“I won’t die. I promise. If you promise not to go,” he says. We’re at something of a stalemate. I know I can’t argue him out of this one, so I don’t try. I pretend, reluctantly, to go along. “Then you have to do what I say. Drink your water, wake me when I tell you, and eat every bite of the soup no matter how disgusting it is!” I snap at him.
“Agreed. Is it ready?” he asks.
“Wait here,” I say. The air’s gone cold even though the sun’s still up. I’m right about the Gamemakers messing with the temperature. I wonder if the thing someone needs desperately is a good blanket. The soup is still nice and warm in its iron pot. And actually doesn’t taste too bad.
Peeta eats without complaint, even scraping out the pot to show his enthusiasm. He rambles on about how delicious it is, which should be encouraging if you don’t know what fever does to people. He’s like listening to Haymitch before the alcohol has soaked him into incoherence. I give him another dose of fever medicine before he goes off his head completely. As I go down to the stream to wash up, all I can think is that he’s going to die if I don’t get to that feast. I’ll keep him going for a day or two, and then the infection will reach his heart or his brain or his lungs and he’ll be gone. And I’ll be here all alone. Again. Waiting for the others.
I’m so lost in thought that I almost miss the parachute, even though it floats right by me. Then I spring after it, yanking it from the water, tearing off the silver fabric to retrieve the vial. Haymitch has done it! He’s gotten the medicine—I don’t know how, persuaded some gaggle of romantic fools to sell their jewels—and I can save Peeta! It’s such a tiny vial though. It must be very strong to cure someone as ill as Peeta. A ripple of doubt runs through me. I uncork the vial and take a deep sniff. My spirits fall at the sickly sweet scent. Just to be sure, I place a drop on the tip of my tongue. There’s no question, it’s sleep syrup. It’s a common medicine in District 12. Cheap, as medicine goes, but very addictive. Almost everyone’s had a dose at one time or another. We have some in a bottle at home. My mother gives it to hysterical patients to knock them out to stitch up a bad wound or quiet their minds or just to help someone in pain get through the night. It only takes a little. A vial this size could knock Peeta out for a full day, but what good is that? I’m so furious I’m about to throw Haymitch’s last offering into the stream when it hits me. A full day? That’s more than I need.
I mash up a handful of berries so the taste won’t be as noticeable and add some mint leaves for good measure. Then I head back up to the cave. “I’ve brought you a treat. I found a new patch of berries a little farther downstream.”
Peeta opens his mouth for the first bite without hesitation. He swallows then frowns slightly. “They’re very sweet.”
“Yes, they’re sugar berries. My mother makes jam from them. Haven’t you ever had them before?” I say, poking the next spoonful in his mouth.
“No,” he says, almost puzzled. “But they taste familiar. Sugar berries?”
“Well, you can’t get them in the market much, they only grow wild,” I say. Another mouthful goes down. Just one more to go.
“They’re sweet as syrup,” he says, taking the last spoonful.
“Syrup.” His eyes widen as he realizes the truth. I clamp my hand over his mouth and nose hard, forcing him to swallow instead of spit. He tries to make himself vomit the stuff up, but it’s too late, he’s already losing consciousness. Even as he fades away, I can see in his eyes what I’ve done is unforgivable. I sit back on my heels and look at him with a mixture of sadness and satisfaction. A stray berry stains his chin and I wipe it away. “Who can’t lie, Peeta?” I say, even though he can’t hear me.
It doesn’t matter. The rest of Panem can.
In the remaining hours before nightfall, I gather rocks and do my best to camouflage the opening of the cave. It’s a slow and arduous process, but after a lot of sweating and shifting things around, I’m pretty pleased with my work, The cave now appears to be part of a larger pile of rocks, like so many in the vicinity. I can still crawl in to Peeta through a small opening, but it’s undetectable from the out« side. That’s good, because I’ll need to share that sleeping bag again tonight. Also, if I don’t make it back from the feast, Peeta will be hidden but not entirely imprisoned. Although I doubt he can hang on much longer without medicine. If I die at the feast, District 12 isn’t likely to have a victor.
I make a meal out of the smaller, bonier fish that inhabit the stream down here, fill every water container and purify it, and clean my weapons. I’ve nine arrows left in all. I debate leaving the knife with Peeta so he’ll have some protection while I’m gone, but there’s really no point. He was right about camouflage being his final defense. But I still might have use for the knife. Who knows what I’ll encounter?
Here are some things I’m fairly certain of. That at least Cato, Clove, and Thresh will be on hand when the feast starts. I’m not sure about Foxface since direct confrontation isn’t her style or her forte. She’s even smaller than I am and unarmed, unless she’s picked up some weapons recently. She’ll probably be hanging somewhere nearby, seeing what she can scavenge. But the other three… I’m going to have my hands full. My ability to kill at a distance is my greatest asset, but I know I’ll have to go right into the thick of things to get that backpack, the one with the number 12 on it that Claudius Templesmith mentioned.
I watch the sky, hoping for one less opponent at dawn, but nobody appears tonight. Tomorrow there will be faces up there. Feasts always result in fatalities.
