Chapter One: Old Pine
I raise my hand half-heartedly and Ms. Guard walks a few paces down the aisle towards me, placing a thin envelope on my desk. Without as much as eye contact, she moves on with morning roll call.
The school year is almost over, but she still doesn't remember our faces, or our names. Some find it funny, but I do not. Many students resent her for it as well, but I can't hate her for her distance. I assume I would act the same if I were in her position. There is a reason most teachers don't invest in our lives beyond pushing the Capitol propaganda upon us.
As much as I want to tear the envelope open and discover my fate, I can't do it. The braver students open their packets straight away-but those who do have had an air of presumption their whole lives. That they would be afforded a better lot in life than the rest of us. Most of us, including myself, slip the envelope in our bags to be opened later in the day. Either alone, or surrounded by family or a few friends. I already know how I will go about opening mine. I can't trust myself to not fall apart in front of Prim if I got something bad.
The rest of the school day passes by in a blur, and soon the last bell of the day rings. I waste no time in leaving the campus grounds. I never cared much for schooling, though most of my life has been a tedious exercise in keeping up appearances for Prim. In the end it didn't matter if I knew anything about everything. How we are evaluated and chosen has more to do with social background and geographical lines. And we all know what lines the Everdeen family falls under. My stomach sinks like a rock thrown in water.
Gale finds me in the forest.
Although I wasn't hiding, his sudden appearance startles me.
His clothes are filthy, and his face is covered in soot. It's too early for his shift to be over, and I can only assume the worst. Gale has always been outspoken to a fault, and never holds his tongue for anyone. He knew what today was, and knew he would have to blow off a chain of superiors to come out here. A flash of anger ignites inside of me. I'm angry because I want to be alone, and because he surely got himself in trouble for me. He is a grown man, and he is as unstoppable as a rolling boulder, but ultimately I will feel responsible for whatever punishment he receives. It's not fair.
He approaches me slowly, as if sensing the downturn in my mood. Despite my best efforts to remain stoic, my mouth betrays me and I flash him a small smile when he plasters a goofy grin on his face. Gale knows me like he knows the forest.
"Have you opened it yet?" he asks.
"No," I whisper.
He pulls me into his arms a beat later, and holds me. I close my eyes and relish in our closeness. He smells of charred wood and dirt, unpleasant on any other day, but it is exactly what I need today. I can't remember the last time I let someone hold me like this.
We pull away from each other slowly. It's moments like this where I feel the worst about myself. Gale looks at me like I am his sun, but I cannot reciprocate the feelings he wants, or deserves. Maybe in a different time or place it would be possible, but not here. Not now. I am too selfish. I will let him hold me. I will let him comfort me. But I will never let him get any closer. How long can we play this game before I run him off for good?
"Are you ready?" he asks. He tucks a loose strand of hair from my braid behind my ear. "I'm sure you're worrying for nothing, Catnip."
I hold the envelope up between us, and tear the top open.
I come to with a choked off gasp.
The air is acrid and foul—like burning plastic, or burnt flesh. I can taste it on my tongue and it's a testament to my upbringing that I don't automatically get sick. I feel faint, though. I can't be sure of how long I've been unconscious, or how long I have been inhaling the black smoke that's billowing from the jagged hole in the middle of the shuttle, but one thing I know for certain: if I stay any longer, I will die. My head lolls forward when I try to get moving. It's embarrassingly clear that my body is three steps behind my brain, but no one is here to watch me.
Unlatching myself takes longer than I expect, but a tell-tale 'click' sounds when I find the button, and the strap-down bars spring forward to give me my freedom. I slide out of the chair slowly, testing my stability. For all I know, both my legs have shattered on impact and I am too rattled to register the pain. When I don't immediately crumple to the floor, I put all my weight down.
A searing pain flashes up my right leg, and I grunt in surprise. I didn't notice before, but there is a tear in my pant leg that reveals a sickening, blistering burn. I turn my head away when I get to the crispier parts. I can hardly stand the sight of my own blood, let alone a serious wound. But I don't have time to whine or bemoan my situation. I've already wasted enough time holding back the bile rising quickly in my throat. I'll be damned if I die because I'm too busy crying over a glorified sunburn.
I make fists and limp my way towards the gaping hole in the side of the shuttle. I slip my way outside, careful not to snag my flight suit on the metal. They gave me a slew of injections before my deployment, but I don't think a tetanus shot was one of them.
The sunlight blinds me, but I have no time to spare to pain. I assess my surroundings as quickly as possible. The shuttle has landed on a gradual hill, but is positioned in such a way that I can't go left or right. I have two choices: climb up and over the shuttle and see what awaits me on the other side, or go down. I'm not sure which is the lesser of two evils, with my bum leg and sloppy coordination, but at least I know if I don't climb I will have less of a chance of bringing the shuttle tumbling down with me.
