Hunger Games 02 - Catching Fire Read online
For my parents,
Jane and Michael Collins,
and my parents-in-law,
Dixie and Charles Pryor
I clasp the flask between my hands even though the warmth from the tea has long since leached into the frozen air. My muscles are clenched tight against the cold. If a pack of wild dogs were to appear at this moment, the odds of scaling a tree before they attacked are not in my favor. I should get up, move around, and work the stiffness from my limbs. But instead I sit, as motionless as the rock beneath me, while the dawn begins to lighten the woods. I can’t fight the sun. I can only watch helplessly as it drags me into a day that I’ve been dreading for months.
By noon they will all be at my new house in the Victor’s Village. The reporters, the camera crews, even Effie Trinket, my old escort, will have made their way to District 12 from the Capitol. I wonder if Effie will still be wearing that silly pink wig, or if she’ll be sporting some other unnatural color especially for the Victory Tour. There will be others waiting, too. A staff to cater to my every need on the long train trip. A prep team to beautify me for public appearances. My stylist and friend, Cinna, who designed the gorgeous outfits that first made the audience take notice of me in the Hunger Games.
If it were up to me, I would try to forget the Hunger Games entirely. Never speak of them. Pretend they were nothing but a bad dream. But the Victory Tour makes that impossible. Strategically placed almost midway between the annual Games, it is the Capitol’s way of keeping the horror fresh and immediate. Not only are we in the districts forced to remember the iron grip of the Capitol’s power each year, we are forced to celebrate it. And this year, I am one of the stars of the show. I will have to travel from district to district, to stand before the cheering crowds who secretly loathe me, to look down into the faces of the families whose children I have killed…
The sun persists in rising, so I make myself stand. All my joints complain and my left leg has been asleep for so long that it takes several minutes of pacing to bring the feeling back into it. I’ve been in the woods three hours, but as I’ve made no real attempt at hunting, I have nothing to show for it. It doesn’t matter for my mother and little sister, Prim, anymore. They can afford to buy butcher meat in town, although none of us likes it any better than fresh game. But my best friend, Gale Hawthorne, and his family will be depending on today’s haul and I can’t let them down. I start the hour-and-a-half trek it will take to cover our snare line. Back when we were in school, we had time in the afternoons to check the line and hunt and gather and still get back to trade in town. But now that Gale has gone to work in the coal mines—and I have nothing to do all day—I’ve taken over the job.
By this time Gale will have clocked in at the mines, taken the stomach-churning elevator ride into the depths of the earth, and be pounding away at a coal seam. I know what it’s like down there. Every year in school, as part of our training, my class had to tour the mines. When I was little, it was just unpleasant. The claustrophobic tunnels, foul air, suffocating darkness on all sides. But after my father and several other miners were killed in an explosion, I could barely force myself onto the elevator. The annual trip became an enormous source of anxiety. Twice I made myself so sick in anticipation of it that my mother kept me home because she thought I had contracted the flu.
I think of Gale, who is only really alive in the woods, with its fresh air and sunlight and clean, flowing water. I don’t know how he stands it. Well…yes, I do. He stands it because it’s the way to feed his mother and two younger brothers and sister. And here I am with buckets of money, far more than enough to feed both our families now, and he won’t take a single coin. It’s even hard for him to let me bring in meat, although he’d surely have kept my mother and Prim supplied if I’d been killed in the Games. I tell him he’s doing me a favor, that it drives me nuts to sit around all day. Even so, I never drop off the game while he’s at home. Which is easy since he works twelve hours a day.
The only time I really get to see Gale now is on Sundays, when we meet up in the woods to hunt together. It’s still the best day of the week, but it’s not like it used to be before, when we could tell each other anything. The Games have spoiled even that. I keep hoping that as time passes we’ll regain the ease between us, but part of me knows it’s futile. There’s no going back.
I get a good haul from the traps—eight rabbits, two squirrels, and a beaver that swam into a wire contraption Gale designed himself. He’s something of a whiz with snares, rigging them to bent saplings so they pull the kill out of the reach of predators, balancing logs on delicate stick triggers, weaving inescapable baskets to capture fish. As I go along, carefully resetting each snare, I know I can never quite replicate his eye for balance, his instinct for where the prey will cross the path. It’s more than experience. It’s a natural gift. Like the way I can shoot at an animal in almost complete darkness and still take it down with one arrow.
By the time I make it back to the fence that surrounds District 12, the sun is well up. As always, I listen a moment, but there’s no telltale hum of electrical current running through the chain link. There hardly ever is, even though the thing is supposed to be charged full-time. I wriggle through the opening at the bottom of the fence and come up in the Meadow, just a stone’s throw from my home. My old home. We still get to keep it since officially it’s the designated dwelling of my mother and sister. If I should drop dead right now, they would have to return to it. But at present, they’re both happily installed in the new house in the Victor’s Village, and I’m the only one who uses the squat little place where I was raised. To me, it’s my real home.
I go there now to switch my clothes. Exchange my father’s old leather jacket for a fine wool coat that always seems too tight in the shoulders. Leave my soft, worn hunting boots for a pair of expensive machine-made shoes that my mother thinks are more appropriate for someone of my status. I’ve already stowed my bow and arrows in a hollow log in the woods. Although time is ticking away, I allow myself a few minutes to sit in the kitchen. It has an abandoned quality with no fire on the hearth, no cloth on the table. I mourn my old life here. We barely scraped by, but I knew where I fit in, I knew what my place was in the tightly interwoven fabric that was our life. I wish I could go back to it because, in retrospect, it seems so secure compared with now, when I am so rich and so famous and so hated by the authorities in the Capitol.
A wailing at the back door demands my attention. I open it to find Buttercup, Prim’s scruffy old tomcat. He dislikes the new house almost as much as I do and always leaves it when my sister’s at school. We’ve never been particularly fond of each other, but now we have this new bond. I let him in, feed him a chunk of beaver fat, and even rub him between the ears for a bit. “You’re hideous, you know that, right?” I ask him. Buttercup nudges my hand for more petting, but we have to go. “Come on, you.” I scoop him up with one hand, grab my game bag with the other, and haul them both out onto the street. The cat springs free and disappears under a bush.
The shoes pinch my toes as I crunch along the cinder street. Cutting down alleys and through backyards gets me to Gale’s house in minutes. His mother, Hazelle, sees me through the window, where she’s bent over the kitchen sink. She dries her hands on her apron and disappears to meet me at the door.
I like Hazelle. Respect her. The explosion that killed my father took out her husband as well, leaving her with three boys and a baby due any day. Less than a week after she gave birth, she was out hunting the streets for work. The mines weren’t an option, what with a baby to look af