I crawl into the cave, secure my glasses, and curl up next to Peeta. Luckily I had that good long sleep today. I have to stay awake. I don’t really think anyone will attack our cave tonight, but I can’t risk missing the dawn.
So cold, so bitterly cold tonight. As if the Gamemakers have sent an infusion of frozen air across the arena, which may be exactly what they’ve done. I lay next to Peeta in the bag, trying to absorb every bit of his fever heat. It’s strange to be so physically close to someone who’s so distant. Peeta might as well be back in the Capitol, or in District 12, or on the moon right now, he’d be no harder to reach. I’ve never felt lonelier since the Games began.
Just accept it will be a bad night, I tell myself. I try not to, but I can’t help thinking of my mother and Prim, wondering if they’ll sleep a wink tonight. At this late stage in the Games, with an important event like the feast, school will probably be canceled. My family can either watch on that static-filled old clunker of a television at home or join the crowds in the square to watch on the big, clear screens, They’ll have privacy at home but support in the square. People will give them a kind word, a bit of food if they can spare it. I wonder if the baker has sought them out, especially now that Peeta and I are a team, and made good on his promise to keep my sister’s belly full. Spirits must be running high in District 12. We so rarely have anyone to root for at this point in the Games. Surely, people are excited about Peeta and me, especially now that we’re together. If I close my eyes, I can imagine their shouts at the screens, urging us on. I see their faces—Greasy Sac and Madge and even the Peacekeepers who buy my meat cheering for us.
And Gale. I know him. He won’t be shouting and cheering. But he’ll be watching, every moment, every twist and turn, and willing me to come home. I wonder if he’s hoping that Peeta makes it as well. Gale’s not my boyfriend, but would he be, if I opened that door? He talked about us running away together. Was that just a practical calculation of our chances of survival away from the district? Or something more?
I wonder what he makes of all this kissing.
Through a crack in the rocks, I watch the moon cross the sky. At what I judge to be about three hours before dawn, I begin final preparations. I’m careful to leave Peeta with water and the medical kit right beside him. Nothing else will be of much use if I don’t return, and even these would only prolong his life a short time. After some debate, I strip him of his jacket and zip it on over my own. He doesn’t need it. Not now in the sleeping bag with his fever, and during the day, if I’m not there to remove it, he’ll be roasting in it. My hands are already stiff from cold, so I take Rue’s spare pair of socks, cut holes for my fingers and thumbs, and pull them on. It helps anyway. I fill her small pack with some food, a water bottle, and bandages, tuck the knife in my belt, get my bow and arrows. I’m about to leave when I remember the importance of sustaining the starcrossed lover routine and I lean over and give Peeta a long, lingering kiss. I imagine the teary sighs emanating from the Capitol and pretend to brush away a tear of my own. Then I squeeze through the opening in the rocks out into the night. My breath makes small white clouds as it hits the air. It’s as cold as a November night at home. One where I’ve slipped into the woods, lantern in hand, to join Gale at some prearranged place where we’ll sit bundled together, sipping herb tea from metal flasks wrapped in quilting, hoping game will pass our way as the morning comes on. Oh, Gale, I think. If only you had my back now…
I move as fast as I dare. The glasses are quite remarkable, but I still sorely miss having the use of my left ear. I don’t know what the explosion did, but it damaged something deep and irreparable. Never mind. If I get home, I’ll be so stinking rich, I’ll be able to pay someone to do my hearing. The woods always look different at night. Even with the glasses, everything has an unfamiliar slant to it. As if the daytime trees and flowers and stones had gone to bed and sent slightly more ominous versions of themselves to take their places. I don’t try anything tricky, like taking a new route. I make my way back up the stream and follow the same path back to Rue’s hiding place near the lake. Along the way, I see no sign of another tribute, not a puff of breath, not a quiver of a branch. Either I’m the first to arrive or the others positioned themselves last night. There’s still more than an hour, maybe two, when I wriggle into the underbrush and wait for the blood to begin to flow.
I chew a few mint leaves, my stomach isn’t up for much more. Thank goodness, I have Peeta’s jacket as well as my own. If not, I’d be forced to move around to stay warm. The sky turns a misty morning gray and still there’s no sign of the other tributes. It’s not surprising really. Everyone has distinguished themselves either by strength or deadliness or cunning. Do they suppose, I wonder, that I have Peeta with me? I doubt Foxface and Thresh even know he was wounded. All the better if they think he’s covering me when I go in for the backpack.
But where is it? The arena has lightened enough for me to remove my glasses. I can hear the morning birds singing. Isn’t it time? For a second, I’m panicked that I’m at the wrong location. But no, I’m certain I remember Claudius Templesmith specifying the Cornucopia. And there it is. And here I am. So where’s my feast?
Just as the first ray of sun glints off the gold Cornucopia, there’s a disturbance on the plain. The ground before the mouth of the horn splits in two and a round table with a snowy white cloth rises into the arena. On the table sit four backpacks, two large black ones with the numbers 2 and 11, a medium-size green one with the number 5, and a tiny orange one—really I could carry it around my wrist—that must be marked with a 12.
