I enter a nightmare from which I wake repeatedly only to find a greater terror awaiting me. All the things I dread most, all the things I dread for others manifest in such vivid detail I can’t help but believe they’re real. Each time I wake, I think, At last, this is over, but it isn’t. It’s only the beginning of a new chapter of torture. How many ways do I watch Prim die? Relive my father’s last moments? Feel my own body ripped apart? This is the nature of the tracker jacker venom, so carefully created to target the place where fear lives in your brain.
When I finally do come to my senses, I lie still, waiting for the next onslaught of imagery. But eventually I accept that the poison must have finally worked its way out of my system, leaving my body wracked and feeble. I’m still lying on my side, locked in the fetal position. I lift a hand to my eyes to find them sound, untouched by ants that never existed. Simply stretching out my limbs requires an enormous effort. So many parts of me hurt, it doesn’t seem worthwhile taking inventory of them. Very, very slowly I manage to sit up. I’m in a shallow hole, not filled with the humming orange bubbles of my hallucination but with old, dead leaves. My clothing’s damp, but I don’t know whether pond water, dew, rain, or sweat is the cause. For a long time, all I can do is take tiny sips from my bottle and watch a beetle crawl up the side of a honeysuckle bush.
How long have I been out? It was morning when I lost reason. Now it’s afternoon. But the stiffness in my joints suggests more than a day has passed, even two possibly. If so, I’ll have no way of knowing which tributes survived that tracker jacker attack. Not Glimmer or the girl from District 4. But there was the boy from District 1, both tributes from District 2, and Peeta. Did they die from the stings? Certainly if they lived, their last days must have been as horrid as my own. And what about Rue? She’s so small, it wouldn’t take much venom to do her in. But then again . . . the tracker jackers would’ve had to catch her, and she had a good head start.
A foul, rotten taste pervades my mouth, and the water has little effect on it. I drag myself over to the honeysuckle bush and pluck a flower. I gently pull the stamen through the blossom and set the drop of nectar on my tongue. The sweetness spreads through my mouth, down my throat, warming my veins with memories of summer, and my home woods and Gale’s presence beside me. For some reason, our discussion from that last morning comes back to me.
“We could do it, you know.”
“Leave the district. Run off. Live in the woods. You and I, we could make it.”
And suddenly, I’m not thinking of Gale but of Peeta and . . . Peeta! He saved my life! I think. Because by the time we met up, I couldn’t tell what was real and what the tracker jacker venom had caused me to imagine. But if he did, and my instincts tell me he did, what for? Is he simply working the Lover Boy angle he initiated at the interview? Or was he actually trying to protect me? And if he was, what was he doing with those Careers in the first place? None of it makes sense.
I wonder what Gale made of the incident for a moment and then I push the whole thing out of my mind because for some reason Gale and Peeta do not coexist well together in my thoughts.
So I focus on the one really good thing that’s happened since I landed in the arena. I have a bow and arrows! A full dozen arrows if you count the one I retrieved in the tree. They bear no trace of the noxious green slime that came from Glimmer’s body — which leads me to believe that might not have been wholly real — but they have a fair amount of dried blood on them. I can clean them later, but I do take a minute to shoot a few into a nearby tree. They are more like the weapons in the Training Center than my ones at home, but who cares? That I can work with.
The weapons give me an entirely new perspective on the Games. I know I have tough opponents left to face. But I am no longer merely prey that runs and hides or takes desperate measures. If Cato broke through the trees right now, I wouldn’t flee, I’d shoot. I find I’m actually anticipating the moment with pleasure.
But first, I have to get some strength back in my body. I’m very dehydrated again and my water supply is dangerously low. The little padding I was able to put on by gorging myself during prep time in the Capitol is gone, plus several more pounds as well. My hip bones and ribs are more prominent than I remember them being since those awful months after my father’s death. And then there are my wounds to contend with — burns, cuts, and bruises from smashing into the trees, and three tracker jacker stings, which are as sore and swollen as ever. I treat my burns with the ointment and try dabbing a bit on my stings as well, but it has no effect on them. My mother knew a treatment for them, some type of leaf that could draw out the poison, but she seldom had cause to use it, and I don’t even remember its name let alone its appearance.
