The Arena: Drowning
I dream of home. I do that a lot in here it seems. I dream of the smell, of the coal being produced in the mines, and the dark dust that seems to cover everything. I dream of my family’s bakery, my uncle’s laughter as he passes me one of the rejected cookies. He’s the only Uncle I like. Uncle Rye. The other two are married and work in the bakery too, but they don’t really talk to our family. At least, not since my father won the Games and married my mother. I’ve never really asked what happened to cause that. And now I never will.
I’m doing that a lot lately too. Realizing all the questions I should have asked, all the things I should have said, and all the things I’ll never get to say. Some, maybe most of which are probably better left unsaid. I find myself dreaming of those questions too and all the answers that I’ll never hear for myself. But most of the time it’s just silent moments in the woods with my mother, my father trying to teach me to paint, reading to me at night, or my brother and I racing to see who could get home from school first. All the little moments that mean a lot more to me now than they did before.
When the dream changes to the attack in Twelve I stiffen. I don’t want to have nightmares in here, not when there are so many already. Even worse I don’t want to wake screaming, that will appear weak. I can’t seem weak. But even though I’m aware of it, it doesn’t change the fact that I’m still having this nightmare.
The child’s laughter echoes throughout my head and then I see the firing squad again, but this time Cinna has joined them. He smiles at me and the shots go off. And I smell the Capitol’s stench. It smells like the rich lush of roses and the copper of blood.
Then the bodies rise and my nails dig into my palms. They watch the sky, their eyes wide and unblinking, their three fingers raised towards the sky. And from the sky a Mockingjay flies towards me, screeching as fire burns all around. And then I’m with my mother, standing in her arena, saluting for the fallen tribute Rue. And the fire spreads. It destroys the arena, the Capitol, and all of Panem.
I wake with the fading smell of smoke and flame and the call of the Mockingjay fresh in my mind. For a second I half expect my father to come in, to make the last of the nightmare fade. Then I feel the cold damp of the cave and see the fog creeping in from the entrance and it reminds me that I am not home. And that there’s no one here to make the nightmares disappear.
I turn to find Grover fast asleep beside me, his glasses askew, hair even more disheveled. He looks younger when he’s asleep. I stare at him and I think of my brother and it feels like a wire tightening and cutting into my heart.
Did Bas survive the rain?
I watch the steady rise and fall of Grover’s chest. How many more breaths does he have left? How many more do I have? Is Bas breathing at all? Is Johanna happy that the three of us are here together? Is she scared? Will she blame me if Grover doesn’t make it? When, I correct myself, when he doesn’t make it.
I try to shake off the thought but I can’t. It’s a truth I can’t forget even if I don’t want to face it. We’re all going to die here.
When it all gets to be too much I finally look away and find Beck watching me from his corner of the cave.
“Rain stopped,” he says.
I nod, picking myself off the hard ground. I try to shake off the thoughts that won’t stop. The thoughts of death and torment, of endless running and starving. Of killing. Once again I hear August laughing and I see Trina climbing up the rocks and I’m plagued with the constant, nagging feeling that we shouldn’t be here. That all of this is wrong.
“You were twitching in your sleep. Nightmares?” he asks, his voice tired. I wonder how long he’s been awake, or if he’s even slept at all. The rain had pretty much guaranteed we wouldn’t need a look out, maybe he felt differently. “Do you want to talk about it?”
I shake my head. “It wouldn’t do anything.”
“You know, my mom used to tell me whenever I had a nightmare to go outside and tell the moon about it.”
I look at him, disbelieving. He smiles, and it’s so earnest and bright that it warms the air around him, making the cold cave, the arena, feel a little bit more like home. He’s lost in his story and when I watch him speak I see him. The real him. The one he hides under layers and years of trained acting.
The one who almost kissed me the day before and who I’m grateful didn’t. Aside from the peck on the forehead, which was, admittedly, nice.
“She said there was a man who lived on the moon and every night he listened to anyone who had a nightmare. And he would take that nightmare and turn it into a star. And that’s how new stars are made. He takes the bad and dark thing and turns it into something beautiful.”
I wish I could see this version of him more. The boy who grew up in Four with a loving family despite the Capitol, who managed to slip past the reaping until this year, who would have had a good life if not for my family. But I know it will disappear. Just as I will and am starting too beneath the tribute I’ve become. The killer I’ve become.
“And you believed that?” I ask, breaking his silence.