The table has just clicked into place when a figure darts out of the Cornucopia, snags the green backpack, and speeds off. Foxface! Leave it to her to come up with such a clever and risky idea! The rest of us are still poised around the plain, sizing up the situation, and she’s got hers. She’s got us trapped, too, because no one wants to chase her down, not while their own pack sits so vulnerable on the table. Foxface must have purposefully left the other packs alone, knowing that to steal one without her number would definitely bring on a pursuer. That should have been my strategy! By the lime I’ve worked through the emotions of surprise, admiration, anger, jealousy, and frustration, I’m watching that reddish mane of hair disappear into the trees well out of shooting range. Huh. I’m always dreading the others, but maybe Foxface is the real opponent here.
She’s cost me time, too, because by now it’s clear that I must get to the table next. Anyone who beats me to it will easily scoop up my pack and be gone. Without hesitation, I sprint for the table. I can sense the emergence of danger before I see it. Fortunately, the first knife comes whizzing in on my right side so I can hear it and I’m able to deflect it with my bow. I turn, drawing back the bowstring and send an arrow straight at Clove’s heart. She turns just enough to avoid a fatal hit, but the point punctures her upper left arm. Unfortunately, she throws with her right, but it’s enough to slow her down a few moments, having to pull the arrow from her arm, take in the severity of the wound. I keep moving, positioning the next arrow automatically, as only someone who has hunted for years can do.
I’m at the table now, my fingers closing over the tiny orange backpack. My hand slips between the straps and I yank it up on my arm, it’s really too small to fit on any other part of my anatomy, and I’m turning to fire again when the second knife catches me in the forehead. It slices above my right eyebrow, opening a gash that sends a gush running down my face, blinding my eye, filling my mouth with the sharp, metallic taste of my own blood. I stagger backward but still manage to send my readied arrow in the general direction of my assailant. I know as it leaves my hands it will miss. And then Clove slams into me, knocking me flat on my back, pinning my shoulders to the ground, with her knees.
This is it, I think, and hope for Prim’s sake it will be fast. But Clove means to savor the moment. Even feels she has time. No doubt Cato is somewhere nearby, guarding her, waiting for Thresh and possibly Peeta.
“Where’s your boyfriend, District Twelve? Still hanging on?” she asks.
Well, as long as we’re talking I’m alive. “He’s out there now. Hunting Cato,” I snarl at her. Then I scream at the top of my lungs. “Peeta!”
Clove jams her fist into my windpipe, very effectively cutting off my voice. But her head’s whipping from side to side, and I know for a moment she’s at least considering I’m telling the truth. Since no Peeta appears to save me, she turns back to me.
“Liar,” she says with a grin. “He’s nearly dead. Cato knows where he cut him. You’ve probably got him strapped up in some tree while you try to keep his heart going. What’s in the pretty little backpack? That medicine for Lover Boy? Too bad he’ll never get it.”
Clove opens her jacket. It’s lined with an impressive array of knives. She carefully selects an almost dainty-looking number with a cruel, curved blade. “I promised Cato if he let me have you, I’d give the audience a good show.”
I’m struggling now in an effort to unseat her, but it’s no use. She’s too heavy and her lock on me too tight.
“Forget it, District Twelve. We’re going to kill you. Just like we did your pathetic little ally… what was her name? The one who hopped around in the trees? Rue? Well, first Rue, then you, and then I think we’ll just let nature take care of Lover Boy. How does that sound?” Clove asks. “Now, where to start?”
She carelessly wipes away the blood from my wound with her jacket sleeve. For a moment, she surveys my face, tilting it from side to side as if it’s a block of wood and she’s deciding exactly what pattern to carve on it. I attempt to bite her hand, but she grabs the hair on the top of my head, forcing me back to the ground. “I think…” she almost purrs. “I think we’ll start with your mouth.” I clamp my teeth together as she teasingly traces the outline of my lips with the tip of the blade. I won’t close my eyes. The comment about Rue has filled me with fury, enough fury I think to die with some dignity. As my last act of defiance, I will stare her down as long as I can see, which will probably not be an extended period of time, but I will stare her down, I will not cry out. I will die, in my own small way, undefeated.
“Yes, I don’t think you’ll have much use for your lips anymore. Want to blow Lover Boy one last kiss?” she asks, I work up a mouthful of blood and saliva and spit it in her face. She flushes with rage. “All right then. Let’s get started.”
I brace myself for the agony that’s sure to follow. But as I feel the tip open the first cut at my lip, some great form yanks Clove from my body and then she’s screaming. I’m too stunned at first, too unable to process what has happened. Has Peeta somehow come to my rescue? Have the Gamemakers sent in some wild animal to add to the fun? Has a hovercraft inexplicably plucked her into the air?
But when I push myself up on my numb arms, I see it’s none of the above. Clove is dangling a foot off the ground, imprisoned in Thresh’s arms. I let out a gasp, seeing him like that, towering over me, holding Clove like a rag doll. I remember him as big, but he seems more massive, more powerful than I even recall. If anything, he seems to have gained weight in the arena. He flips Clove around and flings her onto the ground.