outsider, no matter how close (friendship-wise) that outsider may be.

When he manages to unentangle himself from the hug, he breaks into a smile, staring at the both of us and exclaiming, "The odds surely are in our favour. Fancy seeing you two here. I apologise for trying to kick you, sister- and Maysilee, of course."

I nod, taking in his figure. Tyler looks remarkably... intact. His face is free of scrapes or bruises, and simply looks the slightest bit dirty. His hair is tangled and riddled with fallen leaves, meaning he's slept on the ground, probably underneath a branch-plank (it seems to be the siblings' shelter specialty). His clothes are torn, but not from flesh-eating squirrels or rogue tributes... simply because of his tendency to tromp through the forest at a quick rate. Underneath the thin jacket he wears, the thirteen-year-old looks to be gaining some muscle... and the glint in his gray eyes makes him look moderately older. The easy smile he wears is the only remaining trait of the bright, frail spirit he once was.

Four days into the arena, and we have already aged decades. Every single one of us.

We sit on the logs around the once-lit fire and exchange words of welcome. Rosalina, sitting next to Tyler, can't seem to keep her hands off his shoulders, his hair, his cheeks, his back, his knees. She loves him as a sister would, but now that the Games have been introduced to their lives, their bond becomes even stronger in Rosalina's eyes. Still a bond between siblings, but one that is close to unbreakable. I don't know how it is for Tyler, for I don't know him as well as she, although I know he loves her dearly.

But maybe, just maybe, he doesn't love her as much.

A pack hangs from his shoulders and he removes it, showing us its contents. A bit of food, a couple water bottles, some rope. No weapons. I ask him about this, and Tyler shrugs. "I got a decent haul. Didn't go back to the Cornucopia because I was looking for Rosalina and the rest of the alliance- well, you and Hestia- is the alliance still on?- anyway, now I've found you two, maybe we can go back to the Cornucopia? Although now, that seems silly. We are so far away it would take a day or two to get there."

His statement about Hestia and the alliance spurs my confession that Hestia and I could have banded together, but I was afraid to venture onto the mountain, and she into the forest. "I threw the chance away. We could have her here with us if I had tried to convince Hestia to come with me and form an alliance..."

"Nonsense!" Rosalina interjects. "Hestia is stubborn, you know that. Her mind cannot be changed when it is set. Your attempts would have been useless." However, her words of reassurance don't do anything to relieve me of my regrets.

We exchange other stories. I've heard most of Rosalina's, and she's heard most of mine, but listening to them again gives us something to do. After all, it's worth it, to see Tyler laugh at my tale of Hestia cutting off my hair and Rosalina's story of chucking fruits into the acid river to see if it was safe to drink. Tyler tells a few of his own, a few being rather pessimistic. He watched Intella Gently's death, as well has her metal-toothed counterpart's, and I am reminded that his name was Luther.

Of course, the thought of death reminds me of Willie and Devon, and the words come tumbling out of my mouth in a waterfall of emotion, directed at Tyler. "I killed the two boys from Ten," I say. "They made their camp next to the spot where I was sleeping. I killed Willie first. He left me a handprint. Of blood." I gesture to my chest. "And then Devon. He screamed. I screamed. Knifed him." The words are empty, emotionless.

The words induce an odd reaction from the thirteen-year-old. For a moment when Tyler catches my eyes with his gray ones, I see a certain lust. Not lust as in desire, but more of a relish for something of greedy intent. It is frightening, but it only lasts a moment, and then Tyler gives me the sort of smile that is sombre and encouraging all at once, placing his hand on top of mine. "Nobody blames you, Maysilee. Someone had to do it. And you had to survive. They would have killed you."

"Yes," I mumble, staring at the canopy above me. "Willie tried to kill me, before I... before I..."

And then I halt in my sentence as the image of that greedy lust in Tyler's eyes flashes in front of mine, telling me that I should not mention the blowgun, telling me that my weapons should remain a secret. I must look at the blowgun that is resting in my right hand (closer to Rosalina), because all of the sudden, Tyler's eyes are drawn to it. "What were you going to say? What is that you're holding?"

"It's a-" Rosalina replies, but I interrupt her.