He shrugs. “I was a kid.” The layers build again, and whatever sincerity was in his eyes is gone. And I don’t know how to bring it back. I wish I could. I know I shouldn’t think like that. I can’t afford to think like that. One of us is going to end up killing the other in here. And nothing is going to change that. I am not my mother. We are not star-crossed lovers who have the whole of the nation at attention and who can try to defy the Capitol. We are just tributes, doomed to play the Games our parents couldn’t finish.
“We should move, sun’s coming up and I don’t know how safe this place is,” he says, grabbing his trident and walking to Grover. He shakes the younger boy to wake him. Grover stirs, fixing his glasses and mumbling about five more minutes.
“Where do you want to go?” I ask, picking up my supplies, putting on my own mask.
Beck peers out of the entrance of the cave. The light fog has become dense after the rain, thick and alive. The forest seems to have joined in that new life. I can hear all kinds of movement from creatures through the fog. There’s a distinct sound of growling and Beck turns back inside. “Follow the tunnel. At least we have walls to protect us.”
I nod, adjusting the quiver on my back. Grover shivers and I look around for his jacket.
“Grover, where’s your--”
“I left it back at the tree with the water. I was hoping you’d see the sign and bring it back.”
“I said you could leave a mark.”
“I didn’t think that’d be enough.” He shrugs, shivering again.
I feel guilty. He shouldn’t freeze because of me. He would have if I had died. I remove my jacket and hand it to him. He shakes his head. “You need it more than I do right now.”
He concedes and puts it on with a grateful nod. The sleeves are a little long on him, he’s smaller than me, but at least it will keep him warm. I catch the glint of the gold pin on the jacket but I say nothing. It can stay with him. I remember the fire of my nightmare and the screaming bird and I can’t bring myself to look at the pin. There’s a knot in my stomach from it, a fear that seems so old and so new at the same time and I can’t quite place it.
We’re about to start walking when a silver parachute floats in. Two in two days? It feels odd, or maybe, we’ve done something right. Maybe taking on another ally makes us look better. But a part of me knows what the Capitol saw the day before, what I’m sure Haymitch is using to get us things we need. Another story to spin for entertainment. And I feel angry about it, a lot angrier than I think I should feel. I refuse to play the role, to play up whatever feelings could be there, that I don’t want to be there, but I know are.
It’s another truth I can’t escape, that I think I’ve known for a little while. Something shifted in the night. And there’s a trust that I finally acknowledged, even after I was so angry about something that doesn’t make sense now. Because it doesn’t make sense, what I’m feeling, what I won’t say I’m feeling but I know I am. And those feelings have settled into my stomach like a deep pit, waiting to consume whatever is left of me when it comes down to killing him.
In another life maybe we would’ve had a chance. But there is no other life, only this one, and we don’t get a chance to be happy, to be whole. It’s all gone. And it doesn’t matter what I feel, because that will be taken from me too. And maybe he thinks it’s an act, maybe he wants it to be, but there was something there, the same something that I feel. But there’s no use thinking of it now.
Beck opens the canister from the parachute. Inside there’s a lantern with a box of matches. A note falls to the ground from the lantern. I pick it up.
A new star.
I hand the note to Beck. It feels like it should belong to him, like it’s a secret message between him and his mother, something to comfort him when he needs it. If he ever does need it. He seems to be holding up in here. I guess that’s to be expected though. He is a Career. He reads it and hands it back to me without a second thought.
“It’s yours.” He strikes the match and lights the lantern, leading the way down the tunnel. Grover follows. I read the note again and imagine the woman writing it. The woman with the green eyes that she shares with her son, the same son who’s my ally, who I’ve helped keep alive and who has done the same. And who I know I’m going to have to kill. And the note feels wrong. It feels too kind for the place we’re in. And I should burn the note, I should throw it away. It’s not supposed to be mine.
But I fold it and put it in my pocket anyway. And I follow after Grover down the tunnel.
“So you heard one of my family stories, what about yours?” Beck asks after a long silence. The tunnel is long and growing colder as we continue through it. I rub my arms to keep warm, the goose bumps rising with the chill.
We keep ourselves in a line as parts of the tunnel narrow and then open up again. Beck in front with the lantern in one hand, trident in the other, Grover in the middle, protected from whatever could attack, and me following from the back with my bow and arrows. There’s the occasional drip of water and the echoing sounds of our footsteps, but no sign of anything in the tunnel that would mean us harm. It would be a safe place to hide if we could hide, but I have to find Bas.
