My eyes follow the line of her finger up into the foliage above me. At first, I have no idea what she’s pointing to, but then, about fifteen feet up, I make out the vague shape in the dimming light. But of . . . of what? Some sort of animal? It looks about the size of a raccoon, but it hangs from the bottom of a branch, swaying ever so slightly. There’s something else. Among the familiar evening sounds of the woods, my ears register a low hum. Then I know. It’s a wasp nest.
Fear shoots through me, but I have enough sense to keep still. After all, I don’t know what kind of wasp lives there. It could be the ordinary leave-us-alone-and-we’ll-leave-you-alone type. But these are the Hunger Games, and ordinary isn’t the norm. More likely they will be one of the Capitol’s muttations, tracker jackers. Like the jabberjays, these killer wasps were spawned in a lab and strategically placed, like land mines, around the districts during the war. Larger than regular wasps, they have a distinctive solid gold body and a sting that raises a lump the size of a plum on contact. Most people can’t tolerate more than a few stings. Some die at once. If you live, the hallucinations brought on by the venom have actually driven people to madness. And there’s another thing, these wasps will hunt down anyone who disturbs their nest and attempt to kill them. That’s where the tracker part of the name comes from.
After the war, the Capitol destroyed all the nests surrounding their city, but the ones near the districts were left untouched. Another reminder of our weakness, I suppose, just like the Hunger Games. Another reason to keep inside the fence of District 12. When Gale and I come across a tracker jacker nest, we immediately head in the opposite direction.
So is that what hangs above me? I look back to Rue for help, but she’s melted into her tree.
Given my circumstances, I guess it doesn’t matter what type of wasp nest it is. I’m wounded and trapped. Darkness has given me a brief reprieve, but by the time the sun rises, the Careers will have formulated a plan to kill me. There’s no way they could do otherwise after I’ve made them look so stupid. That nest may be the sole option I have left. If I can drop it down on them, I may be able to escape. But I’ll risk my life in the process.
Of course, I’ll never be able to get in close enough to the actual nest to cut it free. I’ll have to saw off the branch at the trunk and send the whole thing down. The serrated portion of my knife should be able to manage that. But can my hands? And will the vibration from the sawing raise the swarm? And what if the Careers figure out what I’m doing and move their camp? That would defeat the whole purpose.
I realize that the best chance I’ll have to do the sawing without drawing notice will be during the anthem. That could begin any time. I drag myself out of my bag, make sure my knife is secured in my belt, and begin to make my way up the tree. This in itself is dangerous since the branches are becoming precariously thin even for me, but I persevere. When I reach the limb that supports the nest, the humming becomes more distinctive. But it’s still oddly subdued if these are tracker jackers. It’s the smoke, I think. It’s sedated them. This was the one defense the rebels found to battle the wasps.
The seal of the Capitol shines above me and the anthem blares out. It’s now or never, I think, and begin to saw. Blisters burst on my right hand as I awkwardly drag the knife back and forth. Once I’ve got a groove, the work requires less effort but is almost more than I can handle. I grit my teeth and saw away occasionally glancing at the sky to register that there were no deaths today. That’s all right. The audience will be sated seeing me injured and treed and the pack below me. But the anthem’s running out and I’m only three quarters of the way through the wood when the music ends, the sky goes dark, and I’m forced to stop.
Now what? I could probably finish off the job by sense of feel but that may not be the smartest plan. If the wasps are too groggy, if the nest catches on its way down, if I try to escape, this could all be a deadly waste of time. Better, I think, to sneak up here at dawn and send the nest into my enemies.
In the faint light of the Careers’ torches, I inch back down to my fork to find the best surprise I’ve ever had. Sitting on my sleeping bag is a small plastic pot attached to a silver parachute. My first gift from a sponsor! Haymitch must have had it sent in during the anthem. The pot easily fits in the palm of my hand. What can it be? Not food surely. I unscrew the lid and I know by the scent that it’s medicine. Cautiously, I probe the surface of the ointment. The throbbing in my fingertip vanishes.
“Oh, Haymitch,” I whisper. “Thank you.” He has not abandoned me. Not left me to fend entirely for myself. The cost of this medicine must be astronomical. Probably not one but many sponsors have contributed to buy this one tiny pot. To me, it is priceless.
