Step Into My Parlour

The Arena is a terrible place to make an ally into an enemy.

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1. Betrayal and Revenge

Here in the shade of my tiny wall, I sit and wait. The sweat I worked up piling this wall together has cooled, sticking the grey one-piece coverall to my body, pooling into my socks at the heel of my hiking boots. I unzip the coverall to the waist, peeling my arms free of the sleeves and tying them around me. The air feels delicious against my skin, and I am reminded again how far I’ve come. The girl I was would have been horrified to be wearing nothing but a thin undershirt from the middle-up. The girl I was used to care about so many things. Useless things. Dead things. I am a dead thing. I died the moment he turned his back on me.

A hawk’s shrill cry sounds in the sky, echoes off the canyon walls. I can’t see it from here, but I’m sure the bird is golden, beautiful, a sight to see. When it isn’t dropping out of the sky like a bullet to slash your face to pieces. I wonder if this is the same hawk that tore out the eyes of the girl from District 1. So much for being a smart Career, Topaz. You were so precocious in your interview, winking and cooing for Caesar, for the audience, for all the boys back home. I hope the Gamemakers were as annoyed as I was and sent that bird for you, special.

I’m safe enough from the bird, at least, here in my narrow little canyon. It took all day to finish, but I’ve made something I’m so very proud of. I hope the others like it. I’ve heard three cannons today, which means there’s enough going on to keep the audience happy. I’m glad I had time to get everything just right.

The rest of the evening is uneventful, and when darkness falls I shimmy up the side of a rounded boulder to my left, peering out the gap between stones, my personal peephole, invisible to anyone below. From here I can see out onto the scrubby flats, up towards the night sky, and if I crane my head to the left and right, the small dimples and holes worn into the red cliff walls that circle the arena. The arena is dotted with these caves and burrows, little hiding places and ravines. Most of the tributes who ran from the Cornucopia went straight for these, like the terrified animals they were. Some caves were excellent hiding places, where someone could easily blend into the darkness, or drop onto someone from above. Some that looked like deep tunnels took a sharp turn into a dead end, leaving you trapped if someone was close behind. Other tributes learned the hard way which of the holes contained spiders the size of dogs. I learned all this by watching, slipping from rock to rock, tree to tree. I “walk with a whisper” the way my dance instructor taught me back in District 6. My father was proud of his position as mayor, and wanted his children to seem cultured. I don’t know what he was expecting…an invitation to the Capitol? Dinner parties with visiting dignitaries? I thought he was wasting his money. It turns out he has provided me with my greatest weapon. A dancer’s balance and strength come in handy.

The anthem echoes off the cliff walls, and I brace myself for the pictures. The girl from District 11, and both tributes from 12. He is not there. I smile in relief. He is alive. Which means he is looking for me. I slide back down and settle in for a few fitful moments of sleep. My traps will warn me if someone is close.

My dreams are terrible, a piece of choreography where I am dancing from platform to platform at the Cornucopia, my shoes unlaced, trying not to fall and trigger the mines. Hundreds of tributes pour from the Cornucopia and I can’t jump fast enough. As I lose my footing and plunge towards the ground, I jerk awake. My mouth is full of blood. I bit my tongue. Did I just speak out loud? I slam my hand over my mouth in panic. No words. Everything echoes here in my hiding place. It’s why no one can sneak up on me.

I allow myself a moment of pride at everything I’ve accomplished. I’m in the final five, the only remaining girl, and I’ve had food and water the entire time. What do you think now, Gamemakers? I think to myself, safely in my head again. Still think I deserve that 4? Let everyone else risk the tunnels to the underwater lake. It might be silty and warm, but I have my own little pool, filled when the rainstorm passed over the first night. It’s almost dry now, but I don’t need it much longer. I scrape the last of it into my canteen, and then drink it through gritted teeth to strain out the mud and plants. I raise it to the sky, toasting the hordes of people glued to television screens all over Panem, toasting the people of the Capitol who sent me dried jerky and apples. How did I become so popular? I like to think they feel sorry for me, the betrayed little angel. The truth is, he’s most likely getting more support than I am.

I’ve seen enough of the games in my lifetime to know that the ruthless ones are as celebrated as the kind ones are mourned. After what he did, there can be no doubt in the minds of the people watching that he is willing to do anything—anything—to win. Everyone loves a winner. My hands clench around the sun-warmed metal canteen as the sun travels across the sky. I clean under my nails with my knife, comb the snarls from my hair with my fingers. I want to look nice for them.

Around noon, I decide it is time. There’s no guarantee that the Gamemakers won’t get tired of my own little game and send a flash flood or something worse to flush me out. I stand up, pull on my sleeves and zip the red-brown coveralls closed. I roll up my sleeves, smile dramatically, stretch my arms and legs. Get them curious, glued to their little screens. I want everyone to see this. From my pack I pull the precious silver parachutes, wrapped carefully into little balls. This time I climb higher, digging my toes into the smallest cracks, thanking every blister and toe-shoe for the toughness of my feet as they grip the stone, thanking every muscle in my arms for lifting me higher. After what feels like hours, I heave myself out onto the top of the boulder. Compared to the cliff above us, it’s a pebble, but it’s still high enough. If I stayed on my belly, I would at least be hidden from anyone directly below, but I’m done hiding. I take a deep breath, and stand up. I am in the perfect position, and not by accident; too low for anyone on the cliff tops to aim for me, too high for anyone below to shoot anything up at me, I have thought of everything. I walk back and forth a few times, kick a few rocks off the side to clatter to the ground. Then I tie the silver parachutes together, and drape them over the edge, weighing them down with small rocks. Here I am, boys. Let them come. Let him come.

