Chapter 2 – Fear
Some things hurt right away, like being force-fed your own personal slice of hell. You think that once it’s down, you’ve survived. But that’s only the beginning. Now it’s part of you; now it’s killing you from the inside out. The worst things are the ones that hurt later.
The whirring sound of the train is lulling me into a restless nightmare. Every time I close my eyes I see hers. I didn’t want her to come say goodbye to me. I didn’t want to see her at all. But I can’t stop thinking about it, over and over. Mom and Dad were saying their goodbyes after the ceremony before she came in.
Mom and Dad looked more flustered than I did. As soon as I saw Mom’s face, I knew she wanted to scream ‘why?’. She wanted to tell me that it wasn’t worth dying for a girl I would probably never live to love. But she didn’t say it. She wiped her tears, her mouth a thin, tight line and came over to hug me. She kissed my cheek. They both said they were proud of me, and they loved me.
And then Dad pulled all three of us into one big hug. That’s when the door cracked open, and I saw her long, dark hair swishing through the opening. Her eyes were bright, timid.
“We’ll see you soon, son,” Dad said, turning away so I couldn’t see his face, taking Mom with him.
Suzie stood in the doorway, wordlessly. For a second we both just stood there looking at each other. Her eyes were still red from crying, and her dress was a pale blue. Part of me was screaming; this might be the last time I would ever see Suzie again. What if I died before I ever told her? What if she never knew? What if she did? What would happen then?
“You didn’t have to come,” I finally said. The seconds, which had been tripping over each other in their hurry had now slammed to a complete stop, leaving me hanging in the moment, squirming.
Suzie took a step closer. She looked at the floor. “I’ve never talked to you before,” she said quietly, “and yet you just saved my brother’s life…I had to say ‘thank you’”
Silence flooded the room again. My brain was jumping like it was getting electrocuted, so many thoughts were pulsing through at once, sentence fragments, explanations, whole novels in my head I wanted to tell her. But I was mute.
“Why?” she almost whispered. “Why did you volunteer?”
Because I love you. There is only one answer for that question. Wasn’t it obvious?
She just looked at me with those big eyes, a thousand different shades of green.
“I…I just did,” I said. “I felt like it was the right thing to do.”
Suzie sucked in a breath. Her lips pursed in thought, and I fought the urge to pull her against me and kiss her.
Her eyes flitted back to mine, and she threw her arms around my neck, reaching up on her tip toes. “I don’t want to be the reason you die,” she whispered, her voice cracking. “I know it’s a horribly selfish thing to say, considering what you’re doing, but I’ll never be able to live with myself if something happens to you.”
I pulled back and looked into her eyes. Could she sense what I felt? “You won’t be the reason I die,” I said. “You’ll be the reason I live.”
For the quickest instant, a smile hovered on her face, lighting up her eyes. “I’ll never forget you, Ned Rickman,” she said. “I’m indebted to you forever.”
And all too quickly, the clock jumped back into play as the seconds zipped away again, out of my reach. Suzie’s dark hair swished as she pulled back towards the door. Just before she got there, she paused. “I believe in you,” she said. And then she was gone.
“Morphling. You ever heard of it?” Lyda Humphrey asks, blue eyes hard, grey-streaked red hair pulled back in a tight bun. I’d never met her before this morning, but I heard that she won the games twenty-two years ago when she was eighteen by setting death traps for her opponents in the arena. After coming home, her fiancé disappeared, and she got hooked on the drug, Morhpling.
“Of course I’ve heard of it,” I reply, sitting on an orange leather couch, the pounding in my chest dulled to a slow death march.
“A victor’s best friend, I’m telling you,” she drawls, sitting at the dark oak table in the centre of the cab, forking a piece of stake. “Want some?” she adds, pointing to her plate.
“I already ate.” One last hurried meal with my family–the last meal I might ever have with them.
“Not like this you haven’t,” she says. “One good thing about getting reaped is they treat you like a king before sending you to the slaughterhouse.”
I’m glad Humphrey has such high expectations for me. “What happened to your fiancé?” I ask.
The grin evaporates from her face, and she stops chewing. “Kenneth and I were going to get married. Screw everyone who said seventeen was too young–we knew what we wanted. But then his father got hurt–accident at the Hub–and the medicine he needed wasn’t available. But Kenneth got it; he never told me how. He was brave, Kenneth was. The bravest person I’ve ever met. The Reaping was coming; we were going to get married the week after…”
For a second, Humphrey looks younger. The ghost of a girl, the one she used to, be breaks through the narrow lines of her long, worn face. And then the bitterness returns. “But I got reaped,” she says. “And I thought I’d never see him again.”
