As I surge upwards, the light comes down towards me and engulfs me. Blinding, white light. It is all that there is around me and the air is cold. So cold that it stings my skin and sucks the heat out of me. It would have made my teeth start chattering if they had not already been doing so. I am not aware of anything else than this cold and the light. Not at first. And I am fine with it. I could pay this price for not having anything come after, for making time stop right here. It is still all fine.
Spots start to materialize themselves against the light. Gray spots, and darker spots. The sky starts to separate itself from the earth. It is a clear, pale blue, the kind of merciless blue that seems to be saying that it does not give a damned shit about what happens to the beings living beneath it.
I am alone.
Even if I am being watched by more people than have ever seen me before, I am alone. It is a loneliness the like of which I have never felt before. My legs are barely strong enough to keep it up. It squeezes my chest.
In front of me is a large, twisted shape and around it are other people. People like me. Young people. But being young does not matter that much when you know that you will never get to be older.
I still do not really see anything else than the light. I do not want to. I try to keep hold of it. I make my eyes into narrow slits and blur my sight so that everything else gets unclear. Just ominous, dark spots.
The voice echoes straight through the light, piercing it like the blade of a knife, digging right into me.
It starts counting down from ten.
“Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three…”
Please, let it not say two.
Please, let it not say one.
Let it stop right there.
Somewhere a gong is struck.
I do not know anything. I don’t. I do not have a past. I do not have an identity. All I am is a beating heart, lungs that fight for oxygen and feet sinking into snow as they run.
I do not go to the twisted shape, the cornucopia, where weapons and supplies lie and where many of us will meet their end in only a few moments. I turn and run in the other direction, empty handed. I do not escape, no, because there is no escape. Going without weapons and supplies might be my end just as much as going into the eye of the storm in order to get some. I run only to buy myself some time, because a part of me still believes time has any value.
Between my breaths I hear the screams from behind but they are already distant. There is not a living thing in front of me. Not that I can see at least. Just snow, ice and, further off, immense, black cliffs with jagged peaks.
I do not see it until it is almost too late. I manage to come to a stop right before I tumble down into the gap that opens up in front of my feet. It is an icy mouth with icicles at its edges for teeth.
The sound of running steps reaches me. I throw a quick glance back and notice that at least one person is following me. Panic surges through me. I take a few steps back and accelerate towards the mouth. And I jump. I fly for just the time necessary and land right on the edge. The snow under one of my feet gives way and I almost fall in but I manage to keep my balance and get away from the hole. The sound of running steps has stopped. I suppose that the fear of death can push you further than the determination to kill someone. As I turn I see my pursuer. She is standing on the edge of the gap, in her gray tribute clothes meant for dying in. It is so strange to see her wearing those clothes. She holds a knife in one hand. With the other hand she moves away some loose strands of red hair which hang down in front of her face.“This isn’t what we had decided”, she says.
I am silent.
“We were going to keep together. Remember? We were going to fight side by side.”
I look down and shake my head.
“I can’t” I mutter.
“What? You can’t? What is that supposed to mean?”
I raise my head again and look into her eyes which normally are bright green but now are thin, black lines, shielding themselves from all the surrounding light and whiteness. I try to come up with something good to say but my mind will not find anything. No, there is simply nothing good to say. How could I ever explain?
“I can’t” I repeat.
“What do you mean?!” she yells.
I turn and start to walk away. I cannot take this any longer.
The knife lands a few centimeters from me, its blade burying itself into the snow.
“I volunteered to come with you!” I hear Melissa yell. “I didn’t have to but I volunteered! You can’t do this!”
I don’t want to listen anymore. I did not ask her to volunteer. Damn, I would never have done that! How can I explain to her that I cannot stay with her? Because only one will leave this place alive.
I start running again, my feet shuffling through the snow, and Melissa’s words do not reach me any longer.
