I scream without knowing why. All I'm aware of is that something is terribly wrong, this shouldn't be happening, why am I here…?
Aren't I dead?
Anger and rage and panic had driven that handmade knife into my chest. I remembered the stabbing pain of my skin splitting, the cold blade freezing my chest. I remember feeling my heart beating through the wooden handle, its frenzied pumping vibrating up the knife jammed into it.
And then nothing.
Black despair swamps me. What am I, immortal? Garnet saved my life after I drowned, and somebody brought me back just now. Not to mention the accident I survived as a child.
Why can't I die?
Voices register beside me. I turn my aching head to the left and try to find who's speaking.
Two white-robed doctors stand by my bed.
My heart leaps and I stop breathing. They've saved me? While I technically know it's their job to heal, I can't imagine them defending my life.
But that's not what this is about. If it were, they'd have saved all those other children. But they were only tributes. I'm a victor.
Against all odds, against hope, against my own wishes, I'm a victor.
I'm just like Father…
I fling myself into a sitting position and scan the room frantically for anything lethal. I remember knives, equipment, from the few times I've seen Capitol doctors. There's got to be something here!
"Hey, lie down!" Hands seize my shoulders, drag me back to the bed. "Don't move!"
"You don't understand," I start sobbing, "I have to die, please, I have to die…" My arms fly and my fingers bury themselves in the white coat. "You have to kill me! Please, listen! You have to kill me!"
My voice is so loud it hurts my throat and my ears. Something jabs my arm, something sharp but moving like a whisper. I recognize the same feeling as when I was injected with a tracker before going into the Launch Room. Fog descends over the world. My hand drops, unwilling, back to my side. Slowly I sway before crashing back to the mattress.
No. No. This can't be happening…
It's not death, I recognize death now. Death is a familiar friend. It's sleep that's my enemy, paralyzing sleep that won't let me do anything. While I sleep, I am safe. But I don't want to be safe. I want to be dead.
I have lived too much.
I don't want…
But it happens anyway. The world spins into blackness.
"Well, well, who'd have thought?"
I blink in the sudden light. A shadow on my right blocks my sight that way. I turn to the left instead. It's not the same room as I woke up in before, but a quick glance over it tells me everything I want to know. I ignore the color of the carpet, the softly padded walls.
All I care about is that the room is totally devoid of anything I can kill myself with.
A memory flashes – isn't somebody in here with me? I rock my head back to my right and see somebody I didn't expect.
Nile. Her dark skin and darker hair provide reassuring relief from the bright light everywhere else I look.
"I never thought you'd make it this far," she says once our eyes meet. "I had you pegged for a bloodbath tribute for sure."
"You… you didn't help me… you sent me nothing!" Hatred surges through me, all washing out towards this woman who was willing to save Kain but not me, who never gave me anything, who ignored me completely until now.
Except for before the Games started, when she'd stopped the Avoxes giving me food and nearly starved me to death…
"Kill me! You can kill me! You wanted to before!"
"Before, you were just a tribute. I thought that maybe I could spare you the arena if you died before you went in. But now you're a victor. Now you're valuable. Now you can't be allowed to die."
"Damn." The first swearword I've ever spoken in my life tastes like ash.
"Why'd you do it, anyway? Tell me the truth. All those people out there are going to be fed some soppy cover story, we need to keep up the image. There has to be a victor, surely you knew that? Don't you know what happened that one year without one?"
I hadn't seen it but Father had, and he'd told me what happened. The Gamemakers had made a deal with the tributes that if the last two were from the same district, they could both go home. And the last two were from the same district, Twelve, but then the Gamemakers had called it off. But rather than kill the other and go home alone, they'd both eaten some poisonous berries and died beside each other. There was no victor. Nobody left that arena.
There was nearly a rebellion, Father said, but not the kind I'd expected. The Capitol had turned against its leaders. Apparently everybody had loved those last two tributes, had wanted them both to live happily ever after – they were in love, so deeply in love that even Father cried over it – and instead of giving the Capitol the happy ending they'd wanted, the Gamemakers had killed both of them.
The Hunger Games are supposed to be the ultimate entertainment. But that one had been very badly calculated. The Games were very nearly ended by the Capitol citizens; Father says that they didn't want to lose a victor like that again. The Capitol practically worships them. And those two were special even among victors.
So there was no way I'd be allowed to die. After that year, the Capitol couldn't take the risk again.
"Don't you think your father wanted another life? Don't you think I tried to escape this? But there's no way out. They own us. Don't forget it again."
My mouth goes dry. I'd thought I was alone in my views, I'd thought that every other victor loved their fame and fortune.
