Crown of Thorns

In the arena, you make a choice. It doesn't matter who you were yesterday or last week or before, because that's all behind you. It doesn't matter how kind you were and how everyone thought of you as a friend. What matters is the knife in your hand and the kid who is your prey, your prey because it's better them dead than you.

Elesabeth Reston's life is shattered by a name. Hers. No one expects her to last a day in the arena, not even her family. Fifteen years old, and not athletic or strong or anything. But brute force isn't everything. And Elesabeth is determined to get home.

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3. Chapter 2

The silence is pounding. Crushing down on my chest, my breath coming out in shallow gasps. My eyes are wide, and I feel weak. Weak, not just at the knees, but everywhere. But strangely, I do not feel shock. I am not surprised that it was my name that was called. It feels like a dream. It is a dream, it must be, because this is my idea of a nightmare. I cannot fight. I cannot do anything, not physically. Panic starts to bubble in my chest, and I stop thinking. That is my defence that no one can take away from me- when I walk past the traitors hanging for their crimes, when I watch the hunger games. I go away inside and stop thinking about it.  My heart is beating as if I've just run a marathon, and my face, I know, is drained of blood. But I do not cry. Not yet. I cannot think about it, or I will.

One foot out, in front of the other. People move for me with tight expressions, pity and relief mingled on their faces, because they know I have no chance of winning. A skinny, ordinary girl who cannot wield a needle, let alone a sword- stands no chance against the brutes other districts will produce. But every eligible girl is thinking the same thing- that it is better me than them. Even my best friend, even my best friend will think the same.

I am on auto pilot. My steps are methodical and silent and steady, a ghost walking through a graveyard. I am dripping with sweat, but my face is devoid of emotion. I am a machine. I  focus on my muscles, feeling them tighten with every stride, and then loosen again. I have always had long legs- my mother says she envies them. She also is constantly berating me for my bad posture. I draw myself up as I approach the stairs.

The Capitol man is saying something, something about me to the crowd, and a soft round of applause follows. Applause, I know, because it is me and not them. I do not judge them, though, do not even look at them. My eyes are focused on a place in the distance.

There are no volunteers for me. Not my best friend, not any of my friends. Maybe they will be sad to see me die, but friendship only goes so far.

No one will die for me, I know, I knew that. And yet, it still cuts like a knife when no one protests.

Any seed of hope I might have had is crushed.

The Capitol man is squeaking something, and he walks over to the glass orb that holds the boys' names. What I cannot understand about him- about Capitol people, full stop- is their constant need for chatter. They cannot stand silence.

I stand still as a statue carved of stone. I let myself pretend that I am stone, cold and unfeeling and unbreakable. My eyes stay fixated on the dilapidated buildings of the square. I do not search for anyone I know. I do not- if I did, I would lose the fragile hold I have on my emotions.

The rest of the crowd draws in a collective breath as the enthusiastic voice of the escort reads out the name on the slip.

The name of my opponent.

At least, one of them.

I do not trust myself to turn my head.

Jonathon Parks.

My heart drops like a stone.

Heads turn towards a stocky seventeen year old I know by sight. With short black hair and impossibly bright green eyes, he's the subject of more than one conversation. He's strong, too. Apparently he works the machines in one of the factories. To hear Nicola Boric tell it, he's got the abs of a body builder. And he is my enemy. If I am to live, he will have to die.

He will be the district favourite.

When they make us shake hands, I cannot look him in the eye.

The Capitol man squeaks some more, the mayor speaks, the ceremony is over. Peacekeepers in their pristine uniforms march us into the Justice Building, and we disappear from view. My two guards, a woman and a man, are silent as we take the elevator to my floor. Not even with my trained eyes can I see a stab of pity in either of them. I pretend I am unbreakable- these two are. All I can hope for is that I am good enough at pretending to fool sponsors.

Up, up, like magic we rise although the elevator is too small, lined with peeling carpet and stinking of some horrible smell that I don't want to think about. The Justice Building, it is called, although how much Justice happens here? Here is the place where the tributes say goodbye and children orphaned by some terrible work accident get a medal for bravery that isn't worth a cent.  No one feels justice is done here, but that is okay for this world.  It's what Panem is.  False appearances and sadness and dread.

Wordlessly, the two guards gesture to a door. It's made of solid wood, oak maybe, although I really have no idea. My hands fumble a little as I reach for the golden handle. I walk inside. I sit down. The heavy door slams behind me.

I am in the most beautiful room I have ever seen in my whole life.

The lounge I sit on is lined in velvet, and my hands stroke it repeatedly, because it feels nice and why lie? It calms me down.  The walls are solid wood and paintings adorn them. In my District, we admire what beauty there is, and I could stay for hours, just letting it wash over me. I wish I could, because then I wouldn't have to face the rest of the day. In this situation, though, the beauty spells sadness. How many children, like me, older and younger and more afraid than myself, have sat on this sofa knowing their fate? Knowing that soon would be the last time they saw a face they loved? Sitting here and stroking the velvet to calm down?

The thought is so disturbing I jerk my hand away, and stand up to stare out the window. This is the position my family finds me in when they burst into the room.

"Lessie!"

A little voice squeals and runs towards me. My sisters, who are too young to be eligible, too young to save me.  Kate, the youngest, hasn't given up hope.

"Lessie, you can do it, right? You can win."

A half smile that must look hideous twists my face.

She turns to my mother. Beside her, Melanie is in tears.