“How did you do it?” I asked. “Did knowing he was waiting for you help you in the arena, or did it just make things worse?”
“Love makes you crazy, boy,” she says. “I’m sure you’ve heard of those death traps I constructed; they weren’t a pretty sight, but I did it because I had to. And it paid off. I won. I got back home, and there was a huge celebration. But Kenneth wasn’t there. He’d been taken to the Capitol for questioning about stealing the medical supplies that’d saved his father’s life. I never saw Kenneth again.”
“Why?” I ask softly. “Were they trying to get to you?”
“They’re always trying to get to you,” Lyda says, stabbing her steak with her knife. “The Capitol will take everything you have. Even if you beat them in the Games, they’ll break you. Because once your will is broken, they own you. And you’ll never step out of line.” She looks up, fury in her eyes. “So I had my Morphling to make it better, to make the pain go away. But it only made it worse. I saw Kenneth in my head, heard his voice. If I didn’t get off the stuff, I would’ve gone crazy–crazier than I am now.”
She sighs and pushes her plate away. “Point is, don’t let them know your weakness. You’ve got a girl, don’t tell them. You’ve got hopes and dreams, keep’em to yourself. An awful lot of people spill their guts to Ceasar Flickman, and it always comes back and bites them in the ass.” She looks at me. “You’ve got a girl, don’t ya? That brunette who was squealing all over that boy you volunteered for?”
I nod. “I did it for her.”
She clicked her tongue. “That’s a problem.”
“What do you mean it’s a problem? It was my choice.”
“It’s your weakness,” Humphrey says, “just like it was mine.”
“You didn’t go into the games to save someone you loved.”
“But I had someone I loved, and it nearly drove me mad.”
“But you won.”
“And I lost myself. If you want to win you have to forget the brunette, forget everyone. You have to do it for yourself.”
“I am doing it for myself.”
Humphrey looks at me. “So if the Peacekeepers attacked her house and killed her and her family this instant, you’re saying that you’d still be just as thrilled about winning the games? You’d still have a drive to live?”
“First of all, I was never ‘thrilled’ about the Games,” I reply. “And yeah, I’d still fight. I’d win so I could get revenge. What do you think I’d do–roll over and die?”
“I dunno. But love makes you crazy, I’m warning you,” Humphrey says. “I don’t know what’s going through your head, but I know what went through mine.”
“What did you do when they killed Kenneth?” I ask.
“Morphling. I told you. If my family didn’t force me off it, I would’ve been dead–brain dead at the very least.”
I look over to the other side of the train where Nevelyn, the other tribute, sits.
Humphrey notices my gaze. “I sure hope she’s not in love,” she says.
Nevelyn’s bright red hair falls down her back, and she sitting on a chair talking to Wril Meggo, the male mentor. Despite the fact that he’s sixty-two, his face still looks young, and almost happy, with laughing blue eyes that have obviously never seen Morphling. His wispy grey hair goes down to his shoulders, and he’s eating a muffin so big it shouldn’t be allowed to exist. Meggo won the games when he was only fourteen. I’ve been told he was a skinny kid, and nobody took him seriously. He surprised them by jumping down from trees in the middle of the night and stabbing the other tributes to death.
I lean back against the couch and focus on breathing, maybe even sleeping. I’ll need all of my strength. But as soon as the room starts to dim and slow around me, I see her eyes. I feel her breath on my neck when she hugged me, her voice in my ears. In my dream she’s begging me, “Don’t go. Don’t die.” I’m holding her so close I can feel her heartbeat. And then she melts in my hands, staining my skin red. In an instant she’s gone, and only a puddle remains, dark red, bubbling around my feet, burning me. The flames lick my bloodstained clothes, and her voice whimpers from the ground, “Don’t go. Don’t die.” But she’s dead, and I’m burning alive.
* * *
A bead of sweat rolls down my back, and I feel a cramp coming on. But I don’t loosen my from grip from the handle. I hold the pickaxe tighter and bring it down on the wood again and again, harder, faster. With every slice, every satisfying split of wood, I regain strength. I won’t stop until all that’s left is wood chips, ashes. I’ll destroy it all.