I am more nervous climbing back down. One slip, and I hit the ground hard, crippled and helpless. My body is screaming at me to go faster, to get to the bottom, to get ready. If the trip up took hours, the trip down takes a lifetime. When I land, I whirl around, convinced that the pack of boys will have found me first, but I am alone. I force myself to take deep breaths as I walk the perimeter, double checking my work. Work? This is art. I feel almost happy. I feel like a girl again, giddy. Then, voices. The first voices I’ve heard in three days. Male, deep, and angry. To arrive so fast, they must have been close. Imagine, a naive little sweetheart, under their noses the entire time. How they must hate being taunted on national television. They will do horrible things to me. It won’t be slow.

I pull myself into the niche where I sleep, just high enough to be out of reach. I hear one bark to the other, the acoustics of the canyons carrying everything to me as if I were standing next to them. It’s almost as if the voices were coming from me, I’ve imagined this so many times. I wonder for the first time if I’m losing my mind. Whether it’s real or not, I hear them:

I told you that bitch was smart.

Give me the ax.

I’ll climb up.

I’m not going to hand you something you don’t even know how to use, Merrin.

And then I hear him. His voice doesn’t sound like an echo. His voice is a blow that makes my knees weak. I trusted that voice. "She’s not up there, genius. She’ll be on the ground by now."

Images flash through my mind, and I am powerless to stop them. I see his shaggy brown hair and big green eyes on the television recap of the Reaping, his smile when we stepped out of our chariots and into the same elevator. I feel the silk of my costume, some ridiculous map of Panem wrapped in bandages embroidered to look like railways. I look like a train crash. He is wearing a suit made of lightening bolts that would put Caesar Flickerman to shame. It brings out the green in his eyes. Unlike the male tribute from my district, Dallen, District 5 actually makes eye contact with me. Dallen hasn’t looked directly at me, or anyone else, since he was dragged onto the stage by the peacekeepers back in District 6. Dimwit Dallen hid in his room on the train, mumbled his way through the interview, cried with frustration when he couldn’t keep up with anyone in training. I wanted nothing to do with him. So when my mentor delivered me the note, I embraced it. One of the strongest tributes, my ally. Trust me, the note had said.

I trusted him when the bloodbath began, and I trusted him as we survived the first day, clinging to each other in the rain. I trusted him when he taught me how to kill a snake. I saved his life when the girl from District 3 charged us, driving the knife into her back over and over again, sobbing with terror until he took the knife away and pulled me close. How I cried, grateful to have him with me. How grateful I am that he chose to come back to me now.

They’ve split up. I hear them whispering now, voices low. They’ve realized how well sound carries here in my new home. Now that the moment is here, I am calm. I feel as though I am floating above myself, watching my progress along with everyone back home. I wait. It is almost disappointing how normal the moment is. I hear the scuff of a shoe, the sound of a heavy breath, and he is here. In my heart I knew he would be the one to find me.

He scans the narrow canyon before he spots my wall. His eyes meet mine as I slide down into view. "Hello, Nico." The boy I had convinced myself was my hero flinches in surprise, stepping back. He recovers quickly, but I’ve seen the surprise in his eyes. I am not a little doll anymore. I am covered in red dust, my heart is a stone. I am as strong and dead as the rocks around me. He looks thin, wary. Any day now his little pack will turn on each other, so he can’t be sleeping well.

“Jessamine.” He steps forward, sliding his hand towards something tucked into the back of his shirt.

"Stop." I say. And he does. I must look scarier than I think, for him to question what I’m up to. “Where are your friends?”

“They’re not my friends.”

“Was it before or after, Nico?” He seems frozen in place. I realize that the weapon in his hand is a machete, and his arm is tensed to move, but he can sense something is wrong.

“What?”

“Did you make the alliance with them before or after you sent me that note?” Nico has no answer. His jaw is clenched so tight a muscle is jumping. I repeat myself.

“Did you make the alliance with them before or after you told me you wanted to team up? It’s a simple question.”

He is glancing around him, trying to figure out why I am so unafraid. He knows there is no one left to help me, but can’t help looking. “You practically handed me over with a bow tied around my neck, Nico. Did you soften me up because it was fun, or did you do it to get sponsors? I want to know if you and your boys were playing games with me from the beginning. What else were you going to do before finishing me off?”

He lowers the machete, but says nothing. I sigh. “Never mind. I wouldn’t believe you anyway.” There is more noise nearby. I smile. “Your friends are here.”

“Make this easy for yourself. I can make it quick.”

I laugh. I start laughing, a musical innocent sound, and I can’t stop. “So can I, Nico.”

I open my right hand, and that’s when he sees the grenade cradled in my palm, such a sleek, small, silver thing. The Capitol’s weapons truly are things of beauty. He should run away, but instead he runs towards me, arms outstretched to stop me, even as I slide the pin free. He skids to a stop as I cradle the grenade to my chest like a letter from a friend. His face is pale and terrible.

"Trust me." I say, and throw it, high and far, and it lands on top of the other explosives, piled high, hidden behind one of my clever little piles of rocks at the base of the canyon wall. There is a high pitched sound, and I fly like a paper doll.

When I open my eyes, there is nothing. I try to move and I can’t. When I try to sit up, I bang my head on the rocks overhead. I’m not dead.  Just...buried alive. I try to take a deep breath and it rattles in my chest, shallow and wet. I am bleeding inside. Any minute now. I can feel myself sinking deeper, sagging back into the rocks around me, which are shifting. Shifting. Being lifted away. Suddenly my legs are free, I can see the sky, I am being lifted out of the rubble and strapped down onto some sort of platform. Sound begins to filter in, but there is a high buzzing sound and it is far away.

It isn’t until I’m being lifted into the air that I realize the sky is free of hawks.

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