The Arena: Run
I’m in an alley, or what feels like an alley. Large stone walls surround me, its path narrow, leading me to one place, one exit.
It’s placed center in a large square. And I’m facing it directly.
No matter what I do, I’ll have to run towards it. I’ll have to be faster than the others. I need a weapon. I need to find Bas.
I can’t see any of the other tributes. Across from me I can just make out the tops of walls with spaces in between. Everyone must be in their own alley.
The clock counts down atop the cornucopia.
Five seconds left to go.
My heart beats rapidly in my chest.
The blood pounds in my ears.
I take a breath.
I focus. Find Bas. Find a weapon. I repeat it in my head.
“Let the 100th Hunger Games begin!”
I jump off the platform, running as fast as I can. Every sound blurring together in a rush.
The walls around me start to lower, revealing more of the city square, but my focus is on the cornucopia.
I have to make it first. I have to find Bas. I have to find a weapon. I have to make it first.
When I reach the square, there’s about five others barreling towards the center. Three Careers, Trina, and the girl from Six.
Six is dead before she even grabs a weapon. Emery wields the knife triumphantly, earning the first kill.
Gradually more tributes make their way out of their alleys. The walls have completely lowered now, leaving only open space and ruined buildings.
I see Cain before he throws the spear and I turn on my heel, narrowly avoid it.
The rest of the Careers join Cain. Grabbing at whatever they can carry. I won’t be getting a weapon. It’s too dangerous to try. I have to get as far away from here as possible.
But I can’t leave without Bas.
I turn in a circle, looking at the spaces where the alleys were, and the spots in between. But I can’t find him. He must have run for safety without stopping.
There’s a lake to the left of the square, beyond where the alleys once stood. On the right there’s a quarry. Each half surrounds the square, leaving only two methods of escape.
It’s chaos as the tributes try to avoid being killed all while picking their route away from here. I don’t have time to reflect on my choice, instead running as fast as I can. I need to put as much distance between myself and here, but I need my brother too.
I look for blonde hair as my lungs burn with each push further. I can’t leave here without him, but the longer I stay the closer to death I am.
“Bas!” I shout, running towards the lake. And I keep shouting for him over and over, my voice croaking and winded. As I pass scared tributes all clawing for breath while they run, I pray that I find him. It’s all a blur of black jackets, short breaths, and heavy boots running on concrete, but I never see my brother.
I can’t find him.
An arrow flies by me and I’m tackled to the ground. I roll over and find Trina staring at me, her eyes cold, merciless. And I think this is the first time I’m seeing the real her.
“Nothing personal. I just want to go home,” she says, raising a knife. She slams it down and I think this is it. But instinct takes over and I’m holding her arms back, or trying.
I’m fighting to stop her. But the knife inches closer and closer. My strength unable to hold. I try to wriggle out from under her, but she’s taller and heavier than me. And the knife keeps getting closer.
There’s no escape. I’m done for.
Bas will be alone.
But then I hear a smack. The crunch of bone beneath blood and tissue. Trina stiffens, her last breath coming in a sharp huff, and the life leaves her eyes. She drops to the side and there’s a trident sticking out of her back.
I grab the bow off the ground and force myself up. Taking an arrow from the quiver beside Trina’s body. I load the arrow and face my target. Beck.
He stands over her body, trident in hand, but he doesn’t throw it at me. He only holds his hands up. Surrendering. But I can’t trust him. And I can’t stay here. I have to kill him. But he just saved my life.
Why did he save my life?
I want to ask him. But there’s no time. I have to run. But I can’t turn my back on him. Not when he could so easily kill me.
And then I see August running towards him, a large rock in his hand, anger in his eyes. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen August angry. And I understand this anger. No. Not anger. Vengeance. The same vengeance I would have if Bas was the one lying dead on the ground.
And I can let August be the solution. Let Beck and him fight it out while I run away.
But Beck saved my life. And I can’t just let that go. And I hear Annie screaming at the reaping. And I see him quietly tying knots. And his green eyes watch me, his hands up, unthreatening.
Why doesn’t he just try to kill me? Why does he have to make this so damn hard?
I look to August, almost pleading. Hoping maybe Beck will turn around and see him. Or that August will decide to run away. Neither happens. And I hear August talking about the grass at home. And I see him painting with Bas and laughing. And I don’t want to kill him.
But Beck saved my life. And August is only coming this way because of Trina. Because he’s alone.
I have to choose.
I have to kill one of them.
It’s the only way.
The arrow sails past Beck, hitting August right through the heart. He’s dead instantly, never even feeling it. At least I hope. And Beck turns to see what I’ve done for him. That I’ve returned the favor.
