Chapter Sixteen

My eyes snap open. Katniss! For a sick moment in my mind, I see her twitching and writhing under the tree once more, and my heart races. But then I remember yesterday, she was up and moving. It's over. But could yesterday have been just a dream? That would be ironic, since I'm living life trapped inside of a nightmare.

I pull myself out of bed, careful not to wake my brothers. I need to make sure Katniss isn't still hallucinating. I turn on the television and wait for the recap.

The screen depicts the boy from District 10, the crippled one, leaning against a tree. It's sometime in the middle of the night, so this must've happened a while ago. Wait, the boy from District 10 is still alive? I didn't expect that he would last even this long with that leg of his.

I wonder why nobody volunteered for him. District 10 isn't usually full of winning tributes, but you'd think somebody would take the place of this disabled boy. But no, maybe people thought it was better. Maybe they thought that he might not make it well in the real world, so they might as well just dispose of him here. The thought of it angers me. But it's true, when his name was called, nobody probably expected him to get out alive. I certainly didn't.

Then, the boy's head jerks up and he looks around wildly. Someone is near. He hastens to gather his supplies. He takes off, or tries to, at least. He drags his foot along in a series of limp hops, finally crashing to the ground. He clumsily gathers his things together, but it's too late.

Cruel laughter erupts from somewhere off the screen. The Careers. I can see why tributes would kill other tributes because they have to, but I don't see how tributes would hunt down other people…and like it. The Careers relish every kill. They have fun doing this. People in the Careers districts aspire to be tributes. I hold almost as much contempt for them as I do the Capitol, but if I had to choose I'd say the Capitol is worse. The Capitol created the Careers and the Hunger Games, if it weren't for the Capitol, I would have no reason to hate these kids.

The boy on the ground looks up as a few Careers close in on him. His eyes are wide and full of fear. He glances towards his supplies, probably deciding whether or not to try to save them. He looks back up at the Careers and lies still on the ground, accepting his fate.

"I still can't believe it you made it this long, with that foot." Cato says, nodding to the boy's leg. "Bravo, for that."

"I wouldn't let it stop me." the boy says, his voice wavering.

"Well, it's stopping you now, isn't it?" Clove says with a shrill laugh.

I want to kill her. I want to kill her right now.

The boy on the ground says nothing. He stares at his leg with a look of torment on his face. He looks back up at the Careers who are waiting for him to reply.

A twig snaps and the boy pushes himself off the ground, propelling himself as far as he can in a desperate attempt to evade his assailants.

Almost effortlessly, Cato thrusts his sword forward and through the boy. A cannon fires and I know the boy is dead instantly.

Suddenly, I feel bad for the crippled boy's family. He seemed brave, young, determined. He must be only fourteen or so. It's horrible to watch him die like this…then I think of Katniss. I don't want to watch her die like this, I really don't. I'd rather die like this than watch it happen to Katniss.

Cato draws his sword from the dead boy's back and wipes the blood from it, acting like he had just cut through a piece of meat.

"Shame, that kid had spirit." Cato says half-heartedly. "Oh well, another down, eight more to go."

Eight more to go. There must be nine tributes right now. Yes. Katniss, Peeta, Rue, Thresh, Cato, Clove, Marvel, the girl from District 5 and the boy from District 3. Nine tributes.

I shiver. It's getting close to the end. Soon, there will be one tribute standing. Soon, I will know if I ever get to see Katniss again. Soon seems way to close…but way too far away.

The television fades and I know that must be all that happened last night that was worth showing. Every day that Katniss lives is no less special than the day before. Katniss is alive. The thought of that is invigorating enough to get me through each day.

I go back to my room to get ready for the day. It's Sunday, so that means I will need to bring home a lot of food today. I need to go hunting. I quickly pack myself a lunch and slip out the front door.

As I'm walking to the woods, it occurs to me that I only have a few days of school left. To most people, this would be a shocking, sentimental time. But school is the least of my concerns right now. I just want it to be over with so I have more time for hunting. More time for watching Katniss.

I make it to the woods without encountering a single person. That's always nice. No worries. No delays. I wriggle under the fence and head off to find food.

Deciding to fish, I head down to the lake. I make a few stops on the way when I see berries and herbs I recognize.