When my legs get too tired to run I start walking. The landscape is as dessert as before but the cliffs are closer. I wonder if they are the edge of the arena. The sun is on its peak now although it still will not heat the air up by much. The effort has made me warm but my breath is still a cloud in front of my mouth and I know that I will get cold again once I stop. My clothes are also sweaty now, so the cooling down will be quick. The chances of surviving the night are small for me. I scoop up handfuls of snow and eat them, in order to still my growing thirst. My mind is still blank. I cannot think of much except of continuing forward. I often stop shortly and look over my shoulder, to make sure nobody is there. I listen but I only hear the whistle of the wind past the peaks of the cliffs and occasional rumbling sounds, like distant thunder, which I think originate from the ice masses. The arena this year must be the coldest and most hostile one that has ever been created. It fits the theme this year very well. This year, the 25th, we tributes have not been randomly selected as we usually are. This year we have been chosen, consciously abandoned by our own districts and the people who knew us. There is no warmth in this world left for us.
The ground is sloping more and more down towards the cliffs. The cliffs are as dark and ominous as death itself. They are steep and perpendicular, with drops which must be a few hundred meters. I imagine myself falling down one of those precipices, still alive as I fall but aware of being hopeless. That is exactly what the Hunger Games are like.
There appears to be a gap in the cliffs, right in front of me. I still cannot see what is beyond it because it does not go straight out from where I am now. It takes a while more before I reach it. Distances towards towering cliffs like that are always larger than they appear. I know this because my district is in the mountains. As a kid I was always surprised by how much further away things were than what they looked like. I would set out on hikes, enthusiastic and determined to reach one peak or another. After much walking and climbing I would find that the peak had still, barely, got any closer.
Eventually I do reach the gap though. As I turn the corner I have to stop for a moment. For a moment I am just not able to move. It is so wonderful. So unexpectedly magnificent! I can see the glacier stretch down between the cliffs and continue past them in a long, glittering tongue. Where it ends are small, blue lakes. Towards the horizon, as far as I see, are mountain peaks. They appear to be taller than the ones where I lived. Some of the peaks are snow covered and I even see some other glaciers. The further away the mountains are, the bluer they seem. Forests are growing in the valleys. That is where I have to go, if it is still within the arena. Of course it will not be free from dangers but I know that I will not be alive to see the next sunrise if I stay on the glacier. There is almost no doubt about that. If there is somewhere where I have a chance of surviving a little longer then it is further down. It will be warm and nice down there and I might find food as well. My stomach is rumbling. It is funny how my body keeps asking for such things as food, water and heat even though it will soon be dead and cold. Nothing will be of any use to it then.
I start making my way down, between the rock faces. Although the passage between them is very broad, the cliffs which close in on both sides make me feel trapped. As I look up at them I see large rocks which look as if they might break loose and tumble down at any instant. I hope that I am far enough, if they do fall. Would they immediately punch holes in the ice, upon hitting it, and get swallowed up by the glacier? Or would they be able to roll along the surface, all the way to where I am? I have always had respect for the mountains. Where I am from we learn that, early on. We joke that when a child is born, in our district, it can already name at least five ways in which the mountains can take a human life. As it grows up it will learn many more. There were accidents with deathly outcomes each year, I think.
And I am still learning.
The snow disintegrates below my feet.
I only have the time to throw my arms out. Before I even realize what has happened I find myself half swallowed by a hole. My feet are dangling in the void but my head and arms are still over the edge. First, I am too shocked to do anything at all. I just hang there, afraid to even breathe, as if that could make more snow break loose from the edge. Then, when nothing more happens, I slowly try to pull myself up. I am stuck. I cannot get out. I start to fight harder. I pull with my arms and kick with my feet. After a while my feet find holds and can push me up. Finally I start to get somewhere. I pull one knee over the edge, then the other. I am out! I’ve made it! I crawl away from the hole on all four and collapse on the snow. My whole body is shaking, from head to toes.
I do not want to be here! I do not! I don’t want to die! The anguish squeezes my chest and draws all heat out of me. I wish a miracle could happen that took me out of this place. Something! Anything! Through the years I have witnessed countless tributes die since it is obligatory to watch the games on the screens. Now their deaths flash past in front of my inner eye. Cruel, gruesome deaths. Each year all the youths which are sent to the arena die except for one. There was never an exception. There were never miracles. Nobody will save me. That was clear already as they abandoned me. Nobody even really cares about my death. Except for Melissa, maybe, if she can forgive me.
If I want to have a chance I must get up. I must try to save myself. I stand on shaking legs. I barely dare to take a step, afraid that more cracks might lurk under the snow. But I must move. I cannot stay here, so I take one careful step at a time.