Water first, I think. You can hunt along the way now. It’s easy to see the direction I came from by the path of destruction my crazed body made through the foliage. So I walk off in the other direction, hoping my enemies still lie locked in the surreal world of tracker jacker venom.
I can’t move too quickly, my joints reject any abrupt motions. But I establish the slow hunter’s tread I use when tracking game. Within a few minutes, I spot a rabbit and make my first kill with the bow and arrow. It’s not my usual clean shot through the eye, but I’ll take it. After about an hour, I find a stream, shallow but wide, and more than sufficient for my needs. The sun’s hot and severe, so while I wait for my water to purify I strip down to my underclothes and wade into the mild current. I’m filthy from head to toe, I try splashing myself but eventually just lay down in the water for a few minutes, letting it wash off the soot and blood and skin that has started to peel off my burns. After rinsing out my clothes and hanging them on bushes to dry, I sit on the bank in the sun for a bit, untangling my hair with my fingers. My appetite returns and I eat a cracker and a strip of beef. With a handful of moss, I polish the blood from my silver weapons.
Refreshed, I treat my burns again, braid back my hair, and dress in the damp clothes, knowing the sun will dry them soon enough. Following the stream against its current seems the smartest course of action. I’m traveling uphill now, which I prefer, with a source of fresh water not only for myself but possible game. I easily take out a strange bird that must be some form of wild turkey. Anyway, it looks plenty edible to me. By late afternoon, I decide to build a small fire to cook the meat, betting that dusk will help conceal the smoke and I can quench the fire by nightfall. I clean the game, taking extra care with the bird, but there’s nothing alarming about it. Once the feathers are plucked, it’s no bigger than a chicken, but it’s plump and firm. I’ve just placed the first lot over the coals when I hear the twig snap.
In one motion, I turn to the sound, bringing the bow and arrow to my shoulder. There’s no one there. No one I can see anyway. Then I spot the tip of a child’s boot just peeking out from behind the trunk of a tree. My shoulders relax and I grin. She can move through the woods like a shadow, you have to give her that. How else could she have followed me? The words come out of my mouth before I can stop them.
“You know, they’re not the only ones who can form alliances,” I say.
For a moment, no response. Then one of Rue’s eyes edges around the trunk. “You want me for an ally?”
“Why not? You saved me with those tracker jackers. You’re smart enough to still be alive. And I can’t seem to shake you anyway,” I say. She blinks at me, trying to decide. “You hungry?” I can see her swallow hard, her eye flickering to the meat. “Come on then, I’ve had two kills today.”
Rue tentatively steps out into the open. “I can fix your stings.”
“Can you?” I ask. “How?”
She digs in the pack she carries and pulls out a handful of leaves. I’m almost certain they’re the ones my mother uses. “Where’d you find those?”
“Just around. We all carry them when we work in the orchards. They left a lot of nests there,” says Rue. “There are a lot here, too.”
“That’s right. You’re District Eleven. Agriculture,” I say. “Orchards, huh? That must be how you can fly around the trees like you’ve got wings.” Rue smiles. I’ve landed on one of the few things she’ll admit pride in. “Well, come on, then. Fix me up.”
I plunk down by the fire and roll up my pant leg to reveal the sting on my knee. To my surprise, Rue places the handful of leaves into her mouth and begins to chew them. My mother would use other methods, but it’s not like we have a lot of options. After a minute or so, Rue presses a gloppy green wad of chewed leaves and spit on my knee.
“Ohhh.” The sound comes out of my mouth before I can stop it. It’s as if the leaves are actually leaching the pain right out of the sting.
Rue gives a giggle. “Lucky you had the sense to pull the stingers out or you’d be a lot worse.”
