I decide to build a shelter. I will have to sleep eventually so I'd better try to find a way of staying warm. Sneaking around carefully, trying to be as silent as possible, I search for the things which I will need. There are enough dead, but not rotten, long tree branches on the ground, so I will not need to cut down any more. Good. Without a knife it would have been hard. I carry everything back to the place where I spent this night and then go and gather spruce branches. I do not need anything to cut those. I only need short ones, which I can pull off with my hands. I wish I had gloves, though, because the needles sting my hands bloody. No matter where I go, I always keep my stone with me. If I need to use both my hands I put it down, temporarily, and as soon as I am done I pick it up again. Now I have everything I need. Except for rope. Where can I find that? I go through the things that they taught us in training and try to find something useful. Spruce roots! That is something I can use. To get those I would need to dig a hole.
Suddenly I have an idea.
I go closer to the river and look for a good place. I find an animal path that weaves through the forest and leads to a calm section of the river. I start digging my hole right there, in the middle of it, with the help of my stone. I often have to stop and rest, for a while, before continuing. When was the last time I ate? It must have been before the games started. When I think of the previous day it already feels like ages ago. It is hard to believe that just a few hours have passed. The vomiting, the exertion and the fear, during those hours, have drained my energy reserves. I never knew what it meant to be hungry before. Sure, I have felt my stomach rumbling many times but I have never been hungry for real. I never knew that it made your legs feel so heavy, that it made your whole body move in slow motion, that it made the least movement so damn much harder! It is not even the longing for food and the empty feeling in my stomach that are the worst anymore. I feel like some helpless toy that is running out of battery. In my district we always had enough food for everybody. That is not how it is in most other districts. Rumors say that many starve to death each year and, seeing the carved out cheeks and the hollow eyes of some of the other tributes, I do not doubt it a second. The Capitol has its way of punishing rebels. I wonder how those tributes are dealing with the situation that we are in. Since they are used to it, this must be easier for them.
It takes a long time before I have gathered enough roots but eventually I have what I think that I will need. I go back to my other materials and start building. I use the long branches to create a skeleton for the shelter, against the tree. Then I use the spruce branches to build the roof and to do an isolating mat inside it. I pick some branches form the bushes close by and use them to camouflage my creation a bit better. When I am done I step back and inspect it from further off. It is hard to spot so I am happy with it.
I take the remaining roots and use them to build small traps for animals. They showed us how to do this at training but I have forgotten so it takes a while before I manage to get it right. I have to build a loop attached to the tip of a sapling, a tree branch or something else of that sort. Then I have to keep it down by doing a notch in it and put a stick with another notch in the ground and make them interlock. To make the whole thing worse I do not even know if it will work with roots instead of rope. I am almost on the point of giving up when I finally succeed. I do some more traps, each above the small animal paths which I find and one on a low branch. If I am lucky I might catch some squirrel, although I have not seen any yet.
When I am done I go back to the hole. I resume digging. It goes so incredibly slowly. The ground is full of rocks too which make the whole thing even worse. Not even the frequent breaks are enough to make it possible for me to keep going for much longer. I go back to my shelter. I sit down by the tree and use one of the shards I made yesterday to sharpen the tip of a stick into a point.
It is already getting darker. It has been a calm day. The spectators from the Capitol will start to get bored if nothing happens and the game makers could pull some trick in order to get things exciting again. But as long as they see that I am up to something they might leave me alone for a while.
I wonder where the cameras are. I get up and look for them. I examine the trunks of the trees and the bushes around me but I cannot find any. How do they do it? How can they hide them so well? If I had not known this was an arena I might as well have thought that I was alone in wilderness. What is there to suggest that this is such horrible place? What is there to say that we have to kill each other?
And still we have to.
Will I be able to do it? To kill someone? I wanted to be peacekeeper and I always told myself that I could have done it if it had been necessary. But then it would have been for a reason other than that I just valued my own life over that of others. Really, living or dying here does not make that much of a difference. The one is not more right than the other. But I care too much about my own life to only let go of it like that, without a reason. I suppose I will kill, if I get the chance. I think we have a demon inside us. Humans had to develop this, in order to be able to hunt for meat and fight for survival. It allows us to be peaceful and respect life but then switch to brutal killers, still keeping that other side of us intact. I think I can let that demon loose, if it comes to it.