It was not completely unexpected that my district would choose me as tribute. To start with I did not have a family. I did not have brothers or sisters and my mother died of some sickness when I was three or two. My father could not stand it to stay in the house where they had lived together. He was a peacekeeper officer and when he got an offer to work in another district, he took it immediately. Within a short time he was gone as well. I was left in the care of my grandpa but he only lived until I was eleven. Then I had nobody. And I was always rather quiet, because I am no good at talking, so I did not really have many friends. Well, until I was twelve I had a few. Then I started to lose contact with them, one after another. As I was chosen, three years later, I do not think that I had many left. Probably only Melissa. When they called my name, on the reaping, I realized that not all people are equally worth. When a loved person, a person with family and friends, gets taken away to the games then everybody grieves them. As they watch them fight on the screens they want them to win. These loved people deserve to win, they think, because they would leave too much emptiness and sadness behind if they were gone from this world. As to me: nobody would even remember the quiet and skinny boy with the short, black hair and childish face, who lived alone and who nobody really liked.
The moment when I was reaped is still so vivid in my mind. Everything got quiet. I could feel it. In the moment before it happened I could already feel it coming. Then, in the silence, my name was called. It was like falling. It was like being pushed down one of those cliffs that surround me now. My mind refused to take it in and accept it but at the same time it still was so painfully real so that I doubt anything had ever felt as real before. It was as if everything else - my life until then, my dreams for the future - suddenly were nothing more than lies. I could not move. The peacekeepers had to come and get me. They seized my arms and pushed me to the podium. A girl was already standing there but I did not know her. I guess that she was as unimportant and unloved as me. I did not even take a closer look at her. I just looked down.
Then I heard Melissa’s voice.
“I volunteer”, she said. She sounded self confident. The trembling of her voice was barely audible.
I looked up and saw the crowd part and clear a path for her. She did not look at me. She just kept staring straight ahead as she walked. Still I knew that she was doing it because of me. I wanted to yell at her to stay back, to change her mind. But I could not. And it got too late. The peacekeepers were already seizing her and the other girl was being pushed down from the podium. She stumbled a little as they pushed her, then she started running and disappeared in the crowd. Oh, I couldn’t help but cowardly wishing that someone would volunteer to take my place! People actually volunteered more and more often, all since our district had started to train and prepare its youths for the Hunger Games. Technically it is illegal to prepare, but our district has always been one of the Capitol’s favorite ones. So they close an eye to it.
This year, there was no male volunteer from district two.
The mountain is so desolate around me. I wonder who is watching me now. Although I cannot see them, there are cameras all around me. They are hidden in the cliffs and crevices in the ice. Maybe even in the sky, what do I know? They see me but I cannot see a single one of them. Wherever I look, there is nothing to indicate that this is an arena. These mountains existed long before the Hunger Games. They must have existed for billions of years. To them, this is just a short little episode, which takes place in an insignificant fraction of time. They must have seen more lives end than can be counted. They seem so eternal. They almost smell of eternity.
Melissa. For the first few days after we got reaped I could not even talk to her. Not even look at her, to tell the truth. Until she had raised her voice, there in the silent crowd, I had still nurtured a foolish hope to win the games. But now winning means her death.
Up on the sky, the sun is moving steadily towards the horizon but I am also closer to the edge of the glacier. I have passed the cliffs, at least. They look even higher and more ominous from here. The slope of the glacier is getting a bit steeper. There are more cracks in the ice. Some are even broader than the one which I jumped over earlier. I lose valuable time walking around them but I do not have enough courage to try jumping again. Even after I have passed the visible cracks I keep walking extra carefully, in case there are more cracks hidden under the snow. I have the impression that the surface of the glacier is getting more and more slippery. The boots we have been given have rough soles but they would need spikes in order to get a good grip. My feet slide away from under me. I land on my butt and slide a few meters before I can come to a stop. I get up, take a few steps and then I lose my balance again. This time I almost slide straight into a crack. I stop only a meter, or so, from it. I do not dare to stand up again, here, and instead I move sideways on my butt, digging my heels into the glacier to secure myself from sliding further. I must look ridiculous to everyone watching me on the screens, in their safe and warm homes. I can almost hear their laughs. Still I keep going like this until I am far away from the gaping ice mouth. Only then do I get up carefully.