“I don’t really have any,” I try. It’s mostly stories of hunting or running through the woods beyond the fence, there’s a few of baking with my father, and playing in the Seam, but mostly things that I can’t exactly broadcast to the Capitol. Besides those, all I have are stories about my parents’ traumas, which again, are things I can’t say. There are a lot of stories I could tell, but I can’t.
“Your parents are probably the most famous Victors, you definitely have a story or like five,” Grover says with excitement in his voice.
“I don’t. So leave it!” I can hear the echo of my anger through the tunnel. And I didn’t mean to shout, but it happens anyway. I know I should apologize, I can’t really fault them for asking, but they should know better. Especially Beck. He knows what it’s like to grow up with the nightmares, with the trauma. He should know not to ask.
We stop walking and Beck faces me from the front of the line. The lantern casting shadows on the tunnel walls. His is a giant towering from behind him. And even as his voice is calm and kind, it seems threatening with the dark looming all around him.
“You don’t like to talk about them, do you?”
I shrug. “Not in here I don’t.”
“It’s not just in here. Do you hate them?”
“No.” And I don’t. But my voice is too defensive. Too cold. But I know I don’t hate them. I hate the situation more than anything.
“What is it?”
“Ivy, you don’t have to lie in here, you know?” Grover glances around, “There’s nothing more they can do to you. That’s what my aunt says.”
“I don’t hate them. I swear. I just don’t have any stories.”
“No, come on, what is it?” Beck asks and he’s persistent, like he needs to know or he wants someone else to know. He watches me with a force in his eyes that makes me feel like there’s a power in my words to erase whatever damage has been done.
And I want to believe I have that power or that someone does and someone can use it to change things. I sigh, relinquishing whatever doubts I have left. If I’m going to die, I might as well get it out. “Sometimes, I just…I don’t know. My mother. I don’t…” I try to find the words but I’m at a loss.
“You don’t know if she loves you.” Beck finishes and I’m relieved that I don’t have to be the one to say it. I can feel her watching me and I’m sorry. I wish she didn’t have to see it. That she didn’t have to hear it at all. And it’s the first time I’m telling someone else, someone who isn’t my brother, who told me that I could see it if I looked. And I remember the day I showed the Careers I could shoot and my mother was so worked up, so scared, and I thought I did see it. But she didn’t tell me she loved me before I left. Fleeting looks, fingers brushing through my hair, the occasional smile, it’s not something I can hold onto, it’s not tangible proof that she loves me.
“It’s stupid,” I try, but I’m given no relief.
“It’s complicated,” Grover says with a reassuring smile. “I don’t know if my mom loved me. Especially with everything that happened, I mean I don’t know. But I have my aunt and she doesn’t say it, because she’s well, you’ve met her. She’s complicated too. But she shows it. I think that’s how they say it when they can’t say it. You know, once I got in a fight at school, kids were bullying me and she told me what to do, how to hit them where it hurts. And if she didn’t love me I don’t think she would do that. And another time I couldn’t get to sleep, so she stayed up with me and she made me tea and she told me stories about before she was reaped and my mother and no one just stays awake with someone if they don’t love them. I don’t think it’s possible to do that if you don’t care. Not more than just putting up with someone, you know?”
I try to picture things my mother’s done with me. The times she’s come into my room when her nightmares have stopped, when she was sure I was asleep. She’d never say anything, but she’d watch me. And I know she’d end up in my brother’s room more often because he knew what to do. He knew how to care for her when she’d had those nightmares. But I didn’t know what to do so I would just stay in bed, pretending to be asleep. And eventually she stopped watching, but she would, and does, still check in. She taught me to hunt, but I don’t know if that’s love, if that’s anything more than teaching me to be able to survive.
She came for me in the cold back in Twelve. She wouldn’t do that if she didn’t care. But could I call that love? Could I call that anything other than just protecting people? She’s always protecting people. Why would I be any different? But she was so worried about me, so broken. But she loves Bas more, she can love him more. He isn’t the voice of the Capitol. He can see it because it’s true for him. How true can it be for me when I’m the one who caged her?
Maybe she wanted me in the arena. Maybe she’d be happy to finally be rid of me. But that sounds even more ridiculous to me than thinking she could love me. She cares, that much I know. But love? That I can’t decide whether to believe or not.
“This is going to sound weird, but who eats first at dinner?” Beck asks and I’m broken from my mind running circles around all the things my mother’s done.
“Foods like important in Twelve, right?”
“Most people are starving in Twelve so yes.”
“So I’m assuming dinner is like a thing where you all sit and eat together.”
“Most meals actually.”
“Then who eats first?”