It is dark again. The anthem plays from the sky but there is only the face of the girl who died this morning to show tonight. Still not Melissa. I creep inside my shelter and curl up into a ball. I lay and listen to the sounds from the forest for a while but eventually I drift off into sleep and only wake up some time later, when the cold of the night has managed to conquer my little den.
It is clear that finding food has to become my priority. As I walk around and check my snares I find that they are still all empty. I have to find other food sources. There is no point in sitting around and waiting for something to get caught. I could have starved to death already, by then. The problem is that I remember almost nothing of the things we learned about edible plants. At training they told us a lot of names which meant nothing to me and showed us some pictures which I already knew would not help me the least in identifying the plants, once in the arena. Pine needles and spruce shoots I remember though. I already knew, since a long time ago, that they could be used to make some kind of tea. Unfortunately I have nothing for heating the water and not even something to store the water in. Still, I pick a few spruce shoots and put them in my mouth. They taste like a mixture of lemon, snot and something bitter. Not very appetizing even in my starving condition. I look for insects. I remember they said that ant eggs were a good source of nourishment. I remember that because, back then, it seemed so gross. I do not find any ants though but I do find a few spiders. I have no idea if they are good source of nourishment but it is either them or starving to death somewhat quicker. Good thing that I have never been arachnophobic. I pick five from their webs and swallow them before going back to my shelter where I sink down against the tree. I am so weak. If I do not get any real food soon I am lost. I wonder if it is a good death to die of hunger. I could just sit here, slowly getting weaker and weaker until I slip away into the void. The cold would probably take me first. As I got weaker I would no longer be able to fight it. However I doubt that they would let me die that slowly. The audience wants action. So they would probably send something to kill me in a more brutal and bloody way before I could get away so easily. They would hunt me down, in my weak state, and I would not have a chance of escaping. But what can I do? I have already done what I can.
I run a hand through my short hair. It is all greasy and dirty. Really disgusting. I cannot be a nice view to behold for the people watching me on their screens, all dirty as I am. Good thing that they cannot smell me.
I should keep digging. That is something I can do, at least. I stagger to my feet and slowly make my way back to the hole. I dig slowly but I keep working for a good part of the day. At some point the canon fires. Twice.
When the shadows envelop the forest once again I stop my work and stand there panting for a while. The forest is so still around me. How I wish that there was someone to talk with. Anyone. I guess that I could speak straight out and people would listen. If no one else, then at least those in charge of monitoring us around the clock. They would have to. I could force them to take part of my story. I would become an individual and not be just a tribute anymore. How could they see me that way if they knew me? If they really knew me? Nobody really knows me. And I will die unknown because I am not the one that is good at talking about such things with others. And besides I cannot do it here because another tribute might hear me and come for me. Nobody will know my dreams, my fears, my favorite food, what I was scared of as a child and all the funny moments with Melissa when we would laugh till our stomachs hurt and we felt immortal. Nobody will know how good it was to be alive those days when we played with the neighbor kids, when we played war in the grove behind our houses. The neighbors were the rebels and me and Melissa, we were the peacekeepers of course. We would build shelters and fortifications and then hunt each other down, destroy each others’ fortifications and shoot each other with the sticks that were our rifles. “You’re dead!” we would shout but nobody would ever accept being dead so we would answer with a “No, I’m not! I shot you first!” and sometimes fights would break out. But it was all game and in the evening we would go home and forget all about it, already looking forward to the next day. On the way back, as the moon already made its appearance on the pale sky, I would say to Melissa:
“When I grow up I will be a peacekeeper for real, you know. Like my dad.”
And she would answer:
“Me too. We’ll be peacekeepers together.”
And I would say:
“And we’ll go to war together and fight side by side.”
Back then it felt like that really was the way things would turn out. We had all our future planned out. It felt good. It felt like a big thing. Melissa’s parents were not so happy about it however. They said I had put bad ideas in her head, that I was a bad influence.
I make it back to my shelter before the anthem starts playing. Above me the sky lights up with the faces of the dead. Melissa is not amongst them this day either, the rest does not matter.
There is a squirrel in one of the traps, the one on the branch. It is hanging dead with its neck broken, all limp, with the long tail almost touching the ground and huge black eyes that stare unblinking at me as I struggle to get it loose. I rub my own eyes with the palm of my hands, trying to clear them of the tiredness. I did not get much sleep this night either. The hands come away muddy from the newly applied layer of camouflage. Oh, I had forgotten about it. I guess I look like some panda with reversed colors now.