“Do my neck! Do my cheek!” I almost beg.
Rue stuffs another handful of leaves in her mouth, and soon I’m laughing because the relief is so sweet. I notice a long burn on Rue’s forearm. “I’ve got something for that.” I set aside my weapons and anoint her arm with the burn medicine.
“You have good sponsors,” she says longingly.
“Have you gotten anything yet?” I ask. She shakes her head. “You will, though. Watch. The closer we get to the end, the more people will realize how clever you are.” I turn the meat over.
“You weren’t joking, about wanting me for an ally?” she asks.
“No, I meant it,” I say. I can almost hear Haymitch groaning as I team up with this wispy child. But I want her. Because she’s a survivor, and I trust her, and why not admit it? She reminds me of Prim.
“Okay,” she says, and holds out her hand. We shake. “It’s a deal.”
Of course, this kind of deal can only be temporary, but neither of us mentions that.
Rue contributes a big handful of some sort of starchy root to the meal. Roasted over the fire, they have the sharp sweet taste of a parsnip. She recognizes the bird, too, some wild thing they call a groosling in her district. She says sometimes a flock will wander into the orchard and they get a decent lunch that day. For a while, all conversation stops as we fill our stomachs. The groosling has delicious meal that’s so fatty, the grease drips down your face when you bite into it.
“Oh,” says Rue with a sigh. “I’ve never had a whole leg to myself before.”
I’ll bet she hasn’t. I’ll bet meat hardly ever comes her way. “Take the other,” I say.
“Really?” she asks.
“Take whatever you want. Now that I’ve got a bow and arrows, I can get more. Plus I’ve got snares. I can show you how to set them,” I say. Rue still looks uncertainly at the leg. “Oh, take it,” I say, putting the drumstick in her hands. “It will only keep a few days anyway, and we’ve got the whole bird plus the rabbit.” Once she’s got hold of it, her appetite wins out and she takes a huge mouthful.
“I’d have thought, in District Eleven, you’d have a bit more to eat than us. You know, since you grow the food,” I say.
Rue’s eyes widen. “Oh, no, we’re not allowed to eat the crops.”
“They arrest you or something?” I ask.
“They whip you and make everyone else watch,” says Rue. “The mayor’s very strict about it.”
I can tell by her expression that it’s not that uncommon an occurrence. A public whipping’s a rare thing in District 12, although occasionally one occurs. Technically, Gale and I could be whipped on a daily basis for poaching in the woods — well, technically, we could get a whole lot worse — except all the officials buy our meat. Besides, our mayor, Madge’s father, doesn’t seem to have much taste for such events. Maybe being the least prestigious, poorest, most ridiculed district in the country has its advantages. Such as, being largely ignored by the Capitol as long as we produce our coal quotas.
“Do you get all the coal you want?” Rue asks.
“No,” I answer. “Just what we buy and whatever we track in on our boots.”
“They feed us a bit extra during harvest, so that people can keep going longer,” says Rue.
“Don’t you have to be in school?” I ask.
“Not during harvest. Everyone works then,” says Rue.
It’s interesting, hearing about her life. We have so little communication with anyone outside our district. In fact, I wonder if the Gamemakers are blocking out our conversation, because even though the information seems harmless, they don’t want people in different districts to know about one another.
At Rue’s suggestion, we lay out all our food to plan ahead. She’s seen most of mine, but I add the last couple of crackers and beef strips to the pile. She’s gathered quite a collection of roots, nuts, greens, and even some berries.
I roll an unfamiliar berry in my fingers. “You sure this is safe?”
“Oh, yes, we have them back home. I’ve been eating them for days,” she says, popping a handful in her mouth. I tentatively bite into one, and it’s as good as our blackberries. Taking Rue on as an ally seems a better choice all the time. We divide up our food supplies, so in case we’re separated, we’ll both be set for a few days. Apart from the food, Rue has a small water skin, a homemade slingshot, and an extra pair of socks. She also has a sharp shard of rock she uses as a knife. “I know it’s not much,” she says as if embarrassed, “but I had to get away from the Cornucopia fast.”