I dip two fingers in the jar and gently spread the balm over my calf. The effect is almost magical, erasing the pain on contact, leaving a pleasant cooling sensation behind. This is no herbal concoction that my mother grinds up out of woodland plants, it’s high-tech medicine brewed up in the Capitol’s labs. When my calf is treated, I rub a thin layer into my hands. After wrapping the pot in the parachute, I nestle it safely away in my pack. Now that the pain has eased, it’s all I can do to reposition myself in my bag before I plunge into sleep.
A bird perched just a few feet from me alerts me that a new day is dawning. In the gray morning light, I examine my hands. The medicine has transformed all the angry red patches to a soft baby-skin pink. My leg still feels inflamed, but that burn was far deeper. I apply another coat of medicine and quietly pack up my gear. Whatever happens, I’m going to have to move and move fast. I also make myself eat a cracker and a strip of beef and drink a few cups of water.
Almost nothing stayed in my stomach yesterday, and I’m already starting to feel the effects of hunger.
Below me, I can see the Career pack and Peeta asleep on the ground. By her position, leaning up against the trunk of the tree, I’d guess Glimmer was supposed to be on guard, but fatigue overcame her.
My eyes squint as they try to penetrate the tree next to me, but I can’t make out Rue. Since she tipped me off, it only seems fair to warn her. Besides, if I’m going to die today, it’s Rue I want to win. Even if it means a little extra food for my family, the idea of Peeta being crowned victor is unbearable.
I call Rue’s name in a hushed whisper and the eyes appear, wide and alert, at once. She points up to the nest again. I hold up my knife and make a sawing motion. She nods and disappears. There’s a rustling in a nearby tree. Then the same noise again a bit farther off. I realize she’s leaping from tree to tree. It’s all I can do not to laugh out loud. Is this what she showed the Gamemakers? I imagine her flying around the training equipment never touching the floor. She should have gotten at least a ten.
Rosy streaks are breaking through in the east. I can’t afford to wait any longer. Compared to the agony of last night’s climb, this one is a cinch. At the tree limb that holds the nest, I position the knife in the groove and I’m about to draw the teeth across the wood when I see something moving. There, on the nest. The bright gold gleam of a tracker jacker lazily making its way across the papery gray surface. No question, it’s acting a little subdued, but the wasp is up and moving and that means the others will be out soon as well. Sweat breaks out on the palms of my hands, beading up through the ointment, and I do my best to pat them dry on my shirt. If I don’t get through this branch in a matter of seconds, the entire swarm could emerge and attack me.
There’s no sense in putting it off. I take a deep breath, grip the knife handle and bear down as hard as I can. Back, forth, back, forth! The tracker jackers begin to buzz and I hear them coming out. Back, forth, back, forth! A stabbing pain shoots through my knee and I know one has found me and the others will be honing in. Back, forth, back, forth. And just as the knife cuts through, I shove the end of the branch as far away from me as I can. It crashes down through the lower branches, snagging temporarily on a few but then twisting free until it smashes with a thud on the ground. The nest bursts open like an egg, and a furious swarm of tracker jackers takes to the air.
I feel a second sting on the cheek, a third on my neck, and their venom almost immediately makes me woozy. I cling to the tree with one arm while I rip the barbed stingers out of my flesh. Fortunately, only these three tracker jackers had identified me before the nest went down. The rest of the insects have targeted their enemies on the ground.
It’s mayhem. The Careers have woken to a full-scale tracker jacker attack. Peeta and a few others have the sense to drop everything and bolt. I can hear cries of “To the lake! To the lake!” and know they hope to evade the wasps by taking to the water. It must be close if they think they can outdistance the furious insects. Glimmer and another girl, the one from District 4, are not so lucky. They receive multiple stings before they’re even out of my view. Glimmer appears to go completely mad, shrieking and trying to bat the wasps off with her bow, which is pointless. She calls to the others for help but, of course, no one returns. The girl from District 4 staggers out of sight, although I wouldn’t bet on her making it to the lake. I watch Glimmer fall, twitch hysterically around on the ground for a few minutes, and then go still.
The nest is nothing but an empty shell. The wasps have vanished in pursuit of the others. I don’t think they’ll return, but I don’t want to risk it. I scamper down the tree and hit the ground running in the opposite direction of the lake. The poison from the stingers makes me wobbly, but I find my way back to my own little pool and submerge myself in the water, just in case any wasps are still on my trail. After about five minutes, I drag myself onto the rocks. People have not exaggerated the effects of the tracker jacker stings. Actually, the one on my knee is closer to an orange than a plum in size. A foul-smelling green liquid oozes from the places where I pulled out the stingers.