I finally get the squirrel free from the trap. My first pray. I have captured something! I have managed to procure meat on my own, in the wild! I hold it in both my hands. Its body is already quite cold. It does not look like food. It just looks like a dead animal, not something you would eat. I thought that hunger would make you want to eat anything but I do not feel any particular appetite when looking at the thing in my hands. All the meat that I have ever eaten has been meat that was already cut up. I need to skin the squirrel and gut it. Then I need to find a way of heating the meat. Damn! I had not been thinking of that. I do not have any matches or lighter or fire steel or anything at all. I have to try and make a fire with sticks or stones. We got to try it at the training but I did not get the methods to work properly then. I have to make it work, somehow, even if it should take me a bit of time because I do not want to take any more risks and eat it raw. What if I end up like after eating the snow or even worse? I will do it later. First, I must keep working on the hole. It has been taking me too long already and I need to get it done. I eat two more spiders and some insect. Then I put the dead squirrel in a pocket and set off towards the hole. Each step is ten times as heavy as it used to be. Just standing up straight is a challenge. I feel like an old man and it is hard to concentrate on anything else than the pain in my stomach and on how heavy and tiring everything is. The fear and the hunger have grown together. It is hard to distinguish them. They have become this dull sense of helplessness and anguish. I would like to lay down where I am and stop struggling. Why struggle when it is pointless? It would be easier to just lie down. I can feel it, how soft the shrubs would be against my back while the sun shone down bright between the trees and I would know that it was all over. I lift my eyes to the sky. It is an intense and serene kind of blue. There is something small floating around on it, however. It glistens a bit as it catches a sunbeam. I blink a few times. The thing is growing. It seems like it is getting closer. Could it be… My heart rate increases as if someone suddenly had given me an adrenaline injection. That shape… What else could it be? It is a silver parachute!
I start running. I did not think that I had energy left to do that. I reach the parachute right as it gets caught on some branches. It is not higher up than I can reach and I pick it down. I hurry to untangle and pull aside ropes and parachute to reveal the little silver box that it was carrying. It is about the size of my hand and not too heavy. I do not stop to guess what it could contain, I just open it as quickly as I can. Then I stand there and stare at what is inside. What is that? It is something whitish and square shaped. I pick it out of the box and examine it in the sun light. There is a script engraved on one side of the thing. It is written with neat and curly cursive letters. “Soap” it says. Soap? It could be some kind of magic Capitol soap with super powers. It could. But I don’t believe it is. My hands are trembling now. Everything they send us costs insane amounts of money. I can see it in front of me how a group of rich capitol citizens came up with the idea and laughingly agreed that it was brilliant, how they grabbed a bunch of bills in the pockets of their tailored trousers and put it down on the table in front of my mentor. I can imagine that she probably did not really want to, but she could not really say no to such influential people and besides she always did what capitol people asked her to do. She never cared much for me anyway. I guess that is the way it goes when you watch the people you mentor die one after another, year after year. Maybe she even thought this idea could be some fun, just for a change. They are just like the bullies in school all of them. And just like then I do not know how I should react. I stand still for a while, with the soap in my hands. People are probably laughing their heads off right now. I throw the thing on the ground and kick dirt on top of it. I keep the parachute and the box though. Those might come to use, anyway. I put the dead squirrel in the box and wrap the parachute around it. Then I tie the parachute around my waist, like a belt.