"It's a walking stick," I say firmly.

"A walking stick? But it's obviously made by the Gamemakers. Why else would it be carved in such a fine way, the ends rounded off? And why would the Gamemakers put a walking stick in the Cornucopia?" His eyes narrow in confusion.

"All I know is that this is what I got in my pack," I reply, my gaze flicking to Rosalina, who looks indignant and slightly miffed. "It's not good for anything. To short to be a staff, not heavy enough to be some sort of club, and too long to be used to bash someone's head in. So it's a walking stick. Now, Rosalina, should we treat your brother to some of the water in your bowl? He has water bottles of his own, but I think it would be the right thing to save them."

And then Tyler is nodding, looking towards Rosalina, his eyebrows raising in an unassuming sort of way and the corner of his lip turning up in the faintest of smirks for reasons unknown to me.

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It is around two o'clock in the afternoon when the ground begins to shake slightly. It begins as suddenly as it stops- the fruits swing on the trees and then they still once again, the dwindling water in our bowls sloshes around for a moment before it flattens out once again. I look up instantly to make eye contact with Rosalina, who whispers one word before chaos ensues.

"Earthquake."

The arena seems to shift suddenly out from beneath our feet. I doubt much earthquakes are exactly like this- it is, amongst many things, something I've never experienced but have read about in the textbooks back home- but I'm sure it is an earthquake, albeit Gamemaker-induced. And suddenly, I understand why they call it an earthquake, because I'm falling to the floor from my upright position and only barely managing to escape hitting my head by catching myself with my hands.

As I hit the ground, I curl up into a ball and put my hands over my head, waiting for the earthquake to move on. A log bumps into my side and I hiss in pain, but I don't dare lift my head until the initial wave and the majourity of the aftershocks have passed by.

Once I find the courage to stand, wobbling as the aftershocks pass by, I try to clear the ringing in my ears that came with the initial wave. Tyler and Rosalina slowly get up, too, and we share bewildered looks. It takes a moment for the noise in my ears to stop, and by then Tyler is saying in a small voice, "What was that? Why did they send it?"

"It was an earthquake, Tyler. And they sent it because..." Rosalina trails off, unsure of why the Gamemakers would create this specific natural disaster on such a peaceful, serene day (although I'm sure it's only serene because they wanted to surprise us with the earthquake. Just like them- though I do admit the tactic worked).

I feel as if something is going to go down soon. Something bad.

The questions rising on my tongue are answered when we hear a rumbling in the distance. At first, we think it's thunder. But as the rumbling goes on, never stopping, never allowing a break in between bursts of sound, we rule thunder out as a possibility. The noise is ever growing, the trees shaking, and it seems to be another earthquake but it's not, oh it's not, because we just had an earthquake. What is it? What the hell is that foreboding noise?

And then... comes the explosion.

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It was a volcano, says Rosalina. It was a volcano. Her voice is choked and she is crying as the rumbling continues. Although it is softer now, it seems it will never end, this constant reminder of the original mountain's secret. We sit huddled in a circle, trying to cover our ears as the ash rains down (not thickly- we are too far away for much ash to fall), consoling each other and mourning Hestia.

For Hestia must be gone. She must be. I climbed one of the trees nearest us to scout out the source of the reverberating noises coming from the mountain not too long ago, and the sight that met my eyes was of ash and smoke and spewing lava, coming in massive waves and rolling down the once-mountain-now-volcano, destroying everything in its path. The top, once pointed and parting the clouds majestically, was completely blown off. And there was screaming. Screaming, coming from the mountain, and small figures running away from the lava, but it was no use because I heard the cannons. We al heard them.

I couldn't bear to witness it any more. I dropped from the trees. I told my allies. I told them that Hestia had no chance, because I'm sure she was still in her cave as the earthquake and the eruption occurred, awaiting certain death. I can imagine her, frightened as she lava consumed her. I can imagine her dying alone.

Inside, I cry for her. On the outside, my mouth is fixed in a grim line, for I can't show weakness. I have sworn to myself that I will cry no longer.