Some of the other tributes have paused to watch me, but I don’t care who sees me. I don’t care what they do, and I don’t give a damn if Humphrey thinks I’m weak. This is who I am; this is how I feel. Deal with it.
The knots, pressure points, and trap-setting stations aren’t nearly as interesting as the pickaxe one. I also enjoyed the knife session. I feel like there’s a beast inside me, clawing to get out. Maybe Humphrey was right. It hasn’t even been forty-eight hours since I left District 6, and I already feel like someone else.
Meggo tries to flag me down after my shower, but I ignore him and let Eliana usher me off to meet my stylist. She’s a tiny girl, Enriqua Songlasia, with hazel eyes as big as hour glasses and pixie-short hair, bright pink.
“Get it over with,” I say, dropping my clothes, waiting for her to turn me into a zombie replica of myself. That’s what people in the Capitol are–aliens. No one here looks normal. It’s as if humanity wasn’t good enough for them so they decided to cake it with face paint and hair dye to cover everything up. But that’s just the it–some things can’t be covered.
Enriqua begins her work. She doesn’t talk very much, so I’m surprised when she actually speaks. “I know you hate the Capitol,” she says softly.
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You didn’t have to,” Enriqua replies. “But I’m not going to make you like them. I’m making you into a finer version of yourself. And in the end, you decide who that’s going to be.”
Her voice is inspiring, full of life. But her eyes are large and sad. It’s a deadness, a subtle pain that she can’t quite extinguish from her face, even beneath the layers of black makeup. Something horrible happened to her; I just know it. But I don’t ask. I’ve been through enough today.
Nevelyn and I are showered in food every minute we’re not training or sleeping. Like Humphrey said, you really do get treated like a king. Eliana follows us around like a body guard, gushing about how lovely everything is. It’s at times like that when Nevelyn and I look at each other, and I know we both want to strangle Eliana. No one should be so happy about the Hunger Games.
“Ned,” Meggo calls, right before I head upstairs for the night. I’ve been dodging him all day; I’ve started to think I’d get on better without my mentors than with them.
“What?” I ask.
“You’re afraid, son,” Meggo says, the blue light gleaming in his eyes.
I spin around to face him. “Afraid of what?”
“You can’t tell her how you feel, and I know that’s hard,” Meggo says. “But I think it’s deeper than that. I don’t think you’re afraid of coming here and risking your life in the Games, or being broadcasted live across Panem. I think you’re afraid of going back to District 6 and actually talking to this girl.”
For a full five seconds, I’m speechless. “Why would you think that?”
Scars and wrinkles line Meggo’s face, but his eyes still look young. “Because all of this is under your control, to some extent. You choose who you fight, and how. You take your own chances, you reap your own rewards. But with this girl, you’ve got nothing. It’s beyond you.”
“That’s not true,” I say, gritting my teeth.
“Then why did you wait so long?” Meggo asks. “Why didn’t you tell her before?”
Because I was busy. Because it might not work. Because I was afraid.
“You’re trapping yourself, putting your mind in a cage,” Meggo goes on. “You have to free yourself. You can’t control her emotions, but you can control yours. It’s all in your head.” “What do you want me to do?”
“Don’t win the Games for her,” Meggo says simply. “Win them for you. You can love her after. But she doesn’t determine your fate. You do. Now go get some sleep. You’ve got a big day tomorrow.”
* * *
“District Six, Ned Rickman,” a nasally voice says, announcing me into the training room for my evaluation. I got up at 5am, refreshed after a dreamless sleep. I stand before the Gamemakers, eating their banquet at the table. I don’t know how to impress them, so I don’t even try. Instead I fall back into my old routine. I close my eyes and think back to District Six, in The Hub. I hear the whir of the train, the sound of metal against metal, the hum of the engine, the murmur of conversation as the workers take their morning break. I can almost feel the breeze on my face. It’s familiar to me, and it’s calming.
And I begin writing on the ground, in the sand. Math is my strength; I write out a long and complicated equation that the judges probably don’t even understand. And then I act it out. I take the ropes, which I contort with fine knots, the dummies for the knife-throwing practice, the traps for the animals. I put them together in a mathematical equation that defies both logic and gravity, that sends the knife spinning through the air, drops the rope, pulls the trap, strings up the dummy and stabs through its heart.
I walk out the door and don’t look back.
“This is for you, Suzie,” I whisper. “Even if I never get to tell you. Even if I do.”