The hole is finished. I have done a nice job. At least I think I did. I stuck the pointy stick, which I had made earlier, on the bottom of the hole with the sharp edge pointing straight up. I did more of those sticks, four maybe, and placed them in the hole as well. Then I put really thin sticks across the hole and covered the whole thing with fallen twigs, moss and leaves. I am really proud of the result. If you were not careful, you would not even notice the hole when you stood right next to it. I know that it has been taking me far too long and that I should have done many more of these by now but let me be proud just for a little! Let me feel a bit more optimistic for a short time! It is such a nice feeling for a change. I will start building the next one this afternoon but now it is time to take care of the squirrel. First of all I have to find the things I need. I leave the hole and start by gathering fire wood. The lowest twigs of the spruces are dead and dry, perfect for starting fires. I take as many of them as I can carry in the rolled-up parachute. Then I pick larger, dry branches as well and some small but robust twigs. I spend some time looking for the last thing: a good piece of bark. In the end I manage to peel some off a dead tree. It does not look too rotten yet so maybe it can work. I bring everything to a sheltered place and put it down in front of me. I lean back a little and rest before I proceed. The next thing I do is to break the dry spruce twigs and prepare a fire place. After this I take the bark and place it in front of me and then I choose one of the small, robust twigs and start to rotate it between the palms of my hands against the piece of bark. I roll it back and forth as quickly as I can. It is exhausting and I have to stop and rest. I touch the hole in the bark which has been left by the rotating stick. It is barely a bit warm. Sighing, I force myself to do a new attempt. This time, I rotate the stick slower so that I can keep going for longer.
Someone is screaming. Someone or something.
I stop at once and sit still.
There it is again. I think it is human. It is loud and gut-wrenching. I get up on legs that are shaking with anticipation and horror. It can’t be… Did someone already fall in? I pick up my stone and hold it ready as I set out in the direction of the sound. Now it is but a faint moaning. Just sometimes it grows a bit in strength but overall it seems to be getting weaker and weaker. I am getting closer now. Between the trees I can see the animal path where I dug the hole. The camouflage on top of it is gone and it is gaping black. I stop. A foot is protruding from it. Everything around me is still so I raise the stone even more and continue. I am not sure if I want to see what is in the hole. But I made the trap, I dug it and put the sharp sticks at its bottom, I camouflaged it so it would not be visible. I prepared someone’s death so I have to see. Now I notice how small the foot is. It is the foot of a child. It moves a little and the toes scrape the earth. There is a boy lying face-down in the hole, with sticks piercing his side and stomach. Another stick has cut a wound in his head. I recognize him as Twelve-Twelve, the twelve-year-old from district twelve, chosen because he is a thief. His face turns towards my side. As he sees me coming his eyes glue on me. They are so huge and dark that they remind me of the squirrel. His mouth moves, as if it is trying to shape a word, but then it contorts into a grimace. He is the first other human that I have seen since the day when the games began. I do not know what brought him this way, if it was the sound of the river promising to ease his thirst or if the game-makers had anything to do with it. I only know that he is badly injured and that it is my work. I feel sick. I kneel down on the edge of the hole. The rock is resting in my shaking hands. Can I do it? Where is the demon now?
I put the stone down next to me and reach down to search his pockets. They are all empty. He has a knife in his belt though. I detach the sheath and hold it up. My hands are covered in blood. I pull the knife out. It is a black combat knife, with a pointy tip that is sharpened on both sides. Its heavy blade is grooved in order to allow the blood to flow along it without posing resistance as it sinks in. It is a tool completely designed for killing, in its smallest detail. We got to train with knives like this a little, before the games. I would be able to end it quickly with this. Maybe it would be the best thing for Twelve-Twelve too. He would not have to suffer any more. Slowly, I bring the blade to his neck. He lifts one hand and locks his thin fingers around my wrist. His eyes meet mine again. I shake his hand off mine and sit back up. Twelve-Twelve is one of those kids who look as if they are well acquainted with hunger. He is small for his age and his cheeks looked hollowed-out already upon arriving to the Capitol. Now that part has not got any better and he is covered in a mixture of dirt and blood. I should kill him but I do not know how to. Where is the demon inside me? I attach the sheath to my own belt and stand up with the knife still in my blood-covered hand, leaving my stone on the ground. Then I walk away. I do not know where I go. Eventually I find myself sitting against a tree in a part of the forest that I do not recognize.
Vitus! Go back! You have to finish it! You are in the Hunger Games! You wanted to be a peacekeeper, remember? You thought you would be able to do it! Yes, yes I did. But when I thought of killing, I never thought of killing someone this way. I thought of killing an unknown enemy with a weapon in his hands, not a helpless kid! But the boy is lying there and slowly being tortured to death. He wants you to do it! Go back!
I pull my legs towards my body. My hand clutches the knife tightly. Can they not fire the canon soon? Can’t it just fire? I see Twelve-Twelve before me, staring at me with those large black eyes and holding my wrist with those thin, bony fingers. I feel the sticks pierce my own body in the same points that they are piercing his, right through veins, arteries, guts and vital organs, causing irreparable damage.