I use that moment to take Trina’s knife. Then pick up the quiver of arrows, securing it to me as I turn and run. Leaving behind the one I saved and the one I killed.
As I run, I check for any sign of my brother but I never see him. The cannons don’t sound yet. I won’t know who made it through until they show the dead to us. I won’t know if my brother made it.
Still, I have to find him. Alive or dead. I have to find him.
He can’t die alone. He can’t be pulled into a hovercraft without me seeing him. Without me saying goodbye.
Most of the tributes make for the quarry, but I know, even if he was on the other side of the cornucopia, Bas would go for the lake. It’s the safer route.
I see no body on my way, but I find footprints at the shore.
There are three pairs of boot prints. Different sizes, all hurrying and circling. They tried to avoid each other. But ultimately decided to just dive in, ignoring the others. I recognize Bas’ steps. Or I hope they’re his steps. I won’t truly be able to breathe until I find him.
I double check the quiver of arrows to make sure they’re secure and I dive into the lake. Death and screaming behind me. My own work buried amongst it.
The swim takes the remainder of my energy from me, but I have to push myself. And I keep pushing until I’m beyond feeling. For a little while at least.
I can already feel my throat ache. I need water. One taste of the salt water around me lets me know I’ll have to find another source.
I crawl onto the rocky shore, out of breath, with my heart beating rapidly. I drop, rolling to my back to face the sky, my arms throbbing and limp at my sides. The sun warms me despite my wet clothes and the creeping cold in my stomach.
I know I should movie. I should keep going. But I can’t will myself to get back up. So I lie on the shore, closing my eyes, trying to make this all go away.
But it doesn’t.
My muscles, my lungs, my throat, they all ache and burn. My breath returns to normal, but the pain never goes away. And all the while I see my arrow pierce August’s chest. And the life leaves his eyes. I hear his laugh. I see his smile. I remember him trying to build a trap. And I think about my mother watching me kill him. What must she feel knowing I ended someone’s life? That I made the choice.
The cold travels from my stomach to my bones.
And I see Trina dying. Trina climbing the rock wall. How protective she was of August, despite her annoyance with him. And I feel her weight on me as she brought a knife closer and closer to my chest.
And I see Beck saving me. I see how certain he was in it. How he watched me after. There was no asking for forgiveness. No apologies. And I wonder how anyone can be so sure when they kill. If there was any hesitation or if he had already decided when the countdown ended.
He saved me.
The cold feeling disappears.
I can’t let that go to waste.
I have to find my brother. I have to survive.
So I pull myself to my feet and risk one look back. I ignore the bodies, only noticing there’s not nearly as many as I thought there would be. The square has cleared save for Cain, Emery, Stone, Victoria, and Minnow. Their focus lies towards the quarry. Clearly choosing the easy route for hunting the other tributes.
I don’t see Beck among them and I wonder if he was killed. But I can’t think of him now.
I saved him too. I owe him nothing. Whatever happened after I ran was on him. There’s nothing I can do about it.
There are two small buildings in the square. Both are half in ruins but it’s enough to provide shelter to those worthy of it.
The Careers have claimed it and I know there’s no way I’ll be able to return there.
I look down the shoreline. It dips and breaks, forming into a river ahead. I suspect, through the arena. There’s a bridge farther ahead, above the river. It must really go deep. Above the shore there’s grass taller than me, rising in waves and hills. There could be anything in there.
My clothes are mostly dry now. I can’t spend any more time waiting around.
I check the tracks and find the footsteps heading away from the shore into the grass. And I start my trek. The grass surrounding and towering above me. It’s cover, which is good, but my visibility is threatened, which is bad. If anyone sees me, there’s no guarantee that I would see them.
I walk slowly, my muscles still ache. I feel the scratching at my throat, the gnawing need for water.
I don’t know how many days I can last without it. And I don’t know where I’ll be able to find fresh water. I hope I come across it soon. I’m reminded of my mother’s Games. How she almost died from dehydration. I would laugh at the similarities but I’m more concerned with survival.
I push aside grass, checking the path in front of me, ensuring I’m following the tracks. I keep my steps light despite my exhaustion. Everything is silent except for the occasional breeze whistling through. I can almost pretend I’m not in the arena. That I’m out tracking in some other District or some part of the woods I just discovered.
Then the cannons start and I’m reminded what I’m doing here. I count.
I see a face for every blast of the cannon. Someone it could be, someone I’m hoping it isn’t and three I know for sure. Bas. Grover. Beck. Little Zero. The girl from Six. Trina. August.
Seven cannons. Seven are dead. And seventeen are still alive. Including me. I wonder how the Gamemakers will react to that.