The swelling. The pain. The ooze. Watching Glimmer twitching to death on the ground. It’s a lot to handle before the sun has even cleared the horizon. I don’t want to think about what Glimmer must look like now. Her body disfigured. Her swollen fingers stiffening around the bow . . .
The bow! Somewhere in my befuddled mind one thought connects to another and I’m on my feet, teetering through the trees back to Glimmer. The bow. The arrows. I must get them. I haven’t heard the cannons fire yet, so perhaps Glimmer is in some sort of coma, her heart still struggling against the wasp venom. But once it stops and the cannon signals her death, a hovercraft will move in and retrieve her body, taking the only bow and sheath of arrows I’ve seen out of the Games for good. And I refuse to let them slip through my fingers again!
I reach Glimmer just as the cannon fires. The tracker jackers have vanished. This girl, so breathtakingly beautiful in her golden dress the night of the interviews, is unrecognizable. Her features eradicated, her limbs three times their normal size. The stinger lumps have begun to explode, spewing putrid green liquid around her. I have to break several of what used to be her fingers with a stone to free the bow. The sheath of arrows is pinned under her back. I try to roll over her body by pulling on one arm, but the flesh disintegrates in my hands and I fall back on the ground.
Is this real? Or have the hallucinations begun? I squeeze my eyes tight and try to breathe through my mouth, ordering myself not to become sick. Breakfast must stay down, it might be days before I can hunt again. A second cannon fires and I’m guessing the girl from District 4 has just died. I hear the birds fall silent and then one give the warning call, which means a hovercraft is about to appear. Confused, I think it’s for Glimmer, although this doesn’t quite make sense because I’m still in the picture, still fighting for the arrows. I lurch back onto my knees and the trees around me begin to spin in circles. In the middle of the sky, I spot the hovercraft. I throw myself over Glimmer’s body as if to protect it but then I see the girl from District 4 being lifted into the air and vanishing.
“Do this!” I command myself. Clenching my jaw, I dig my hands under Glimmer’s body, get a hold on what must be her rib cage, and force her onto her stomach. I can’t help it, I’m hyperventilating now, the whole thing is so nightmarish and I’m losing my grasp on what’s real. I tug on the silver sheath of arrows, but it’s caught on something, her shoulder blade, something, and finally yank it free. I’ve just encircled the sheath with my arms when I hear the footsteps, several pairs, coming through the underbrush, and I realize the Careers have come back. They’ve come back to kill me or get their weapons or both.
But it’s too late to run. I pull a slimy arrow from the sheath and try to position it on the bowstring but instead of one string I see three and the stench from the stings is so repulsive I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I can’t do it.
I’m helpless as the first hunter crashes through the trees, spear lifted, poised to throw. The shock on Peeta’s face makes no sense to me. I wait for the blow. Instead his arm drops to his side.
“What are you still doing here?” he hisses at me. I stare uncomprehendingly as a trickle of water drips off a sting under his ear. His whole body starts sparkling as if he’s been dipped in dew. “Are you mad?” He’s prodding me with the shaft of the spear now. “Get up! Get up!” I rise, but he’s still pushing at me. What? What is going on? He shoves me away from him hard. “Run!” he screams. “Run!”
Behind him, Cato slashes his way through the brush. He’s sparkling wet, too, and badly stung under one eye. I catch the gleam of sunlight on his sword and do as Peeta says. Holding tightly to my bow and arrows, banging into trees that appear out of nowhere, tripping and falling as I try to keep my balance. Back past my pool and into unfamiliar woods. The world begins to bend in alarming ways. A butterfly balloons to the size of a house then shatters into a million stars. Trees transform to blood and splash down over my boots. Ants begin to crawl out of the blisters on my hands and I can’t shake them free. They’re climbing up my arms, my neck. Someone’s screaming, a long high pitched scream that never breaks for breath. I have a vague idea it might be me. I trip and fall into a small pit lined with tiny orange bubbles that hum like the tracker jacker nest. Tucking my knees up to my chin, I wait for death.
Sick and disoriented, I’m able to form only one thought: Peeta Mellark just saved my life.
Then the ants bore into my eyes and I black out.