"Now tell me why. Exactly why."
"I don't want to live, I can't do this! I'm not strong like you, or Father, or anybody. I see their faces, I feel their blood on my hands. I never said goodbye to Garnet… she just walked away like it was completely normal." I can't even remember the last words she'd said to me. "I don't want the Capitol to use me like this. I can't give them my life, Nile. So I took it away from them in the only way I knew how."
Nile snorts. "Everybody dreams about that, kid. Only a couple of Careers really enjoy being where we are, and even they realize that it isn't worth it. The Capitol uses us more than you know. You're just thinking of the final interview and the Victory Tour, aren't you?"
"But there's more. We have to go to parties in the Capitol and pretend we love the attention, and burn inside because we can't bring any of that wealth back home. Do you know what it's like to see more food than the district eats in a year, all on one table? Do you know what it's like to have to leave it there, to be unable to feed starving children with it? You will soon. You think you're shy now? Wait until you're surrounded by people everywhere you go, staring people, interested people. You'll never be alone in your whole life."
I slam my hands over my ears. "Stop it!"
Nile grabs my arm and yanks it down. She leans close and hisses into my ear. "You'll be mentoring now. Wait until you have to teach a little girl how to survive the arena. You'll relive every moment of your games, and you'll be glad, because every lesson you pass on to her means she might live. And then she'll die anyway. But you'll try again the next year, and the next, because you can't make yourself give up on her."
Her hand jerks away like my skin burns her. "I know the names of every girl I've mentored. I'll remember them all my life. At first I thought I'd rather forget them. But is there any greater shame than that? If you forget them it's like they never existed. So I remember them, I remember them all. I keep them alive in here." Her hand slams against the side of her head. "Do you get it now? We all want out. But if we can't, you can't either."
She stands abruptly, knocking over the chair. I can feel my shock and horror contorting my face. Her words echo in my brain, bouncing between the walls on the edge of the empty void inside my head.
"Live, Aviary Karradi. Live because you must. Live because there's no escape." She stalks to the door with angry elegance. Her hand, graceful and delicate, hesitates before opening the lock. She doesn't look at me, but I know her words are intended for me. "If it gets bad, really bad, come see me." And then she's gone.
I scream in the silence. But it's not enough and eventually I fall quiet again. That almost expresses my feelings better than the noise. My heart pounds inside my head. Every breath burns like I'm drowning again.
How can I live? How can I live that life she told me about? Everything she said is going to come true. I can almost feel it now, visiting the Capitol, hiding my revulsion at their surgically altered bodies. I can see the tables laden with the feasts, feel my guilt that nobody else can eat like I do. My body aches with exhaustion from the parties, from the talking, from traveling and traveling…
And it's not even real yet.
I force myself to look at my surroundings, to ignore what's going on inside my head. I'm in the same bedroom I was in during training. Everything's the same. The days I spent here were pleasant enough, sleeping calmly after a day of making things with the firemaking instructor who was almost like a replacement mentor.
I think of the things I made during those days, of his patient praise, of the stories we traded. I remember that he compared me to his daughter. I know beyond a doubt I would rather he was my father.
I think of my resolutions in the arena – changeable and varying, first determined to die, then to live, then to die again. I remember that I said there were things that would make life worthwhile. I could make things all the time, I could live apart from Father and Clarrine. I could try and connect with Mom.
I accept what Nile has said: that I must live. I must be a victor. But I won't let the things she talked about overwhelm me. I will do what I want to. I can live, not because the Capitol forces me to, but because I want to.
I will make myself want life.
My heart soars for the first time in ages and I feel like I really can do this. I can get through the interview, I can survive the Victory Tour. I can mentor the girls from District Seven, and I will lose them, but I will help while I can.
I can do all this because there is a prize to win. Life is still out there for me. I can still be alive. There's enough good out there to balance the horror of the games.
Aviary Karradi will live.
And maybe the Capitol won't really care. Maybe I'll just be another victor, one among, if not many, at least several. Maybe there won't be anyone in District Seven cheering over my return. Maybe my family won't change, maybe this won't be enough to make them love me.
I don't care that they don't care. They aren't important. I care that I am alive. I am happy.
Forget the Capitol. Forget Nile's dark prophecies. I will live for me.
I thought I'd won before, I thought I'd won by killing myself. It was literally my last thought. But I was wrong. That wasn't winning. I'd still died at the hands of the Capitol.
But I'm in control now.
They can't touch me anymore.
By doing this, by choosing to live, to enjoy life, by seeing that the Capitol doesn't really matter…
… that's winning.