I try to picture our dinners. My father passing out the plates but that’s all I can see. I never took the time to notice, always just digging in once I had my plate. It seems so far away when we last ate together, though it was about a week ago when we were in the Capitol.
“I don’t know. My brother and me, I think.”
“And when does your mother eat?” He asks and his voice is steady, so serious that I try to understand the point but I just can’t see it. Then I remember the last time we ate together in Twelve. My mother waited. And it all clicks. She always waits until after my father. Until after the rest of us. She waits.
“And she grew up starving, yes?”
“There’s your answer. She eats last.”
“How is that an answer?”
“Love is putting someone else first, especially someone else’s needs before your own. She eats last.” Beck shrugs like it’s obvious and I see it. I get it. And her coming for me in the cold makes that much more sense rather than just being protective of people.
And it’s the most reassuring thing I’ve ever heard in my life. She eats last. She loves me. And it’s definitive, something I can hold onto. She eats last. And I wish I could look into a camera for her to see me. For her to know I know and that she doesn’t have to say it. Because she’s complicated, like Grover said, and I get it now. And I’m so stupid for not getting it earlier. She eats last. And it’s so important that she does. That even without saying it, she shows it.
I stand there, feeling dumbfounded and struck all at once. She eats last.
More pieces fall into place as I remember the same conversation back in the Capitol, when I had shown the Careers everything I could do. She told me how she gets through the day. How she lives with her choices and I was one of those. And I can’t remember all of the things she said, it feels so long ago now, but I remember that.
She eats last. And it’s something that can’t be taken away, an action that can’t be explained with a different reason. She eats last.
“Let’s keep moving. If this thing doesn’t open up somewhere it’s going to be a pain to backtrack and Bas’ll only get farther away.” Beck turns and the shadows disappear.
I nod, though I barely register the movement, and follow Grover as our line continues through the tunnel.
“Thank you,” I tell the both of them, even taking a moment to ruffle Grover’s hair. He doesn’t turn around but I can tell he’s smiling. How he manages to I’ll never know, but I’m glad he does. I’m glad Johanna was there for him. That he had someone to keep a smile on his face. He has the type of face that needs a smile.
“You don’t know if she loves you.”
I’m vaguely aware of Effie’s hand on my shoulder and eyes turning towards me. And then I feel a shard of something sharp and biting in my chest, like a knife or an arrow piercing me. And I want to die, I want to fall into the Earth and disappear.
“You don’t know if she loves you.”
And it’s true. And I’ve done nothing to make that better. I couldn’t tell her when there was nothing left to lose, when she was leaving, when they were both going. And why is it so much harder with her than it is with my son? Why is telling her so difficult when he has never asked or never needed it said?
Why can’t I say it?
“You don’t know if she loves you.”
And the words bite and freeze like the night we laid out in the cold back in Twelve. When she almost died and I would have gone with her. And yet I couldn’t tell her. And it’s a thought that runs through me over and over. It has since they left.
And I don’t want to hear what comes next. What she says next. And it’s all a humming in my head until Beck mentions dinners back in Twelve.
“She eats last.”
It’s three words I hold onto just as Ivy does. Three words that hold as much weight as the ones I can’t say.
Effie’s grip on my shoulder tightens and loosens. And I finally turn to see the look in her eyes. It’s a mix of emotion, a tight nod, a small smile, but I feel a comfort. A relief that comes with the words and the reassuring squeeze of her hand on my shoulder.
Haymitch forced Peeta to get some sleep an hour ago. I’m glad he’s not here for once, because I don’t want him to hear these words. These words are for me and Ivy and us alone. Even with the Capitol, even with all of Panem hearing it, these words are for us.
“She eats last. She loves you.”
I catch the glance from Johanna and there’s something I could mistake for sympathy in her curt nod. But I don’t know if there’s any sympathy left in Johanna Mason. Even as her fingers twitch and pick at her chair as she watches Grover walk through the tunnel with a focus that puts all other mentors to shame.
“You can take your hand off her, she’s not gonna run anywhere,” Haymitch tells Effie and she pulls her hand away. I give Haymitch a small smile, which he returns. He leans over, “Not that it means anything but I’ve seen you with your girl and your boy, and it doesn’t matter what you don’t say. Anyone could see it.”
“She couldn’t,” I mumble.
“She can now.”
I watch the screens again, at her stunned reaction that I’m sure mirrors mine, and I want to wrap her in my arms, tell her I love her over and over again until she believes it, until all the wasted years without those words are gone.