I cannot bring myself to do it. I stand up and just walk away.
I walk through the forest without a goal. Everything is so very still around me. Where is everybody? The forest is getting denser. It is getting darker as well. I look up and notice that the sky, suddenly, is completely covered with clouds. The temperature is sinking quickly. At some point in the afternoon it starts snowing. Summer snow. So strange. I know everything is possible in the arena, though. Big flakes float down from the sky. The ground is still warm and they melt as they touch it. I think of Twelve-Twelve lying in the hole while the flakes fall down on him.
I am too weak and tired to keep walking. I unfold the parachute and use it to make some kind of small shelter under a big spruce. I put some spruce branches on the ground as insulation and then I crawl in and curl myself into a tight ball. A canon resounds distant, through the snowfall.
I am lying under the parachute again. I had to get up earlier and move a bit because I was getting too cold. Well, I am still cold. My fingers are difficult to move and I do not feel my toes any longer. I should get up again but is there any point to it? The forest floor is sprinkled with white.
Should I get up?
I make an attempt. I stand up on all four and stay like that for a while, gathering strength.
The canon booms. It is quiet a little and then it booms once more. Am I wrong or did it sound a little different than usually? As if it was oddly close.
I lift one knee and put a foot down. Then, with all my willpower, I force myself to stand up. And now? What do I do now?
The canon goes off once more. It sounded normal now. It goes off twice more. What a massacre.
OK, I will start by trying to make a fire again. There is a dead spruce close by. Maybe I will find what I need there.
I am on my way to it when my ears register a rustling sound from quick steps against the underbrush. They sound rather light but still make quite a bit of noise. A deer would not cause that much noise, would it? I dive down behind a sapling and throw a glance towards my shelter, a few steps away. It is partially hidden by the branches of the tree next to it. Will it be enough?
The steps are coming closer. I feel the fear pulsate through my body, forcing the very last energy I have into my muscles and making my senses sharper.
Some thirty steps away from me a hand pushes aside a spruce-branch and the person who was making the noise comes into sight. I still cannot see who it is though, because there is still some vegetation in the way but he or she is moving swiftly. Then she reaches my shelter, notices it and stops. I can see it is a she now. She sinks down into a crouch, lifting a bow. She stands quiet as a predator with tensed senses. You can almost see her ears stretch and become pointy. Her eyes are sunk in and wild. Her red hair is so greasy that it almost stands on end on her head. Her gray clothes are muddy and spotted with red. She looks haunted. I must look even worse.
I draw my breath and then I raise my voice:
The arrow only barely misses me.
I pull my head in and raise my hands.
“It’s me! Melissa, it’s me!”
She stares at me shortly with expressionless eyes.
“It’s only me!” I sob, still holding my hands up.
“We can’t stay here”, she says, with that well known voice from home which does not fit in this place at all.
She goes to retrieve the arrow. I take the parachute and follow her. She is already quite a bit ahead of me. I try to run faster to catch up but the best I can do is to not be left further behind. Not for so long though.
“Melissa!” I yell, panting. “Melissa!”
She twists around and hushes me.
My legs cannot carry me any further. My knees are shaking. I drop to the ground. I think that Melissa will leave me now. She will turn away once more and start running again and I will never see her again. The others will come and I will just lay here and my end will at last have come.
But she turns back.
“Are you injured?” she asks with low voice.
“No”, I whisper. “I… I’m just tired and haven’t eaten.”
“Since before the games?”
“Well, a few spiders.”
She makes a grimace and looks around. Then she grabs my hand.
“Stand up!” she says and pulls me.
I force myself to follow her orders. The world goes black in front of my eyes for a little but Melissa steadies me. She leads me to a fallen tree and makes me sit down against it. The branches of the tree and a large rock beside us are shielding us from view, somewhat.
“What are you going to do?” I ask her.
“Shut up!” she says. She squats down next to the rock and peeks around it. She holds her bow ready. An arrow is in place. I look from the bow to the red spots on her clothes and back. I wonder what she had to do in order to get the weapon.
We sit like that for a long time, so still that moss could start growing on us. We are like rocks, like part of this landscape. We are the ears of the forest. If anything moves under these trees, we will hear it.
Then Melissa finally turns.