"Why's Mel crying?" She demands. "Lessie's going to win. We'll be rich!"

And then the completely unexpected happens. My mother, who is the rock of our family, who never, not once, lost heart at anything, who keeps us alive and fed and is the strongest person I know, for god's sake, bursts into tears.

I crumple a little at that.

I crumple a lot.

Mum pushes past my sisters and grabs me in a crushing embrace.

Almost timidly, Kate and Melanie join in.

"It's ok," I whisper to my mother, although clearly it isn't and shouldn't she be the one comforting me?

"No, no it isn't," she says, and takes my face in her hands. "I shouldn't be crying. Kate's right. You're going to win." Her smile falters a little as she says this, and I know she says it partially to convince herself. "I love you. You can do it. Set your mind to it, and you will."

My face starts to tear up, but she doesn't let go.

"No," she says forcefully. "Don't you dare cry. Listen to me." And just like that, she's the forceful woman I've always known. Harsh, maybe, but in a good way. She will not let me fail."

"I can't fight," I say in a voice I'm struggling to keep steady.

"You can think. Ok? I know you can. Ok? Play the game with your mind. Brutality isn't everything. Watch for their weaknesses. Hide yours. "

The salty taste of tears is at the back of my mouth, and my face is screwing up. "I can't, mummy," I gasp.

Mummy. Mummy. Like I'm a little child.

"Darling," she breathes as she draws me into a hug. "You are going to come home, alright? It's just a game. You can beat them."

It's just a game, sure, just one big gamble. But the price is my life.

"Time's up. " The Peacekeepers announce as they come in to rip me from my mother's arms.

"No!" Melanie wails. "No! Lessie!" She struggles against the arms of the man who restrains her. Beside her, Kate wears an expression of pity and confusion.

My mother is determined. "It's a game, Elesabeth," she says calmly. "One you are going to win."

My face is blank as they are pushed from the room.

A wave of nausea rolls over me, strong and undiluted. I feel slightly dizzy. I sit down again.

It's only half a minute between my next "guest" but it feels like forever.

Charlotte.

She walks in and sits down and says nothing, because we know each other too well to hide behind false comforts and lies. Silently she hugs me. I can feel tears on her face.

Why is that I am the only one who is not crying? Of all people.

When she is done, she leans back a bit.

"I didn't volunteer," she states plainly.

"It doesn't matter," I say, although it does, and I can feel the jolt run through me.

"Would you have done it for me?" she says softly.

I don't answer. I don't have to; the answer is etched on my face.

"I'm sorry," she sobs. "I'm so sorry." Over and over, like a mantra.

She's apologising, like I would in her place, for not being strong, for not helping a friend and for being a coward. Bizarrely, I feel sad for her. When I die- if I do, if I do, I can't give up hope- she'll have to live with the fact she could have saved me.

"It's ok," I tell her. "I forgive you."

Her wet eyes brim with thanks.

"You have a chance," she whispers, but she doesn't mean it. She doesn't mean it, and if anything, it makes me feel worse.

And so we sit there and forgive each other until the Peacekeepers expel her from the room, from my life.

There is one more visitor.

"Luke." I say, half standing to meet him.

Without a word of warning, a hello, anything, really, he blurts out three words.

"I love you," he says, like something out of a cheesy book that you read for no reason other than to escape.

"W...what?" I stutter. Luke. Luke, the boy I've had a crush on for god knows how long.

We stand there awkwardly for a few, excruciating seconds. And then I kiss him, softly, almost timidly, on the lips.

I've never kissed a boy, not ever, and his lips are so soft. I kiss him harder, and my mouth opens for his tongue to enter. I shudder a little.

For a minute, an hour, a day, I don't how long, we kiss. And it's bliss, bliss beyond anything I dreamed, but tainted with sadness, because I can feel his tears sliding down his face and mingling with my own. I could stay here forever, I could freeze this moment and live in it forever and ever and for a moment I can believe that I will.

But life is not fair, and in this world, forever ends.

We break apart.

I smile, the smile people smile when they're trying to hold it together. He loved me. Heck, he kissed me, and I never knew he cared. I'm going to die and it's never going to happen so why kid myself? Belatedly, I realise I'm thinking in past tense.

Even to my own mind I'm already dead.

Gulping a little, he reaches down into a bag I hadn't noticed. "I brought you something," he whispers, because I know if he spoke he would fall apart again.

His hand brings out a rose, a brilliant red one, the very image of perfection.

"Thankyou," I say.

"I should have told you earlier."

"I should have, too."

"Do you love me?" he asks.

I can only nod, and he brings his lips to mine again, so I forget myself and the hunger games until they tear him from me and I'm left alone.

Alone.

Alone, because no one else came.

I shut my mind down. I cannot feel. Calmly, with robotic motions, I wipe the tears from my face and attempt to cover my red eyes up. I think I do an ok job. My nose is red, but hopefully that can be put down to a cold. And my expression is so blank no one could think me capable of emotion.

Soon the Peacekeepers are back with their remorseless faces and they march me to the stations, where thousands apon thousands of Capitol  cameras wait like insects, snapping and clicking and pushing relentlessly towards me. It's crowded and I can see my face amplified on so many screens but I'm not myself, I pretend it is not me, and I detach myself from the rest of the world as I climb the stairs to the train. The two Peacekeepers don't follow me on. They are soon lost in a sea of Paparazzi. I take one last look at the District that was my twisted home and then the door closes.

So, I think wryly, the nightmare begins.

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