But I’m stuck in my seat and she’s stuck in the arena and there’s no way to get to her. And the final pieces fall away, all the fear, all the time I’ve spent trying to mend what I broke, trying to save all the lives I’ve since ruined.
“I want them out,” I say and Haymitch nods silently, but he offers nothing else. He has to have something. He cares about my children too. He can’t just sit by while this happens. He has to be doing something.
But he stays quiet and even if I tore down the walls of the arena myself I’m not sure he would ever tell me his plan. If he even has one.
He has to have one.
I catch the slight shake of Finnick’s head, a warning for me to back off, and I listen. There is a plan. I know there is. And the shake, it tells me everything I need. I have to be smart, I have to trust them. I have to wait.
The fog turns into a mist as Bas and Springer stay beside their fire.
Bas digs into his pockets and produces some roots and plants he’s been eating. “Hungry?”
Springer nods and takes some of the roots. He hesitates to eat them.
“They’re not poison,” Bas says, “I wouldn’t do that.”
“Not on purpose,” Springer mutters.
“That was my father. He didn’t know the difference. I do.” Bas shrugs then looks around at nothing in particular, “Sorry dad.” I fight a smile. Peeta isn’t here but I know he’d smile too.
Springer takes a bite of the roots, grimacing but swallowing it down.
“They’re not great, but it’s something.” Bas eats some of his own.
“How much do you have left?” Springer asks.
“That’s it. It’s fine, I can find more.”
“By the river. At the edge. It looks like this.” Bas draws a small image of the root in the dirt by Springer. The older boy watches, scratching his nose as he studies every line Bas puts in the ground.
When he’s finished drawing Springer just nods. “I can find that.” He shifts back to lean against the cement wall holding the bridge up.
“Uh…you’re welcome.” Bas rolls his eyes and shrugs.
“What’s with your kids and politeness? Is that a Peeta thing?” Johanna asks as she passes us in route to find some food of her own at the banquet table.
I glance to the screen with Ivy, Grover, and Beck. They’re still walking, nothing to be concerned with, which is why I assume she picked now to get something to eat.
I shrug. She points from my screen to Bas.
“You two look frighteningly alike when you do that.” She turns away and busies herself in attempting to fill a plate. Though each time she goes to pick from the assortment she puts it back. Eventually she doesn’t take anything and heads back to her seat. She moves her chair closer to her screen, watching Grover like a sentry keeping guard. She hasn’t slept more than a few hours at a time. And each time she’s on the verge of passing out the other mentor from Seven forces himself to sit in her chair. She argues, she always argues, but she goes. Until she’s back less than two hours later with tired eyes and an even more annoyed sneer.
Haymitch heads to the banquet table and picks around in it. He seems to be looking for something but ultimately settles on a piece of bread. When he returns he drops onto the chair beside me, “How long are they gonna walk for?”
“Until they get to the other side,” Finnick says, his red eyes and messy hair making him look just as worn and terrified as the ones in the arena.
Haymitch smirks, “That could almost sound poetic if this turns ugly.”
“Haymitch,” Effie warns and I catch Johanna’s cold stare towards him.
He looks at her raised eyebrows and he relents. “I’m sorry, I’m just restless. Stifling quarters and all that. Maybe I’ll go check in to see if we can get some proper food sent out.” He stands and notices the Peacekeepers stiffen. They’ve been letting us come and go but lately they’ve been getting more and more nervous, like they’re waiting for something. Or waiting for one of us to crack and break down like the man from Ten. They almost pulled him out, but the other mentors kept him inside. They’ve been leaving once a day to get some air but always return to their rooms. They’re always questioned about their whereabouts or sent with an escort. Since the boy from Ten died on the tracks there’s been two additional Peacekeepers added.
Haymitch seems largely unshaken by the increased security and tension, “That is if I’m allowed to do my job. Or are we not allowed to do that anymore?”
“How long will you be gone?” One of the Peacekeeper’s asks.
“I’m not sure, depends on the sponsor. I’ll keep you posted.”
They let him pass without another question.
“I swear it’s like we’re prisoners,” Effie remarks, and it sounds like she’s unaware but a part of me knows better. Knows she’s keeping up appearances because she does know better. She knows that we are trapped here. We are prisoners.
And even when this is all over, I don’t think I’ll be allowed to go home.
“Katniss, the fog’s lifting.” Finnick points towards the screen with Bas.
“You should go,” Springer tells Bas after the fog fades. “Take two steps to the left and walk straight four steps then two to the right, you’ll be okay after that. No traps.”
“Maybe we could be allies,” Bas offers. “I can find something for us to eat. Something more than roots and plants.”