“You did just right,” I say. When I spread out my gear, she gasps a little when she sees the sunglasses.
“How did you get those?” she asks.
“In my pack. They’ve been useless so far. They don’t block the sun and they make it harder to see,” I say with a shrug.
“These aren’t for sun, they’re for darkness,” exclaims Rue. “Sometimes, when we harvest through the night, they’ll pass out a few pairs to those of us highest in the trees. Where the torchlight doesn’t reach. One time, this boy Martin, he tried to keep his pair. Hid it in his pants. They killed him on the spot.”
“They killed a boy for taking these?” I say.
“Yes, and everyone knew he was no danger. Martin wasn’t right in the head. I mean, he still acted like a three-year-old. He just wanted the glasses to play with,” says Rue.
Hearing this makes me feel like District 12 is some sort of safe haven. Of course, people keel over from starvation all the time, but I can’t imagine the Peacekeepers murdering a simpleminded child. There’s a little girl, one of Greasy Sae’s grandkids, who wanders around the Hob. She’s not quite right, but she’s treated as a sort of pet. People toss her scraps and things.
“So what do these do?” I ask Rue, taking the glasses.
“They let you see in complete darkness,” says Rue. “Try them tonight when the sun goes down.”
I give Rue some matches and she makes sure I have plenty of leaves in case my stings flare up again. We extinguish our fire and head upstream until it’s almost nightfall.
“Where do you sleep?” I ask her. “In the trees?” She nods. “In just your jacket?”
Rue holds up her extra pair of socks. “I have these for my hands.”
I think of how cold the nights have been. “You can share my sleeping bag if you want. We’ll both easily fit.” Her face lights up. I can tell this is more than she dared hope for.
We pick a fork high in a tree and settle in for the night just as the anthem begins to play. There were no deaths today.
“Rue, I only woke up today. How many nights did I miss?” The anthem should block out our words, but still I whisper. I even take the precaution of covering my lips with my hand. I don’t want the audience to know what I’m planning to tell her about Peeta. Taking a cue from me, she does the same.
“Two,” she says. “The girls from Districts One and Four are dead. There’s ten of us left.”
“Something strange happened. At least, I think it did. It might have been the tracker jacker venom making me imagine things,” I say. “You know the boy from my district? Peeta? I think he saved my life. But he was with the Careers.”
“He’s not with them now,” she says. “I’ve spied on their base camp by the lake. They made it back before they collapsed from the stingers. But he’s not there. Maybe he did save you and had to run.”
I don’t answer. If, in fact, Peeta did save me, I’m in his debt again. And this can’t be paid back. “If he did, it was all probably just part of his act. You know, to make people think he’s in love with me.”
“Oh,” says Rue thoughtfully. “I didn’t think that was an act.”
“Course it is,” I say. “He worked it out with our mentor.” The anthem ends and the sky goes dark. “Let’s try out these glasses.” I pull out the glasses and slip them on. Rue wasn’t kidding. I can see everything from the leaves on the trees to a skunk strolling through the bushes a good fifty feet away. I could kill it from here if I had a mind to. I could kill anyone.
“I wonder who else got a pair of these,” I say.
“The Careers have two pairs. But they’ve got everything down by the lake,” Rue says. “And they’re so strong.”
“We’re strong, too,” I say. “Just in a different way.”
“You are. You can shoot,” she says. “What can I do?”
“You can feed yourself. Can they?” I ask.
“They don’t need to. They have all those supplies,” Rue says.
“Say they didn’t. Say the supplies were gone. How long would they last?” I say. “I mean, it’s the Hunger Games, right?”
“But, Katniss, they’re not hungry,” says Rue.
“No, they’re not. That’s the problem,” I agree. And for the first time, I have a plan. A plan that isn’t motivated by the need for flight and evasion. An offensive plan. “I think we’re going to have to fix that, Rue.”