The last part to the left edge of the glacier tongue is the one that goes the slowest. In the end I slip once more and slide right off it. I land hard on stones. My whole body is aching from bruises and tiredness but it does not matter. I need to keep going. I continue along the edge of the glacier, balancing on heaps of loose stones. I can speed up a bit here but still the terrain does not allow for running. It would be very easy to twist a foot and a twisted foot could make all the difference between life and death in this place. I finally arrive to a stretch of good, solid rocks. There are many really nice feelings. Still I do not think anything has ever felt as nice as finally having something solid and reliable under my feet. At last I am free! A little more free at least. I proceed with new energy and even run at times.
The echo of a far away yell reaches me.
I freeze and listen. There it is again. Alarmed, I try to identify its origin.
I move to a large rock and kneel down behind it, peeking over the edge. Say, they can't have seen me from there? They can't, right? They are too far away. Let them not have seen me! Further up, under the tall cliffs, on an ice-free slope covered with loose stones, three figures are moving. They are too far away to be able to tell who they are but from the yells I would say that one is a girl and the other two are guys. I see that one carries a spear and one something that looks like a pick. One seems to be unarmed and somewhat in front of the other two. But the others are closing up. They get closer and closer. Now they are there. They dive on their prey like wolves. The yells intensify, bouncing between the cliffs and echoing over the glacier. The hunted does not defend him or herself for long. He or she drops to the ground, curls up and disappears from view behind the others. They keep hitting and slashing with their weapons for a while, as if to make sure that their victim is really dead. In the end one stands up while the other one kneels down, probably to search the dead one’s clothes. Afterward they both stand there a little, without doing anything as far as I can see. Before they leave one leans forward and seems to vomit.
I wonder how they always made it all look like exciting action on the screens.
I stay behind my cover while I make sure that the two go in another direction. They disappear behind a cliff and I cannot see them any longer. I leave my hiding place and continue my journey towards the valley, moving as fast as I can.
I hear rumbling from behind. It is not that strong to begin with but then, before I have even finished turning around to see what is going on, it has grown in strength. It is loud as thunder. I know it. Last year five people were killed by one single rockfall in my district and the echoes from the shattering rocks reached all the way to my home, many kilometers away. Even then it made me want to curl up in a corner.
I see the rocks break loose from the cliffs. Some of them must be as large as an average house from my district. They break loose and fall through the air, unstoppable. The violence of their impacts with the ground send shivers through the mountain. I am able to feel them where I am standing, through the soles of my boots. It is a wonder if the two I just saw are able to survive this. They were right there.
I turn towards the valley again. There is no time to lose. From behind I keep hearing the thunder. Then the sound starts to become weaker again, growing fainter and fainter until it is just an occasional, deep, echoing bang from the last few rocks hitting the ground.
I am starting to feel ill. My stomach is not alright. No, it does not feel alright at all. But who would feel alright, finding themselves in all this shit?
The ground suddenly drops steeply. It is not completely perpendicular, like the precipices of the cliffs behind me, but if I do a mistake here I can still rest assured that it will cost me dear. Although the drop must be of around twenty meters, it gives the impression of much more because the mountain continues to slope downwards beyond it. It feels like standing directly above the grass-covered land further down. I look for the best place to climb. A bit to my right there are plenty of cracks and rock shelves. Perfect. I go there, turn and kneel down next to the border. I slowly push my legs into the void and start lowering myself. I lower myself more and more and still my feet will not touch anything. In the end I am hanging with only my hands on the edge. What if I am wrong? What if I miss the rock shelf? My hands start to slip and for a moment I feel pure panic rush through my veins. Then my feet finally touch the surface. I have to take a break there and I stand panting for a while. If I ever survive this hell I will have exhausted all my body’s resources of adrenaline. Nothing will ever scare me or excite me again.
Ok, the break is over. I continue downwards in much the same fashion. I see images in front of me of all the tributes who have fallen to their deaths, in previous games. I remember six. No, seven actually. One, the first one I think, lost her mind a few days into the games. It all drove her mad and finally she jumped. I remember that the commentators made great fun of it. They kept replaying the scene, showing how she plummeted through the air and finally crashed and shattered her body against the rocks below. They added a splashing noise to the end in order to make it even more funny. I was around five years old and could not understand it. I kept asking grandpa why she had done it. Now I look over my shoulder, at the ground far below. It would be so easy to just take a step back. Just an irreversible step back and everything would be over. No more fear, no more anguish. So, so easy. Maybe it would be the only sane thing to do. I turn and face the emptiness.
