Chapter 2 – Breathe
I can’t breathe. The air smells like perfume, thick, smothering perfumes that forces itself down my lungs and settles in my stomach like a disease. I gasp and bolt upright in a bed that’s too soft, too cold. I huddled sideways at the foot of the bed, gold, swirls of silky blanket tangled on the floor. I can’t stop shaking, and there’s this feeling in my stomach like I’m falling down a deep, empty well. Hollow echoes crowd my mind as the room begins to spin, and it takes everything I have not to scream.
That’s when the door open and an Avox comes in. Last night when I first saw her, I was speechless–just like she will always be. She looks barely older than I am, with wide blue eyes and a soft curtain of dark hair. She used hand motions and nodded to me encouragingly, but all I could do was gape at her mouth, frozen by the thought of the Capitol ripping out her tongue.
The Avox seems genuinely concerned for me, which I can’t understand. If I were her, I’d probably want to die. She comes over and sets down a tray, steaming with tempting smells. I’ve barely eaten since I got here; everything tastes like sawdust. I don’t care if Hutch tells me I’m going to starve in the arena. I just don’t care.
The Avox is still looking at me, then glances at the tray, questioningly.
“Thank you,” I manage to squeak out.
She walks around the bed and picks up the blankets, wrapping them around my shoulders. She smiles at me as she leaves.
I force myself to eat. I think these are called pancakes–I’ve never had them before. They’re sweet and gooey, and the meat is crunchy. If I had this meal at home, I’d consider myself a queen. But here I feel like less than a slave. I try not to think about home, Mother, with tears leaking out of her eyes despite her greatest effort to hide them as she hugged me goodbye, Father whispering that he loved me, the Peacekeepers pulling them away, me screaming and kicking and clawing like a wild animal. Animals–that’s what we tributes are. And now it’s time to feed us so we’re fat and pretty before we die.
My mentor, Nickie Nannite, is the tinniest woman I have ever seen. I’m taller than her, and I thought I was short. She won the games when she was sixteen. Her blond hair is always frizzy, and there’s fire in her voice when she talks. She really believes in me, and the other tribute, Jose. She says we can do anything we set our minds to. Her confidences is almost discouraging–mostly because I’m lacking it completely. The other mentor, Jackson, talks more with Jose. I don’t talk much with either of them.
I’ve been dreading meeting my stylist. I’ve heard his work is some of the finest in all of Panem, but I don’t want to see him, or meet him, or talk to him. And I definitely don’t want to be naked around him; I want to go home. I promised myself I wouldn’t resort to whining, but my heart is pounding in my head, and I feel like I’m about to meet a sword-wielding Career from District 2 instead of my stylist. That’s the thing about the Capitol. They turn everything upside down and make it all unnatural and uncomfortable.
A different Avox leads me to the small, yet spacious room where I shed my clothes and sit on the table, wrapped in a pale white towel. You’d think that this being the Capitol, they’d have nicer looking towels. Especially for the stylists.
I almost stop breathing again when he comes in. The first thing I see are his eyes, orange balls of fire, hooded by long dark lashes. His blue-black hair is slicked back into a pony-tail, and his skin is covered in spider-web-like brown tattoos, which contrast against his light skin. He can’t be more than twenty-five, maybe less. He doesn’t look me over like some piece of meat, like an animal waiting to be butchered. Instead, he looks me in the eyes, like a human being. And then he bows.
“Thimble,” he says, in a deep, soft voice. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. My name is Tobi Raballos.” He smiles. Not the way other Capitol people smile, like Kiran Hutch, jeering at Jose and I across the table, or even Nickie’s overzealous grin. Tobi’s smile is calming, somehow. It reminds me of home.
“Hi,” I almost whisper. I don’t know what else to say, except that my heart has stopped pounding.
“How do you feel?” he asks, still holding my gaze.
Lonely. Scared. Empty. “I don’t know,” I reply. I don’t know what he wants me to say.
“You don’t have to be afraid,” he says, taking off his gray wool cloak. “You’re safe here.”
“I took the word ‘safe’ out of my vocabulary as soon as my name was pulled from that bowl.”