Springer shakes his head. “It’s better without them.”
“For who?” Bas asks.
“Everyone.” Springer picks up a wire and starts to bend and work it into the shapes he wants. “You don’t grieve when someone you don’t know dies. It’s better.”
Bas nods and his mouth forms a thin line on his face. I know he wants to say more, but he stops himself. He takes the two steps to the left and turns back to Springer, who wraps the wire around a piece of metal.
“Good luck,” Bas attempts but Springer ignores him. Or tries to, he stops working for a minute as Bas follows the directions away from the bridge. The river flows beside him as he travels upstream; the mist the fog has become now all but gone.
“Is there a way to tell them to go to the river?” I ask, pointing towards the screen with Ivy and the others.
“We could try to send them something, maybe a message they can figure out, but I don’t think the Gamemakers will allow us to tell them to go there.” Finnick twists his hands around and pulls at his hair, trying to come up with a solution.
I grab the absent space where my wedding ring used to be. It feels odd to have the band missing, the skin lighter where it once resided. And a part of me is almost glad I don’t have to wear it.
Peeta and I never had a toasting. It didn’t feel right given the Capitol glamor and the act that our wedding was. And as time went on it never felt like the right time or the right thing to do.
He brought it up once, after Ivy was born, but I came up with some excuse and he never asked again. Maybe he knew I didn’t really want it. That as long as we were playing these parts, as long as the cameras were always going to be a part of our lives, even if I did love him, something as intimate as a toasting wasn’t right.
If the Games were gone, if I had made different choices, if we hadn’t done our jobs so well, maybe it would have felt right.
“Send them water,” Effie suggests, shifting in her seat, her voice falling into a hush. “They already have some, they’ll realize it isn’t for drinking and they should put it together. Ivy’s smart and from the short time I’ve known your Beck he seems to be capable and resourceful as well. And Grover’s not unintelligent either. Between the three of them someone should get the message.”
She clears her throat and I catch the quiver of her hand again. She’s worried. Her eyes glance to the Peacekeepers and then to the door like she’s waiting for something to happen or for someone to walk in. And I think maybe she’s worried for Haymitch but I can’t be sure. They’re always at odds, always insulting the other or making some remark. I don’t understand why she’d be worried for him. He’s only visiting a sponsor, something she should be happy he’s doing. He hasn’t done so for our other tributes. She should be relieved he’s committed to being a mentor now.
I know I am. He helped me get through my Games, I’m glad he’s helping my children get through theirs.
“That could work,” Finnick says and looks to me for confirmation. I don’t know if water will be enough to let them know, if they’ll automatically think to find a source. I don’t know where the tunnel will let out, if it will let out anywhere. But I don’t have a better idea.
“Maybe fish too,” I add. “As soon as they come out whatever side they’re on.”
Finnick nods. “If we can get that too.”
Effie sighs. “Good. We have a plan.” And she glances back to the door again.
It feels like we’ve been traveling all day. I’m sure we have been traveling all day or at least most of the day. I lean against the walls of the cavern we’ve entered, the dripping water echoing all around. I’m concerned that it isn’t going to open up at the end, that it’s all just an endless darkness that’ll go on and on until we die.
Grover picks up a rock and throws it. It clatters down into the darkness away from the glowing light of the lantern. He does it a few more times and I wonder how anyone could find the time to play around in a dark tunnel, in an arena, in the middle of the Games.
“Let’s go,” Beck says in a huff as he pushes himself off from the boulder he’s been sitting on.
“Why don’t we just rest for a little longer?” Grover asks, brushing rock dust from his hands.
“We don’t have time. And we need to get out of here.” Beck eyes him like a reprimanding parent.
“We’re all tired. But we’ve gotta find a way out.”
“What if there isn’t one?” Grover asks and it’s what we’re all afraid of. How much time have we wasted walking through here? How much more will we waste going back? What if we can’t find the way back? We’ve taken some turns, had to choose some tunnels, what if we’re stuck here?
“Then we turn back around.” Beck starts to move, leaving no more room for argument.
Grover grumbles but follows after him and I do the same. We climb over some rocks and pass through another narrow path.
It opens up and widens. We start to pass cross beams and supports holding it up. And whatever fear I had of the tunnel turning into a dead end is gone. It’s not a tunnel. It’s a mine. And a mine has an exit.
“Look for tracks, or an elevator shaft,” I say. Beck looks around confused. “It’s a mine. That means there’s a way out.”
“Are you sure?” Grover asks.