I cast my hook out far into the lake and plop down on the sandy shore. Fishing is a nice way to take a break. I can sit and soak in the sun as I wait for a bite. It's not good for impatient people, though, well, any form of hunting requires patience.

My homemade bobber disappears under the water and doesn't float back to the surface. I grab my rod, jerk it back and reel in.

The fish I catch flops as desperately as it can. I think of how helpless it is, kind of like the tributes. Hooked, reeled in and brought to a disgusting end. I take the fish off the hook, and for a moment, I consider letting it go. Then I see the gaunt faces of so many starving people in District 12, and then my family, who I never want to see like that. I grasp the wiggling fish tighter and place it on the shore, where I hammer a rock into its head so it dies quickly. I then place it farther back in the sand, just in case I didn't kill it and it tries to flop back into the water.

The sun glares down on me as I wait for my next bite. In the next few hours, I catch a good amount of fish.

I tie my fish together by a hook through their mouth and toss them in my pack. It's about lunch time, so I take a few minutes to wash down the food I packed. I need every minute I can get to bring food home to my family and the Everdeens.

I still have plenty of time, so I decide to check my snares. By the time I've finished the trek, I've come off with a few kills. It could be worse, it could be better. It always is that way. Always except for the very first times I've hunted. That was years ago, when I was so young. Sometimes I wouldn't catch anything at all. But I learned, and quickly at that, where to place the traps, how to improve them, and all of the little meticulous things that make the difference between life and death. For both the hunter and the prey.

I leave the woods with my backpack bulging. It's no surprise to many people, mainly my customers, where I've been. But I still try to keep it all a secret, just in case word gets out to particularly strict law enforcement.

As I step into the Hob, I notice it's quieter than usual. I feel everyone's eyes on me, and hear their heavy breath. My heart leaps into my throat at the same time as my stomach seems to fall away from my body. Katniss is dead. I just know it.

I try to say something, but I can't choke anything out. I'm forced to stand here in this grim expectation with no way to find out what I don't want to know. Finally, someone speaks up.

"They're here." Greasy Sae says. "The people from the Capitol are here."

Now I'm confused. Confused and slightly relieved. Katniss isn't dead? Or is she? Did the Capitol come to drop off her body? No, they wouldn't get here this fast, Katniss was alive when I left for hunting.

"Why?" I eventually manage.

"There's nine tributes left, they're starting the interviews of Katniss's family and friends. They're supposed to start interviews when there's eight tributes, but in case somebody dies during interviews, they go to the families and ask questions assuming the tribute made it into the top eight. " Greasy Sae replies.

I breathe finally. Katniss has to be alive. But my moment of peace only lasts as long as it takes for my mind to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Reporters from the Capitol are here. They want to talk to Katniss's friends and family. They'll want to talk to me. If they're at my house, they'll wonder where I've been.

"I need to get home!" I say. Then I glance at my backpack. I can't be with the Capitol people with all these fresh kills. That's suicide. I'm going to have to trade everything away, and fast.

I buy everything I can with my haul, getting mostly money. I don't want the Capitol to be too leery of me coming home with bags full of food, especially if my mom tells the reporters I'm at a friend's house and I come back saying I went to the market. When I'm done I head home at a fast walk. I can't look nervous. Innocent people have nothing to be nervous about. And the Capitol needs to think I'm innocent. For my family's sake, for Prim and Mrs. Everdeen's sake…for even Katniss's sake.

I reach my front door and turn the knob. My mother, Vick and Rory all turn their heads sharply as I step into the house.

"Oh, it's just you, Gale." my mother exhales. Then she tenses up again. "We need to hide your haul."

"I know." I say quickly, hurrying to my room. "But don't worry, I've traded most of it at the Hob, so it won't be too suspicious."

My mother nods fervently.

I toss my pack on my bed in my room and sit down at the table with the rest of my family. My mother, Vick and Rory all look nervous. Posy wiggles around with happy ignorance. If only we all were that way.

"So you know they're here?" I say.

"Yes, we've heard." my mother replies.

"Who's here? Who's coming?" Posy pipes up.

My mom's voice turns higher and happier. "Reporters from the Capitol, they might come and talk to us. Remember, be nice and polite to strangers."