“Well, it’s nice to see you’ve still got your grit and determination,” Tobi says. “Why don’t I brush your hair and you can tell me about it?”
I pull my towel tighter around me and nod.
“Close your eyes,” he says, and I do. “What do you fear the most?” Tobi asks.
Dying. No–deep down, somewhere, I think I’ve already accepted the fact that I’ll probably never make it home alive. Dying slowly. I’ve seen some pretty horrible deaths on my family’s television at home when we’re forced to watch the Games each year. Except this time I won’t have Mother with me. Or Jack. Did they accept the idea of my death when I left? Do they expect me to live? Will they look away at the death strike?
“I’m afraid of letting my family and my friends down,” I say simply. “I can’t win for them.”
There is silence for a second, and I feel the soft, coaxing rhythm of the brush in my hair. It’s a soothing feeling, despite the turmoil raging within.
“Why are you scared?” Tobi asks.
“Because I’m not strong enough,” I say slowly. “I don’t have any skills. I can’t win.” My eyes suddenly fill with tears, and I face the realization out loud. “I’m going to die.”
Tobi stops and comes to stand in front of me. He puts a hand on my shoulder. “Look at me,” he says. “Look at me.”
I sniff. Tributes shouldn’t cry. It’s a sign of weakness. But I never claimed to be strong.
“Do you know what ‘unconditional’ means?” Tobi asks.
I nod. “It means ‘no matter what’”
“Exactly. It means they’ll love you no matter what, even if you screw up, even if you’re scared. Even if you die. The Capitol thinks they own you because they’ve stolen you from your home and trapped you in an arena to fight to the death. But do you know what they can’t do? They can’t take your passion, or your hope, or your love. And at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you do, it matters who you are, and what you stand for. Your mother will love you, no matter what. And the Capitol can never take that away.”
He keeps brushing my hair, stroke by stroke. I don’t say anything, but I close my eyes again. My tears still streaming silently. Maybe it’s okay to cry. Maybe it’s okay to be afraid. Because that means you have something to fight for, something to live for. And even if you don’t live in the end, it’ll always be there, your love, your family’s love, untouchable, unstoppable.
For the first time, I feel at rest.
The rest of the week passes in a dream. I begin eating my food, enjoying my meals, training with Nickie, even though we still don’t quite click. In the training room I visit nearly all of the stations. I’m good at the target practice and the trap making. I learn about how to gather food, tie knots–knots that result in human traps that can string people up by their ankles. And every day, I think about my family. Mother, and Father, probably worried sick about me back home. And it gives me strength, and hope.
“Thimble,” Nickie hisses. It’s almost midnight, and tomorrow is the Tribute Evaluation.
I pad across the scarlet carpet and open the door. There are large, purple bags under Nickie’s eyes. “I want you to know something,” she says softly. “…after I won the games, I thought my life would be perfect. I thought I’d live like a queen for the rest of my life.”
I don’t say anything, sensing a negative turn in the story.
“But from that moment on, my life wasn’t my own anymore,” Nickie says. “The Capitol told me where to live, who to live with, what to do. It drove me crazy, and I hated them.”
This came something as a shock to me. “You haven’t stopped smiling since you got here,” I say. “You’re so positive it’s painful. And you say you hate them?”
“A smile can mean many things, Thimble,” Nickie replies. “Some people smile because they’re happy. Some people smile to hide the pain. And that’s something I never want you to experience. Don’t let them control you like I let them control me, Thimble. Fight for what you believe in. Fight for all the people who can’t.” Nickie may not be the best mentor, but being a mentor isn’t the best job. I know how she feels, what it’s like to have your life fly out of control.
“I will,” I say quietly.
Nickie touches my arm. “You’re a fighter, Thimble. I can see it in your eyes.” And then she turns and walks silently back down the long hallway.
The next morning, I’m standing in a room full of tributes, nervously shifting my weight from one foot to another. When it’s finally my turn, I don’t let myself think about it. I just act. I go from station to station; I show the Gamemakers my human ankle traps, my slingshot practice, my camouflage. I may not be tall, but I’m strong. I may not be skilled, but I’m smart. I might not win these Games, but I’ll never give up. And no one–not even the Capitol, can take that away.