“I will go hunting soon”, she says. “I’ll see what I can get.”
She sits down with her back towards the stone but she still does not look relaxed. I wonder if tributes are ever able to relax again, even if they win the games and get out of it alive. I try to see our mentor in front of me. Was there not always a little of that wilderness in her eyes, as the one I see in Melissa’s eyes now? Did I ever see her lean back in a chair? She won the games six years ago and has killed four people.
“I have not tried hunting yet”, Melissa tells me. “I took some dried meat at the Cornucopia but it is finished now.”
“Where did you get that one?” I nod towards the bow.
“I took it just now. From Clara, as she laid dying at the mines. I was scared to cross the mine field but I had to get it.”
“What mine field?”
She gestures in the direction that we came from.
“Out, that way. A whole stretch of river bank is lined with it. It starts at a ravine and I don’t know where it ends. I saw Clara and that tall guy… They did not know about it… They did not… “ Melissa looks away. “They wanted to go down to the river and drink, I think. When they reached a rock shaped like a huge, black shark fin they were blown to pieces. First Clara and then the guy tried to help her but instead… I was watching them and… I did not know either. Suddenly their blood was everywhere. There was a big, red splash on that black rock, like some weird red flower. I knew I had to get the bow so I walked in their footsteps because there weren’t any mines there.”
She sighs and rubs her eyes with the palms of her dirty hands. Somewhere, far off, a crow is cawing.
“Have you got something else than the bow and the arrows?” I ask her.
“Not much though.”
She shows me the knife. It has a sharp point for stabbing with, just like mine, but for the rest it is less designed for combat and more for cutting things with. Unlike mine, its blade is not grooved and one edge is really sharp and serrated at the bottom. She also shows me a fire-steel.
“I got this from the tall guy.”
She puts her belongings away again and asks: “What about you? I saw you got a parachute.”
“Yeah.” I unfold the silver parachute which is lying in my lap. “I have a parachute but it did not bring anything of value.”
“Well, whatever it is, it is still more than they sent me. They did not send the smallest thing to me! Nothing at all. I am worthless to them.”
“I am not sure the thing they sent me qualifies as something.”
Melissa raises an eyebrow.
“It was just a joke. The Capitol people thought it was funny or something. They sent me a bar of soap.”
“Yup. Soap. So I could clean myself. But I buried it deep under the dirt.”
Melissa nods approving.
“But the parachute served you well for the shelter at least. What else have you got?”
I show her the knife and the box with the dead squirrel inside.
“I caught this yesterday morning but I think we could still eat it if we cook it first.”
Melissa looks enthusiastic.
“I’ll go gather some firewood right away if you start preparing it.”
We learned how to skin and gut animals at the training. At least in theory. As Melissa sneaks away I lay the dead animal on the parachute and cut its skin open.
The little fire is crackling pleasantly. Its small, dancing flames are hypnotizing. We have made some skewers with what meat we managed to pull off the bones of the tiny animal. There was not much left when we had removed all that wasn’t edible.
“I’m sorry”, I say, without removing my gaze from the flames. Melissa is quiet. “I’m sorry”, I say again. “Do you understand why I run away and left you? I did not want to.”
Melissa does still not reply. She turns her skewer over the fire. The flames lick the miserable little morsels on the stick.
“Why did you do it?” I ask, at last. “You know what I mean.”
I want her to talk. I need her to say something so I insist:
“It’s either you or me now. One of us will die, you know it. There is no way this can end happily now.”
She looks at me.
“End happily? Of course it can’t! It never could! Haven’t you watched the earlier games? Twenty-three people will die and would have died in any case.”
I don’t know what to reply to that so I look back into the fire. I always use the wrong words.
Melissa speaks again:
“I never thought I would survive. When I volunteered I knew that I would die.” Sighing, she pulls away the skewer from the fire and inspects the meat. She decides that it is ready and starts eating. “Not everybody gets to choose what to die for”, she says and shrugs. She tries to sound indifferent but I can hear that her voice is a little shaky.
I look back at my own skewer and start eating as well.
Melissa has already finished hear meal. I wanted to share the meat equally but she insisted I’d have almost all.
“By the way”, she says and stands up. “We should take turns keeping watch all the time, from now on.” She leaves me and goes to the other side of the rock, where I cannot see her. She wants me to leave her alone. She could have kept watch while staying closer if she had wanted to.
