I hit the ground hard and now I'm staring, wide-eyed and breathless up the tree I've been trying (very unsuccessfully) to climb. I wait for a few moments for my lungs to restart before I slowly scramble to my feet.
I hear laughter behind me, spiced up with a few "friendly" comments – something about my impaired coordination and utter lack of grace. I try to ignore them, but I have to admire the fact that after an hour of watching me fall flat on my back, their mocking arsenal is still far from being exhausted.
"Again!" I hear Rufus shout with annoyance somewhere behind. Rufus is the one handling the newcomers and is supposed to help us get in shape for the more physically challenging activities that lie ahead. I would catalogue climbing trees as a challenging activity, but it seems like no one else shares my opinion—they all managed to get to the top after only a couple attempts. After I failed a tenth time, Rufus gathered everybody to watch me—he said it would boost my spirit. Oddly enough, the choir of laughter, whistling and booing didn't quite have the desired effect on me.
"Maybe she needs some extra motivation." The malicious tone made me turn around in time to see a gangly boy, with acne on his nose, point a slingshot in my direction. Before I get a chance to react I feel a sharp pain in my forearm— the bastard hit me with a pointy pebble! I instinctively cover the sore spot with my hand, when I feel two more stabs- one on my calf, the other in my ribs. The pain starts small but blossoms in throbbing circles that seem to grow larger and larger with every passing second. I feel my cheeks redden. I take yet another hit in my knee cap; this time he must have used a larger stone, because I feel my whole calf slowly going numb. I want to shout curses at him, but all I can see around me is sneering faces and I know any offensive action against him will be useless.
So, I shoot him a hateful look and limp towards the tree, for another try. This time I manage to get pass the middle, when my injured knee gives away and I take the hardest fall of all, hitting a snag with the other leg on my way down. The crusty bark cuts through my skin, leaving an impressive gash on the inside of my calf that immediately starts bleeding, staining my blue training uniform. I try to get up, but the sight of my shredded calf mixed with the heat and exhaustion take their toll on me and I crumble back on the grass.
I hear the chorus of voices around me, urging me to get up, but the only thing I am able to is turn on my side and cough a few times to get my lungs working again, after the fall knocked the air out of them.
I recognize the voice of the boy with the slingshot, but I can't make out the words. Maybe the fall was worse than I thought.
"That's enough, Plat." Rufus' voice booms above me, sounding very close. "She had enough for today. I think we all had." I feel a strong hand grabbing my upper arm and practically jerking me to my feet. The sudden movement makes me a bit wobbly.
"I see I have my work cut out for me, with you," Rufus says under his breath. "You! Take her to the infirmary. Now," he adds, releasing my arm. I feel myself slightly tipping sideways, but then a firm arm circles my waist, supporting me upright.
"Well, well, Miss Trinket. It seems that trouble finds you far too easily."
I frown in the direction of Lidia's voice. All I can see is a shiny, sleek curtain of blond hair.
"Can't argue there," I retort. "And my name is Effie."
"Finally—we're getting somewhere. But you should know I've grown quite fond of Miss Trinket," she says flashing me a grin from behind the blond curtain.
"Well then, you should know that Miss Trinket is not the friendly type."
"Yeah, I kind of got that. But I'm hoping I can persuade Effie I'm not that bad," she says opening the door to the infirmary. I hop through the door and wrinkle my nose as the smell of medicine hits me.
"Does it hurt?" Lidia asks, eyeing my bloody calf. I take a few moments to assess the damage. "It's not as bad as it looks," I say, noticing with a little surprise that the pain has reduced to a dull throbbing.
Lidia helps me sit on a cot, gently lifting my injured leg.
"Lidia!" A lady with grey curly hair, dressed in a bright pink uniform approaches us. I remember her from the Selection Day, and I can't help myself shudder. Lidia turns around, a huge grin on her face.
"Miss Anabelle!" she replies and they both hug. Friendly person, this Lidia…
"Girl, I haven't seen you around here…" the lady trails off, a flitting shadow crossing her face. Lidia breaks her embrace.
"So, what do we have here?" the lady asks, turning to me with an eager look on her face. Maybe too eager, I think—she must really want to change the subject.
"My friend Effie," Lidia stresses my name "fell out of a tree."
Anabelle's light hands turn my leg from one side to the other and she asks Lidia to bring some weird sounding things from a cabinet.
"It's definitely going to leave a scar," the lady says after a short examination, pursing her lips. Back with the medicine, Lidia wiggles her eyebrows at me mouthing something that looks very much like "bad ass." I can't help a smile and roll my eyes.
The lady works on my leg while chitchatting with Lidia about training and instructors I haven't met yet. She pours a clear liquid over my calf, which washes away the blood and leaves my skin prickling. Then she applies several layers of a foul smelling ointment, wraps it in a stretchy cloth and instructs me to lie still for a few hours.
"I'll go see about lunch. Then we can catch up," she says heading for the door and winking at Lidia, who seems very at ease, perched on the cot next to me.
"Old friends?" I ask Lidia, inviting her to explain.
"You could say that…I used to spend a great deal of time here during my first year."
"Huh" is all I can say, because Lidia seems more likely to be the cause of somebody being sent to the infirmary than the actual victim. Which reminds me…
"Who was the guy with the sling shot?" I ask, brushing my fingers over the lump he left on my forearm.
"That would be Platinum Weaver the Third," she replies in mock Capitol voice. "Or Plat the Brat, as I call him. He's a bit of a jerk." My eyebrows shoot up in disbelief.
"Okay," she laughs, "maybe more than just a bit. Takes after his dad, I guess. He was the victor of the First Quarter Quell." I make a mental note to stay away from this Platinus character from now on.
I stare at the cracks in the ceiling for a while, sneaking a few peeks at Lidia. She's tall, muscular, with a square jaw, piercing blue eyes and a mane of blond hair that she's busy twisting into an intricate braid. I don't understand her…this is the last place I'd want to make a friend. I mean, why bother to be nice to people when you're secretly hoping they will be chosen to die in your place? Not that she will, if it comes to it.
I watched her more closely after the incident with my bracelet and I'm pretty sure that if she ever gets chosen, she will definitely have all the odds in her favor. She's the popular, good-at-everything-she-does type of person. Actually, if we were outside the Gymnasium, she'd probably be hanging out with the cool kids in school, not even knowing I exist. We have nothing in common, except for the fact that fate turned a blind eye on us on the day of our Selection.
So why is she trying so hard to be my friend?