I know that I cannot do it. Not yet. Part of me still refuses to accept my own mortality, even confronted with all the evidence.
I am not very good at climbing. I used to climb trees and cliffs, like every other kid, until I was around nine. Then, one day, my grandpa made me stop. He scolded me and told me that if I kept climbing the Capitol people would make me go to the Hunger Games. The Games. Grandpa always used them as a means to scare me into being a good kid. Terrified, I accepted to do as he told me.
Grandpa, I suppose it is ok to climb now?
The rock is rough and cool against the palms of my hands. It is older than I would be able to comprehend. It has seen more years than I have seen seconds. It has seen the continents move, it has seen immense forces shape the world and living beings come and go like streaming water. It is both safety and danger, both protector and killer. Mountains are like the stony souls of nature, protruding through all the soft green that covers the rest of the ground, showing what it all really is like. Nature is beautiful, kind but also merciless and life is necessarily a fight against the elements. All this is so visible and clear when observing the mountains.
The ground becomes more and more horizontal and I can stop using my hands to help myself proceed.
There starts to be some plants, sprouting forth from crevices in the rocks: grass and even some flowers. I am almost at the edge of the glacier now. The ground ends in a series of steep precipices leading all the way down to the fields. Following the edge of the glacier, however, is a ridge made of the rocks and sand left behind by the retreating ice masses. I balance along its top. The view from it is wonderful. If this was another time I would have liked to sit down here and just look at everything around me forever. I can see far in all directions. I assume this means that others can see me pretty easily too. Not good. Not good at all. I start running again. My legs are aching, especially my knees. The constant downwards slope has put them under a lot of stress. At my side the glacier has ended. Where it ends is a clear, blue and glittering lake. As I arrive to the end of the ridge the ground is alive, covered in short green grass that grows on sandy earth and gravel. There are even more and more flowers. Wild, mountain flowers are probably the most beautiful. Their stalks look so tough, each day of their existence being a challenge. And then, at the top, is such a startling explosion of bright colors!
I become aware of a sound that has been growing louder and louder over the past hour. I must be getting closer to a water stream. The sun is low now. I would say that in just about two hours it will be gone behind one of the glacier peaks. I need to get much further down before that happens. I hope that the remaining stretch to walk will be quicker than the last. Seems to be pretty straight forward now. No glacier and hopefully no precipices. The mountains look even more ominous as it gets darker. It is so quiet. Just the sound of the wind and that of water. Even before the Hunger Games people must have felt small and vulnerable, as they walked here.
My stomach is feeling worse and worse. What is the cause of it? I have not eaten anything since I entered the arena so I cannot have been poisoned already, can I? Is hunger the cause? But that cannot explain why I almost feel like vomiting now. And I do not feel particularly hungry. Actually, the thought of eating repulses me.
The sound of rushing water is loud now, deafening. As my path leads me up on a tiny bulge in the terrain, I see an icy blue river flowing across the grasslands. It runs violently as if intending to smash through any obstacles in its way. A smaller rivulet crosses my path, further down, to join with it.
When I reach it I do not immediately look for a path across it. First I kneel down on a flat boulder by the stream and scoop up water in my hands to drink. I have not been getting any fluids for the whole day, except for the snow which I ate in the beginning.
I have a vague memory of being told not to eat snow, as a kid. It could be dirty and also the crystals could cause stomach upsets. Now it is too late. Of course my brain has to remember the warning now. Of course! Thanks brain.
I have just swallowed the water as my stomach rebels. It turns itself inside out. At least that is what it feels like. I stand on hands and knees and vomit my soul. All the last food that I had left in my stomach, to give me energy, is gone. My legs and whole body feel too weak to ever be able to stand straight again. This is not a good start in The Games.
Vitus, it is time to face the truth! You won’t make it. You won’t survive. Like this you won’t live a day more. Look at you! You’ve always been a pathetic piece of shit. That’s why you’re here to begin with.