I nod. “I’m from Twelve. I know mines. Keep walking, we should see something soon.”
We pick up the pace, the hope giving us a second wind. There’s a way out. There has to be.
Then there’s the distinct sound of a crack and the ground shakes. The dripping water turns into a steady stream as the sound fills the chamber.
“What is that?” I ask, though everyone’s in the dark like me. There’s another crack and then a rush of air followed by the sound of a wave. Beck grabs Grover and pushes him in front.
“Go,” Beck spits out as Grover starts running. He pulls me forward and I follow him as we do our best to find an exit.
A wall of water follows us, the mist from it hitting me as I stay ahead. It doesn’t burn, thankfully. It’s just water. Though just water is hardly a relief given the space we’re stuck in.
I keep on the lookout for any light, any promise of escape.
It crashes into us before anyone spots anything. I collide with the wall as the water takes us through the tunnel. I’m pulled under, struggling to find air, when I hit a wall of rock. I swim up the steadily rising tide, finding air and coughing out the water that went up my nose and into my throat. The lantern is out leaving nothing but darkness as I feel around.
It’s all stones fallen in. A collapse. And I have a vague recollection of something like this occurring in the mines of Twelve. The mine caved in, the tunnel took all the rock and coal down with it, killing five miners, including my Uncle Gale. But that memory is wiped as the water rises and I swim to keep my head above it. I hear another person breach the surface and two voices coughing.
“Beck!” I pull myself towards their sounds as a hand grabs me and pulls me closer. I can barely make out the two of them in the darkness.
Grover clings to the rocks as Beck treads water. It’s rising too fast. There’s no way out. It’s over.
A rock falls from Grover’s hands and he splashes into the flood. Beck pulls him upright, keeping him on the rock wall. There’s a small hole where the rock fell and Grover peers through it.
“There’s more tunnel. And I see light!”
“Grab the rocks,” Beck orders. We pull and claw at any rocks we can. They don’t budge and whatever we manage to remove is soon replaced with more gravel and sediment.
I dive under, trying to find the biggest rock, the one that’ll take all the others with it. I locate the large rock, feeling the pebbles loose around it. I try to pry it but it doesn’t move. I push at it, nudging it slightly inwards. But I have to swim back up for air before I can do anything.
“There’s a large rock underneath, if we can kick it loose the rest should move too,” I tell them. We get to work as the water continues to rise.
We work until we need air, which becomes less and less available as the space in the tunnel disappears. We don’t have much time and even as Beck and I push on the rock together, it won’t move.
Grover dives in as we rise up for air and I can’t see what he’s doing, but the wall budges, a few more rocks falling off it. He comes up for air.
“What did you do?” I ask.
“The big rock there’s dirt and stuff and small ones and I just…” he hits a knife against a rock and I get the message. Then he dives.
Beck and I dive too. Pushing on the rock and digging around it as Grover chips away around the smaller ones. For a second there’s hope as the rock groans and moves slightly, but other rocks fill in the spaces and I know it’s over.
We come up for air, an inch of tunnel left. I’m breathing heavily, it’s over. Beck seems to know this too.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
But he doesn’t answer. He pulls at the rocks on top, revealing a small hole of light and breathes in some clean air.
“I can hold my breath longer, give me the knife, maybe I can open a hole with it and my trident,” he offers, looking at the empty space beside him. Grover hasn’t resurfaced yet. We look around for him. Maybe he’s clinging to the rocks away from us.
“Grover,” I say, but he doesn’t answer.
The water fills the tunnel. I take a deep breath, knowing it’s my last. Beck and I dive, trying to find Grover.
I see him first, struggling to kick a rock, losing what’s left of his breath. I grab him, helping him kick. Beck takes the knife, stabbing at whatever space. He digs his trident into the ground, using the back end to provide leverage against the rock. All three of us do our best to make a final, valiant effort to survive.
I’m weak and losing my vision when I notice Grover stops moving. Beck still keeps pushing; a determination to him that I think is useless now. My hand finds his arm, the grip weak, but I have to hold onto someone as the water fills my lungs.
I close my eyes when the hole opens and the rock moves. We fall with the water, crashing through what’s left of the tunnel, out into the cool air.
The first thing I notice when I open my eyes is a sea of white and at first I think I’m dead. But the pounding in my ears as the pressure releases from my head is enough to confirm I’m alive. And I need to figure out where I am. There’s an open valley and white stone all around me. My stomach drops.