I don't want to know what the Capitol would do to Posy if she said something about the Capitol that could've slipped out of my mouth sometime. Kids have a wonderful memory for just the things you wish they don't know. That's why I don't try to express my hatred of the Capitol around my siblings.

Then, I realize I don't know for sure the answer to what I want to know.

"Katniss is alive?"

"Yes, she's fine." my mother glances at the television, on which the Hunger Games is playing.

Just as I get up to go watch, I hear a knock on the door. They're here. I pivot, changing directions, and head back to the door. I open it gingerly.

Outside, on my front step, stand some of the very people I hate most. I wish I could lock my hands around their necks and throttle them until they turn blue. Instead, I stand there quietly, surveying my enemies.

There are three of the nasty varmints. One is a woman holding a microphone. She has long scarlet hair that goes down to her waist, and her face is layered with makeup. Another is a man with a camera that is attached by a cord to the microphone. His hair is jet black and spiked up unnaturally. He looks way too tan to be real, almost orange. The third is a brawny man who looks like he may have weapons in his belt. His muscular arms are covered in tattoos. I won't let him scare me.

"Is this the Hawthorne residence?" the woman asks in a sweet voice.

"Yes." I reply hollowly.

"I take it you're Gale Hawthorne." the woman says.

"Yes." I say with just as much emotion as my first answer.

The woman sticks out her hand to shake mine. I pretend not to notice. I'm not going to smile and be giddy for the cameras. I'm going to show them how much I hate them without crossing the line. They've taken everything from me, and they don't deserve to get anything more. But I won't put my family at risk, that's the last thing I need to do.

The woman takes her hand back after a few moments, an awkward look taking over her guaranteed artificial face.

"I'm Vatillia Bloom, a reporter from the Capitol." the woman says. "I'm just here to ask you a few questions, regarding your cousin, alias Hunger Games tribute, Katniss Everdeen."

Cousin? Where the hell did that come from?

"We're not cousins." I say.

The brawny man steps forward and looks me hard in the eye.

"As of now, you are. No questions asked." he says. Then, he glances over at my family sitting at the table. "Those are your siblings?" he asks.

I nod, giving the man a look that says, Go near them and I'll kill you.

Then, the man says nothing.

I know this is a silent threat to my family and now I know this is serious. With Peeta and Katniss being "in love" and all, the Capitol probably figured it wouldn't be right for Katniss's best friend to be a boy. No, that would be too complicated, and that would raise suspicions. So why not make it impossible for Katniss and the boy to have anything together and make him her cousin? So simple. So genius. I don't think so. But I have to pretend, if I want my family safe. And that's the most important thing.

"Okay, so now we're going to turn on the camera and ask you a few questions, Gale. We're going to ask them as if Katniss has already made the top eight." Vatilla says gleefully, pretending that there's not tension or hatred between all of us. "This is not live, so this may or may not appear on television."

I give her a small nod.

The woman steps over by me and the camera follows us both. The large man walks behind the cameraman, so he stays out of the shoot.

"Camera's on in three….two…" the cameraman mouths the word "one" as I hear the click of the equipment turning on.

"I'm Vatilla Bloom, in District 12, here to interview the family and friends of one of our final eight tributes, Katniss Everdeen!" the reporter says with a tight, cheesy smile. "I'm here with Gale Hawthorne!"

It's weird hearing somebody from the Capitol speak my name. It gives me chills. I don't want them to know who I am.

"Now Gale, will you tell us, how do you know Katniss Everdeen?" Vatilla Bloom asks me.

The muscular man catches my eye.

"We're cousins." I say.

I look up at the man who nods to me.

"Oh, and you both look so much alike!" Vatilla exclaims.

Fortunately for the Capitol Katniss and I do look a lot alike, so this whole cousin thing works out well.

"Now, are you and Katniss close?" the reporter asks.

My eyes wander up to the man behind the camera for an answer. He doesn't give me any hints.

"I'd say yes." I say nonchalantly.

"Well that's nice." Vatilla Bloom says. "What do you do for work, Gale?"

I hunt, is the answer that comes to my mind, but never in a million years would I say that to someone from the Capitol.

"I'm a student." I say. "But I will work in the mines when I'm old enough."

"Interesting." Vatilla says.

It's not interesting. The majority of people in District 12, the Seam especially, work in the coal mines.