I am scared. So damn scared.
In just a short time I will not be alive anymore. I will not exist. Just emptiness. Incomprehensible emptiness. It is really going to happen! It is as if I have looked over the edge of a chasm and am staring down into an immense, dark precipice. The anguish is so overpowering that I barely can keep myself from screaming straight out.
The sun sinks below the mountain. The shadows slowly start to drain the world of color. If I could only make it to the forest... It is not far away. I am so vulnerable here.
Somehow I manage to force myself up on my feet again. I was planning to cross the stream by jumping from boulder to boulder but I have not got the energy to do that so instead I just walk straight out into the water. It is rather shallow but some water still gets into my boots, making my socks wet and cold.
When I arrive to the first trees it is already too dark to see far into the forest. The smell of tree needles fills my nostrils. I bring an arm up to protect my face from the low spruce branches and walk towards the sound of the river. The trees open up again and I can see the dark, shifting shadows of the rushing water. I stand still in its deafening noise for a while. It is a sound that drenches all the other sounds of the world. I listen to it, let myself disappear in it.
I kneel down and scoop up some mud and then smear it over my face, neck and hands. Like this I will be a bit harder to spot. Then I take two rocks and smash one onto the other, hoping to get some sharp pieces to use as a weapon. All I get are a few shards, not larger than my fingernails. I pick them up, none the less, and put them in my pocket. I also take one of the stones. At least it is better than nothing. If someone comes my way I could maybe smash their head with this. But, probably, I am too weak for that right now. Maybe I should have taken Melissa’s knife, the one she threw at me…
I still do not feel well. When I go to the “toilet” I discover that I have diarrhea. Also that caused by the snow, I suppose.
I make my way between some closely-growing bushes and sink down with my back against a spruce tree. The undergrowth that covers the ground creaks under my weight.
This is it for today. Congratulations Vitus! You somehow survived the first day!
The trees around me are already nothing more than darker shadows against a dark background. The sound of the river is not that loud anymore and if someone comes I will be able to hear their steps on the underbrush before they can surprise me. As long as I do not fall into a deep sleep, that is. But I doubt that I will.
The canons start to fire.
In my district there are several training grounds for peacekeepers. Once I happened to be nearby one as there was an exercise. I could hear the echoes from the grenades filling the air like sudden thunder, both ear-piercing sharp and rumbling deep. It was a sinister sound that reverberated through the ground. I remember that it struck me as the most sinister sound that I had ever heard, even more sinister than the noise from the rockfall.
Now I know that the canons are worse.
Tomorrow and all other days, until only one person is left, they will fire at each death. Today they wait until the evening because too many lost their lives in one go.
All in all I hear nine shots. Nine people dead. I remember them as I saw them at the training, at the interviews and in the hovercraft on their way here with me. As alive as I am.
When the canons stop firing it is quiet for a little. Then the anthem of Panem starts playing out of the sky. The melody, which normally is so happy and pompous, resounds melancholic over the dark and quiet mountain. The sky lights up and there are the faces of the dead, floating in the air over the living, bright like stars! The faces and district numbers of the dead are projected, one at a time, on an invisible screen that is so large that the images are visible from the whole arena. I see the girl and boy from district three, the girl from district four, the boy from five, the boy from six, the girl from nine, both from ten and finally the girl from twelve. The anthem plays once more. Then the light and the music fade and the darkness and the silence once more reign.
So Melissa is alive.
I wonder where she is. Alone under a tree like me? Together with some other allies? Is she crying? Is she still angry? Probably. All we had talked about, dreamed about and believed is meaningless now. We were going to fight side by side, were we not? One day we were going to be peacekeepers, us two. We were going to defend order so that history would never more repeat itself. If necessary we would even give our lives but we would do so side by side.
All of that is gone.
I guess, in a way, I will still die for the greater good here.