The cannons have stopped now. I counted seven, but I'm sure there were more deaths during the preeminent explosion. We will only know for sure who has died when the anthem plays tonight, even though I'm not sure I want to know. Hestia, probably. Calico and Bolt. The vast majourity of the Careers (which is beneficial to those of us who are remaining, but the Careers were still human, and I believe they still have loved ones back home, and they have still died, which calls for a day of melancholy mourning. However, I cannot cry. I cannot cry).

Now it is, for the most part, silent. There is the soft rumbling far away; the gentle sound of ash hitting the ground; the muffled sobbing of Rosalina and the hot tears falling from Tyler's eyes; my breathing, which I am trying desperately to control, to inhale and exhale calmly and evenly. But, for a brief period of time, there is no danger.

There is no danger here.

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It is evening. The anthem has begun to play, filling up the silence that has wafted over our little camp. There is a hole in the canopy above us that gives us a clear view of the deep blue sky and the Capitol seal above us. And, in the midst of it all, I can't help but fear the unknown.

The first face to show is Miracle from One. She is looking down at us through her cosmetic-coated lashes, a seductive smile playing on her plump lips, her breasts threatening to fall out of the low v-neck tunic she is wearing. But it is only a picture in the sky, showing Miracle's best traits to all of those who are watching. The girl is dead now- succumbed to the lava that spewed from the volcano's gaping mouth. The miracle has died. Funny, that.

Intron and Exon and Platina are still alive, because next to appear are Lex and Lethae from Two. A burly pair- small additions to the Careers. Quite insignificant, to tell the truth. But dead. Still dead.

No one from Three. Smoke would never be such an idiot as to camp out on that mountain. Four is out of the running; Naiada, Cleat, and Frond are all in the afterlife, now. I remember Frond, passed out in the meadow, his skin red and covered in bumps from what I assume were butterfly stings. Is it possible that the lava reached the meadow, killing him as he slept in that coma of his? Or had he followed his friends to the mountain after waking again? Maintained guard position, just to die from... from what? Not that it matters. Frond is free from the arena, now.

There's the last boy from Five- I never could remember his name. Calico and Bolt from Eight. I picture them laughing during luncheon at the Training Centre, cuffing each other on the shoulders as friends would. Why does that seem to have been ages ago? It's only been a week, but the memories could be from another lifetime, they are so distant.

The other girl from Ten is dead... Lassona. She's scowling in the picture they show. She never seemed to be without a scowl. Once a tough girl, always a tough girl. In memory, in death.

And finally, last but not least, is Hestia. Grinning maniacally while lifting one hand up to smooth down her bleached blonde hair, her golden eyes twinkling merrily. Dead now. She's dead now, probably spending her time with her former boyfriend's little sister. Presumably talking her mouth off. The thought makes me smile- not cry, but smile. She's in a better place now. They all are.

Just before her face disappears from the sky, I touch three fingers to my lips and hold them out to her picture. I hope you died happy, I think. You might have been alone, but I hope you were thinking of happier things. Hemlock, Haze, Rosalina and Tyler and I, your friends and family... I hope you died happy and I hope you're happy now.

"She died a good person," Rosalina whispers as the anthem plays once again, Hestia's picture replaced by the seal of the Capitolites, people I hate, people I will always hate.

"How many of us are left now?"

Tyler is the one who answers. "Twelve. Us three and Haymitch, the rest of the Careers (Platina, the twins, Venom, and Quarren), Smoke from Three, Gracen from Seven and Tess from Nine. That makes twelve." The expression on his face is grim. Determined. Gray, if gray were an emotion and not a colour.

I turn away from the seal in the sky, gazing at Tyler and Rosalina with as much intensity as I can muster. "Twelve of us left," I say. "Eleven of us will die. Not all of us will die good people, as Hestia did. But I'm convinced that if we will die, we will die as ourselves. I will die a good person; Rosalina, you will die a good person; Tyler, you will die a good person."

Rosalina lets out a sob of agreement, throwing her arms around me, whispering reassurances in my ear. I struggle out of her grasp after a fleeting pause and turn to Tyler, hoping he will nod. Hoping he will give me the answer I seek.

He gives me an answer by turning away.

~finis de capitulum septem~

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