I finish eating slowly. I only eat because I know that I have to but I have lost all appetite.
After a while Melissa comes back only to say:
“I’ll go hunting now”, and disappears anew. I hear her steps get more and more distant until I cannot distinguish them anymore from the whisper of the light wind. They are gone like they came this morning.
I smolder the fire. I feel sad at watching the beautiful flames die and once they are gone I miss them. I spread out the ashes and strew dirt and pine needles on the burnt ground, both to be sure that the fire will not start again and in order to hide the signs of it. I have become good at hiding all my tracks. I have become good at disappearing, at playing that I do not even exist. I hide myself amongst the branches of the fallen tree and resume being a still sentry. I wait for Melissa to come back while the shadows creep over the forest floor. It surprises me how fast they move. I always assumed that their movement was too slow for the human eye to register. I was wrong, it turns out. If you only take the time to watch them, you can see how they shift centimeter by centimeter. I have never had this much time in my whole life. I will soon die but I have all the time in the world. I sit here, hour after hour, while the shadows move around me.
How many of us are left? I have lost count of the dead. Never mind. I will know this evening. I wonder if I or Melissa will die first. She volunteered for this. She chose to be here and she never expected herself to survive. Would it not be more right if she died than if I did? I was forced to come here. But she has a family, she is loved and she certainly is a better human being than I am. Would I ever have volunteered to come with her? I don’t know. I don’t know! Deep inside something tells me that I would not. I would have watched her being taken away and then die far away from me. But I did not want her to come! She would not have wanted me to come if the roles had been reversed, would she? She chose to come here! If I have one small wish left then I wish that we will not be the last two survivors.
The melting snow drops from the dead branches around me. I put my mouth under one of them and drink what water falls on my tongue. Then I take the parachute and make a small roof above me. I use spruce branches to make the shelter a bit better and then sit back inside.
Melissa returns as the shadows in the forest have grown long and started melting together. She is empty-handed.
“Nothing”, she says. “The forest is dead.”
She looks at my shelter then sits down next to me. Together, we sit there and watch the night come. The anthem starts playing.
“Fifth night” I say. “Congratulation”
You have to appreciate the small things in life. One more day of life is a thing to be very grateful for. At some point it will all be over and then I will not care if I had many or few days to live. Then death will be all there is and I will not be aware of anything else than it. But right now I do care. Right now it is nice to be alive, even if it is a shitty and miserable life.
The faces of those who did not survive the day illuminate the black sky and cause ghostly shadows to fall on the ground.
Clara died and long Marlin died and so did that clumsy guy with glasses and almost no eyebrows. Did I not hear more canons today? Then those two ones, the ones that sounded odd, must have been the mines.
The anthem plays again and then the sky goes black.
“I’ll take the first watch”, I say.
“Are you sure?” Melissa asks. The way she says it makes me suspect that she is not asking out of thoughtfulness. Probably it is just because part of her still has problems trusting me. That is what the arena does to you.
“Very well”, she says and tries to make herself comfortable enough to sleep. There really is not much space in the shelter. She switches side a few times and I am a little scared that she will cause the entire construction to collapse but in the end she is still. It takes some more time before she falls asleep but in the end I hear her breaths even out.
Sleep is precious, I think. Now that she has managed to fall asleep I will let her sleep uninterrupted for half the night. When it feels like half the night has gone I will wake her up. Although she is sitting right next to me I cannot see her anymore in the darkness but I feel her presence. It feels like warmth and safety. It strikes me how wonderful it is to have someone there, to not be alone any longer. I feel as if I have been alone my whole life, as if I have spent all my days until now wandering on my own in this valley. Yes, she barely trusts me and she probably hates me but she is here! I am not lonely any longer. And still, we will not be able to stay together for long. In this place we are all doomed to be alone. We can live or die but still we cannot be anything else than alone. I would like to scream, straight out into the darkness. I would like to yell at those who condemned us, who abandoned us. Can they not see that we are worth something? That we deserved something more? And still, I myself believed in the necessity of this all. I believed in this system. Do I still believe in it? I don’t know. Tears fill my eyes. It is the first time that I cry in a long time. Through the whole of this, I have not been crying once. Not even when I got chosen. It feels good to cry, in a way. Do I believe in all of this? I do not know…