To tell the truth, I have never been sure of what to think about the Hunger Games. Yes, I know that they are necessary. It is of utter importance that fools in the districts are reminded of how meaningless it would be to start another war and that another war would mean millions of deaths like the previous did. What are 24 tributes a year compared to that? It is necessary to keep the wound bleeding just so much that they cannot forget the pain. But I cannot help but feel disgusted at how the Capitol makes the Games into some kind of entertainment and how detached they are from the real suffering it causes. During our stay in the big city there were so many people that seemed to be such idiots, a lot of rich people who had stopped caring about anything important. To them all of this is just for fun. Maybe I just feel like I do because I am from the districts myself after all, I don’t know. Another thing that makes me uncomfortable with The Games is that killing off a bunch of young people, each year, is such a waste of potential. We could grow up to do things. Me and Melissa, for an instance, we were going to be peacekeepers and serve the Capitol loyally. And I cannot forget Valerius. He was amazing. He could build useful stuff out of anything. He had a mind that, if confronted with a problem, would immediately find some smart and innovative invention that would solve it. Then his name was called at the reaping and he died within the first few minutes of the Games.
Again the thought of what awaits me fills me with a terror that threatens to choke me. I can feel my heart beat so alive, my heart that a blade soon might pierce. My body, that now moves so smoothly at my command, will be cut to pieces and rot away.
And there will be nothing more.
Above the trees the sky is sprinkled with stars. They are so many so that it looks as if someone has thrown heaps of sand at it. The universe is immense. Just like the mountains it cares nothing about what happens to me. From time to time I see shooting stars as short lines of light which appear and then are gone, never to be seen again. Maybe each of them represents a human life.
It is so cold. My body is starting to shake worse and worse and my teeth are chattering again. I try to pull my hands further in into my sleeves but they are quickly turning ice cold, just like my feet which are still humid from when I crossed the stream. I must get up and move. Each motion I do causes plants and twigs to creak. The sound is so tremendously loud against the silence. Someone will hear me for sure! For sure! I listen. As I listen really carefully I can hear that the forest is full of faint sounds: clicking sounds, rustling sounds, swooshing sounds. I jump at each one that is a bit louder than the others. They could be caused by animals or by twigs falling from the trees. But they could also be caused by other tributes on the hunt or by hideous Capitol-created predators. Each time I hear a sound like that I feel chills run down my back and expect to feel a knife suddenly sink in between my shoulder blades. I keep spinning around and throwing glances over my shoulders like a maniac. The forest is so lonesome. I know that even now I might be on camera but that cannot chase the feeling of absolute loneliness and helplessness. I can barely distinguish anything at all. The forest around me is slightly more than compact darkness. Only slightly different nuances of pitch black. Still I feel it around me as a presence. Yes, a watchful presence from the trees themselves and from the concealed threats that might jump at me in any second. Minute after minute drags on. Time flows as slowly as some dense syrup tonight.
Light eventually starts to come back. The contours of the trees slowly become more and more distinct. After a while I realize that I can distinguish details on the ground and that the world is regaining its color. A lonesome canon resounds. Someone did not make it till dawn.
When the first rays of the rising sun drench the forest in golden light it has already been rather clear for a while. I have the impression that, although the slow passing of time here, the sun is actually rising earlier than it uses to where I lived. In the chilly air my breath is a glittering cloud in front of my mouth. Now the cameras will be on us. The screens will show each tribute so that people can see how we are doing. I look straight ahead and force a smile.
“Good morning Panem!” I say quietly.
I head back to the river. Each step I take is tremendously heavy. I feel drained of all energy.
Before leaving the concealing shadow under the trees I stand hidden behind the last bushes and observe the river. I want to make sure nobody else is there. It is likely that other people have reached the valley by now. However everything is calm and still. Only the rushing water moves, raising clouds of droplets in the air which seem golden and phosphorescent in the light of the rising sun. I wash my hands and face with the ice cold water and drink as well. Then I apply new mud to my skin. I do not like the feeling of it but it is necessary. I wonder what the people watching me are thinking. I turn towards the forest because I assume that there must be cameras hidden amongst the branches of the trees. I smile and wave.
“Hello Panem!” I say, only as loud as I think the hidden microphones will be able to register over the roaring river. “This miraculous clay will do wonders to your skin! It will erase your wrinkles and make your face smooth as a baby’s butt!”
I even throw a kiss in direction of the trees. I feel utterly stupid. After all, I am not one of those people who find it natural to joke. I only learned to act for the cameras upon arriving to the Capitol, where we were prepared and interviewed before being sent to the arena. If people like you then you might get sponsors. If your get sponsors you might get supplies sent to you. If you have supplies then you have a better chance of surviving.