The sun hangs high in the sky. I can feel the weariness of the day taking its toll. My limbs are heavy. My mind screams for Bas. Praying he’s alive. Praying he’s looking too. But I’m so tired. I can’t keep searching. I want to take a break. I want to shut my eyes and rest, but I have to keep going. I have no other option.
I’ll rest once I’ve found my brother.
I follow the tracks until the path diverges and I’m faced with a choice.
One path turns back towards the river. The other goes deeper through the grass, heading towards a tree line that I can just make out in the distance.
The river is probably made up of salt water like the lake. Bas would know that. He would look for shelter. He would go to the place that’s always been safe for us. He would go to the trees. He would go home.
I push onwards. I hope I’m right.
The grass is endless, growing darker and more sinister as I walk on. I hear the occasional flap of wings but never a sound to indicate what bird it is. The breeze that once felt welcoming whistles through my tired mind like a howl. I can feel the strain of searching. My legs ache from the walk. My eyes fall as my body droops, begging for sleep.
I just want to be at the trees, but I can’t be sure how far that is. I can’t be sure how long I’ve been in the grass or if I’m even following the tracks anymore. I’m so tired and I’m thirsty.
I stop to take a breath. I can feel the eyes of the arena watching me. Every camera, every Capitol citizen cheering. I imagine Plutarch calling shots while his commands are obeyed and reflected on screens across the country.
I can feel my mother’s eyes. And I can see her watching. Her hands twisting where her wedding band used to be. My father’s eyes riddled with worry as he watches her and the screens.
I have to keep going. I have to find Bas for them. I have to keep going.
So I do.
And when I find myself on the edge of a field, the tall grass nowhere in front of me, I’m relieved. But then I hear footsteps and I drop back into my previous surroundings, crouching low. I ready an arrow, waiting, watching.
The girl from Three steps out of the grass a couple feet to my right. She travels directly into my eye line, never aware that I’m watching. She stops and removes a canteen at her belt.
She drinks from it, the setting sun shining off the metal. My throat burns at the reminder. She’s close enough that I can read the number engraved on it.
It was meant for her. Given to her before she entered the arena.
And I remember hearing something rattling in the locker. Something made of metal swaying back and forth against the door. I knew the Peacekeeper forgot something. And he had known just what he was doing. He sent me in here without it.
My canteen. My water. It’s hanging in a locker somewhere underneath the cornucopia while President Snow smiles at me burning without it.
What if there isn’t any other fresh water? I could die. I could die and the Gamemakers wouldn’t have to do a damn thing to make it happen. Snow already did.
Then a thought hits me. And it’s dark and sinister and it feels like what a Career would think.
I could kill her and take hers. I could live.
I need it more than her. I need to find my brother. And she would have to die anyway so that he could win. Why not now?
She would never see me coming. She wouldn’t even feel it.
I need the water. I need to find Bas. I need to live. He needs to win.
My hand shakes as I raise the bow. I’ve done it once. I can do it again. It’s nothing more than hunting.
She has something I need. She’s prey. She’s a deer. She won’t feel it. I have to live.
It’s nothing more than hunting.
But I see how out of breath she is. How she glances around as she closes her canteen. She’s scared. She’s a person. She’s not a deer. She’s not prey.
And I remember August. And I feel cold again.
I’m not a Career.
I lower the bow as she turns her back.
She walks through the field towards the woods and I let her go. Possibly signing my death certificate with it.
My hands shake as I put the arrow away. And I stay crouched for a long time after the girl leaves. My mother had told me she made a choice. It was her or them.
And it felt that way at the cornucopia.
Even when I knew August wasn’t going to hurt me. He was going to hurt Beck. I knew, it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t killing to kill.
And maybe if I had killed the girl from Three it could be considered justified. But I couldn’t live with it, for however short a time that might be. I can’t accept becoming a cold hearted murderer, even if it is for survival.
And I knew that when I arrived in the Capitol. I was afraid of that weakness.
But it’s not a weakness.
And I can see my father smiling. He’d be proud of my choice.
So I can live with it. Though it’s becoming less likely the longer I go without water.
How many days can I last? How much energy have I wasted already? When was the last time I had water? Was it yesterday? This morning?
The air feels dry here. And as the sun sets it gets colder. And I have to force myself to stand and leave the tall grass.
I can’t search tonight. I won’t be able to see the tracks. I have to sleep.
The field slopes upwards towards the woods. And I’m heading uphill despite my aching limbs. I look back to see how far the grass stretches. It surrounds everything in an outer circle. To get anywhere near the river or close to the cornucopia you have to pass through it.
There’s a brief break in it where the river is. And in the growing darkness I can just make out the bridge. I don’t think I’ll be heading back this way. Once I find Bas, we’ll stick to the woods. Unless the Gamemakers force us out.