"And what would you do in there?" the reporter asks me.

How stupid can you be?

"I would mine coal." I reply.

Vatilla Bloom looks back at the camera. "All of the Capitol's coal supplies come from right here in District 12, isn't that cool?"

I don't even force a smile. It's not cool. It's not cool at all. Coal miners work here twelve hours a day, six days a week just so the Capitol can waste their precious coal. We don't even get paid enough to feed our starving families. We all waste away from hunger, exhaustion, and even terrible mine accidents. Like the one that took my father. That was in no way at all, cool.

"Gale, do you have siblings?" the Vatilla Bloom wonders aloud.

"Yes." I reply.

The reporter purses her lips. I think she was expecting more of an answer.

"How many?"

"Three." I say.

I watch as the camera turns to the kitchen table, where my family is sitting. I feel my eyes grow wider and my heart beat faster. The camera better get away from them. I shoot the cameraman a warning glare but I don't think he sees me. Soon enough, the camera turns its attention back to us.

"Do you have a father?" is the next question that comes at me.

It hits me like a spear through the chest. They got me. This is where all my emotion should pour out through the rupture in my sternum. I won't give it to them. I can't give it to them. For my dad.

"He died in a mining accident." I say after swallowing the lump in my throat.

"Oh, that's a shame." the reporter says, twisting her face into a frown. "Wasn't that the same fate of Katniss's father?"

I nod, pretending it's a nonchalant nod, not a nod because I can't say anything. I always get caught up in picturing how it all went down, even though I don't want to. A deafening boom, and then rocks flying everywhere, taking people out left and right, but you can't see or breathe because of all the dust, smoke and ashes. Then, finally, maybe he hits the ground too hard, maybe a piece of debris hits him or maybe he suffocates. No matter how it happened, it was over.

"Were you surprised when Katniss was chosen for female District 12 tribute?" Vatilla Bloom asks me, changing topics.

I'm not ready for the question. I pause a moment, trying to gather my mind together and figure out what the question was.

"Yes." I say when I come back to earth. Then before I know it I'm reliving those horrible moments in my head. I'm standing in the square, watching as the slips of paper fly around in the reaping ball. Effie Trinket draws the name. It's Prim. I feel again the shock and sadness before I realize that it's Katniss who's really going to be sent off to death. Katniss. My best friend.

"Are you surprised now that Katniss Everdeen has made it into the final eight living tributes?" asks Vatilla Bloom.

"No." I say.

"Do you think Katniss can win this competition?"

"Yes." I say. I know she can.

"Why do you think that?"

I pause again, not for dramatic effect, just because half the reasons I think Katniss can win, I won't be able to say on television. I chose something simple.

"She's a survivor." I say.

Vatilla Bloom nods, knowing there's probably nothing more she can extract out of me. "Well, that's all the time we have!" she says, and the camera clicks off. "Thank you for your time, Gale." Vatilla says. She doesn't make the same mistake about trying to shake my hand twice.

The three of the Capitol people turn and leave my house, which I never wanted them to set foot in. To set eye on. The brawny man bends his neck around and I feel his eyes burning into my back as I step inside the house.

"How was it?" my mother asks quietly. Our house is small, so she could probably hear most of the interview.

"Fine." I say. "At least they're gone now."

My mother opens her mouth to speak, but Vick speaks first.

"Gale! She's about to destroy the Careers' food!" he yells, motioning vigorously to the television.

I don't know what he's talking about, but I know it's something to do with Katniss. I abandon my conversation at the table for my usual spot in front of the television.

Katniss has a bow and arrow. She fires it and the camera follows the arrow to a bag of apples that has one arrow in it already. There's a hole in the bag of apples, which is hanging by a rope.

I piece together where this is. This is at the lake, where the Careers make camp. So Katniss is trying to destroy their food. Interesting. But shooting arrows in their apples is not really destroying the food. So that's just a waste of time and arrows, and it's a huge risk. What the hell is Katniss doing? Is she crazy? My heart sinks. Maybe the hallucinations did this to her. Maybe no matter what, she'll just be crazy for the rest of her life. Is that being worse than dead? I don't know.

Then, the third arrow goes sailing into the rope that hangs the apples, severing it cleanly, and the whole bag tumbles to the ground. Boom.