I cough up the water in my lungs. And I thought I was done with my lungs burning, guess not. It hurts much worse than when I was dehydrated and exhausted from running. This is a deep ache. Made all the worse by the cold air. I’m shivering and I know I’m going to need my jacket back. Although a wet jacket probably wouldn’t do much to keep the cold out. Still, I’ll need it back and we’ll need to find Grover a jacket of his own.
Beck sputters out the water in his lungs and takes a deep shaking breath. I look back at the mine behind us, the water still leaking out of it. We made it. Once again I’ve managed to escape death. I’m not sure why I’m so lucky, but right now, I’m glad I am. That we all are.
And then I see Grover on the ground, still not moving.
“Grover?” I crawl to him, but he doesn’t stir. Beck moves faster, standing and running to Grover’s side.
He checks his breath and tilts his head back, breathing air into the younger boy’s lungs. He pumps his chest and breathes again.
“Come on,” Beck repeats as he continues the motions. I rise, subtly checking the arrows on my back. Thankfully I didn’t lose any. I pick up Beck’s trident, forgotten as he works on Grover. I know I shouldn’t be concerned about the weapons, but right now, I need to be.
We’re too close to the cornucopia.
I watch Grover. His eyes are shut, his lips blue and the color in his cheeks is gone. And I know it even before the cannon goes off. The smiling boy from Seven is gone. The boy whose hair I just messed with an hour ago, the boy who told me about his aunt, who wasn’t afraid to tell the Capitol that they were responsible for his mother. He’s dead.
And I’m angry. And a part of me hopes that he will wake up, that by some miracle, he will get lucky and survive too. But life doesn’t work that way. And the arena is no place to believe in miracles.
Beck continues to work furiously, his words turning rough, harsh, and broken.
“Don’t do this! Wake up!” He hits Grover’s chest, hard enough to bruise, but the boy doesn’t wake.
Finally, the cannon sounds and Beck screams. And I see the tears start. And I wish I could cry, but only one of us can right now. One of us has to be the strong one.
I see Grover’s glasses to the side, droplets of water on the lenses, fogging them in the cold. My hands shake as I pick them up and wipe them off. I bend down and place them over his eyes, staring at the pale pallor of his skin. I brush the hair from his eyes.
Beck grips my hand as I pull it away from Grover’s face.
“I suggested the tunnel,” he whispers and I shake my head.
“It’s not your fault.” It’s theirs I want to say as the hovercraft descends. And I see the Mockingjay pin still on the jacket. And it’s not the symbol that’s important, it’s who its from. But I don’t want to take the jacket from Grover. I gave it to him, he needs to keep it. Even if I need it more right now as the cold descends and I start to shake.
Beck let’s go of me and I fumble to unhook the pin with an unsteady hand, pocketing it as the hovercraft waits. But Beck doesn’t move. He’s on his knees staring at the boy from Seven, the dust from the rock around us covering his pants, the water dripping from his hair, and he won’t move. He can’t move. His hands twist and circle each other, like he’s missing something.
And I know I need to move him. It isn’t safe here. We need to leave. But my eyes fall on Grover again and I can’t shake the memory of the smiling kid who was bright despite the Capitol and the Games. Who still smiled in spite of it all, who knew he was loved, who was able to joke.
And I think of Johanna back in the Capitol. How they fell in sync as they walked back before the interviews. How she loves him. And I can’t make Beck move. I can’t move.
Then I look up and see the Careers staring at us from the top of the quarry. And I know we have to. They stand like a pack of wolves who have just found a wounded deer. The hungry look in their eyes is all I need to justify what I know is going to happen.
“Beck.” I drop the trident with a clatter. Something in my tone snaps him out of it because he looks up at the top of the quarry too.
He grabs the trident and his grief turns to steel. I can feel the tension and anger rolling off of him in waves. My hands find an arrow and I load it.
I can see a small tree line above the slope of the hill from the quarry. We’re going to have to be fast. We have to survive. We have to kill.
There’s no other choice.
Beck eyes Minnow at the top and his knuckles whiten on the trident.
“Looks like we don’t need you anymore,” Stone says as he brings his machete down onto her neck.
The cannon sounds and her body, or rather what’s left of it, falls into the quarry, followed by her head. And Beck watches, the rage filling his eyes with a fury I’ve never seen before. It scares me, though I’m sure I have the same look. There’s something else taking over though. Whatever trepidation I had about killing August isn’t shared for the Careers. I want to kill them. And that thought scares me more than anything.
“Now,” Stone continues, “Let’s see if you made the right choice, Beck.”
“And if you’re really worth a 12,” Emery directs at me.
Beck and I start running as Cain throws a spear.