Suddenly, I feel small and I wonder how long I’ll stay alive. How long Bas can manage. He’s not the only one who won’t survive alone.
I continue through the field and reach apple trees on the edge of the forest.
My stomach growls at the sight. And I’m grateful that at least it’ll be some hydration as well. But as I grasp the shortest branch I hear a faint buzzing and I think better of it. It’s too dark to really know what the buzzing is. And I can’t risk it being what I suspect.
I push into the woods and I’m relieved to smell the dirt and leaves that welcome me home.
I set a trap at the tree line. If the Careers decide to follow I’ll get rid of at least one of them. Hopefully. Either way it’ll help me sleep a little more soundly knowing the trap is there.
I can’t find any tracks in the darkness. And I won’t go further into the woods without the light. I look up at the trees. I don’t think sleeping in one would be a good idea, but I don’t have anyone to watch my back while I rest.
So I find a fallen log near my trap and do my best to hide behind it. They shouldn’t notice me if I’m still. I lie on the ground, the fallen leaves surprisingly soft beneath me, and I watch the sky.
There are stars I don’t recognize, if they’re real stars at all, but I trace shapes in my mind anyway. I create patterns, pictures of anything and everything I can make. I’m only trying to ignore the aching hunger in my stomach and the savage burning in my throat.
Tomorrow I’ll catch some food.
I play with the pin on my jacket absentmindedly. It reminds me of home, of my family. And even with all the pain in my body, I feel a peace wash over me as my eyes close and I start to drift off.
But then the anthem plays and my heart drops. This is it. This is when I know for sure whether Bas is looking up at the same sky or not. If he’s alive or not.
The faces come onto the sky one by one. The number of their District with them. For every face there’s probably a grieving family. A friend who knew them. A mentor who cared for them. The parent who could be their mentor. The one who is watching from the Capitol. Who had to see them die.
Even Trina and August. Neither one of their parents are here. Their mentors are just the ones who survived their traumas. But those mentors knew their parents. Those mentors were probably helped by their parents. And they will mourn. And District Nine will bury them. Friends will say goodbye. They will curse my name. They will curse my family just as they’ve been doing for twenty five years. And they’re right to do so.
The girl from Six is the first face. Beck made it then. And I’m not sure why I find relief in knowing that, but I do.
The girl from Seven’s picture follows. And somewhere in the arena Grover is seeing her face and saying goodbye. Whether he knew her well enough or not, he would mourn for her.
Both tributes from Eight appear. Then Trina and August. And I remember firing the arrow and I try to look anywhere but at the sky. But it’s too big and the anthem is so loud. And August’s face watches me. And I feel the pull of the string and the release when I let go. And I see the arrow pierce his chest. And I watch him fall. And I can hear his laughter. And I ended it.
I can’t escape what I’ve done.
It feels like an eternity until August’s face fades and the girl from Ten’s face appears in the sky. And I feel sorry for Little Zero. He has to face this place alone. Alone and small and fighting for his life. He’s probably crying. He’s probably looking for his father or his mother and he’s crying. And no one comes to help him. No one comes to make his nightmares go away.
No one survives alone. Not even me.
No more faces appear and silence follows the end of the anthem. And in that silence, I find hope. Bas is alive. He’s out here somewhere and he’s alive. I will find him. I have to find him. I can find him. He’s alive.
I close my eyes. The smell of the woods surrounds me, comforting me, even when I know I’m not safe. I can hear the sounds of animals scurrying along the ground and up into the trees. And it’s like a lullaby calling me home.
Then I hear a song in my mother’s voice and it’s only in my imagination, but it reminds me of times when I didn’t know what killing felt like. When I didn’t fear an arena. When I could still play and be a child.
When I wasn’t aware of my purpose.
When I didn’t know firsthand what this world is. When I didn’t know any better.
Now I do.
And it feels so long ago that the words of the lullaby disappear and all I can hear is the melody. And I wish I could go back. Back to when I believed that lullaby. When I believed I could be safe.
But I don’t think I ever really believed.
And I don’t think my mother did either. Not when she sang me that lullaby. In small moments of weakness, when she couldn’t keep me away and my father wasn’t home. She had to sing it to me, but I don’t think she ever believed fear could go away.
Now I know that it can’t.
Not with a song. Not with a hug.
And God how I wish I could curl up in one of my parent’s arms and believe that lie all over again.
But I can’t. And as sleep pulls me under I think of days in Twelve with my family. I remember walking in the woods and running around the Seam. And I’m grateful that I’m too tired to dream.
I would only dream of home. And it would be all the more difficult to wake.