With a barely audible sigh, I start down the hill. I can't say it's an easy affair. I am usually sure-footed, but the pain in my leg is too much of a distraction to maintain my cool composure. I finally give up when I'm panting, sweaty, and not even a quarter-way down. I find that it becomes easier when I alternate between crab-crawling and body surfing on the grass. When I finally reach the bottom, I am dirty, exhausted, and sore beyond belief. I lay back with my legs outstretched and just breathe.
The fresh air is overwhelming, almost as overwhelming as the fact that I am still alive. The sky is a clear blue—unnaturally so, if I were still in D12. My lungs are aflame from the atmosphere's mixture. Safe for consumption, according to the scientists, and I can already feel my wits coming back to me with each choppy breath.
It's not smart to do so, but I allow myself a small reprieve from this whole ordeal and simply lie in the sunlight. I know I will become restless soon, that the survival instincts ingrained in me will kick in any moment, but I know I also need time to decompress, if only for a few minutes.
It's then, my body throbbing in time with my heartbeat, that I allow myself to think on the one thing I didn't want to acknowledge straight away: there had been other passengers, but I had awoken completely alone in the shuttle. The side panel had been ripped open. By what, I couldn't be sure, but there had been seats there. I had only chosen my spot in the back because of my general aversion to people, and it's looks like that had saved my life.
I'm not sure how long I lie at the bottom of the hill. Tears leak from my eyes in a steady flow, but my heart feels as light as a feather. I might as well be dead, but I don't care. I have no idea where I am, no idea if anyone knows what happened to me, and no idea how to transmit a distress call. Even if I figure it out, climbing back up to the shuttle will have to wait until my leg is healed. As far as I'm concerned, I've disappeared. Yet I feel completely serene. Should I simply stay where I'm at and let this otherworld consume me? Of course not. If Prim is still alive, somewhere, then I know I must go on. I must get back to her. And I know I will find a way. I always do.
I wipe the tears from my cheeks and sit up. The sun has definitely moved in the sky. At least three hours, if the star's rotation is anything similiar to my home planet. It is wasted time. Time I will never be able to retrieve. I let panic get the best of me and I mutter a curse under my breath. A perfect soldier I am not, but I've never been known to let resources slip through my fingers. And time is my most precious commodity right now.
I need to find shelter and a water source. Food can wait for a day or more, but not forever.
The only weapon I carry is a large hunting blade in my ankle strap, and a small gun in my hip holster. I've never been a good shot, except with a bow and arrow, but I am useful with a knife. One clip is ready in my gun, another two strapped safely in my holster. I don't have many bullets to spare, and surely it would take at least five to take down a minor beast. The scientists said the planet was free of human life, but they never promised us that it was free of large predators. The realization that I am unprotected from the wild sends a chill down my spine. Hopefully I will only find small game here to contend with.
I stand up and begin my real-life survival course.
I decide from the beginning to stay near the shuttle, but far enough away that I can't be caught if someone-or some thing-comes to investigate. Smoke still billows from the shuttle, even hours after the crash, and it's hard for me not to view it as a homing beacon of trouble.
It doesn't take me long before I am back in the run of things, and it's easy to pretend that Gale is trailing behind me. The forest of this planet resembles my own. Even the air smells just as damp and earthy.
I find a clean brook a mile or so westward, and decide it is as good a place as any to set up camp. I weave together a rudimentary awning from ferns and pliable bark, and place more ferns beneath it to serve as a mattress. I've slept on worse.
Setting up takes me a better part of two hours, but in the end I am satisfied with my handiwork. Between Gale and I, I am the weakest one when it comes to creating something out of nothing, but I am sure he would be proud of my makeshift tent.
My laboring leaves me tired, but I am not yet done. There is one thing left I don't want to spend the night without.
A fire will keep away unwanted animals. It's hard to find kindling and dry wood near the brook, and I have to travel even further into the woods before I find what I deem acceptable. Luckily, I have a flint in my hip pouch. It takes me three strikes to light the dry grass, and I give the embers few gentle breaths to coax it to life. The temperature has dropped steadily since the beginning of the day, and I am glad to give my cold hands something to look forward to tonight. I will have to wake up throughout the night to keep it going, but it will be worth it to stay warm, and safe.
I have little energy left to create snares, but somehow I manage to set up four. If only Gale were really with me, and not just in my imagination. We could have created a netting in the water to trap fish. It would only frustrate me to try on my own.
I'm not ready to drop my guard and sleep, but it's hard to fight the exhaustion that has tagged beside me since the day began. I finally settle onto the ferns and listen to the forest. The sun is steadily slipping behind the horizon, and it's departure is like an alarm clock for the nocturnal animals that call the forest home. It's strange. As much time as I used to spend outside the fence in D12, I never spent the night. Peacekeeper homechecks were rare, but it was a chance I was never willing to take.
The crackle of the fire snaps me awake. With mild irritation, I realize that I fell asleep without meaning to. I stretch out, feeling surprisingly well rested. I couldn't have been asleep for more than an hour or two. The ferns have held up well, but it won't be long sleeping like this before my back is constantly aching. It will be a long time before I get feathered down, if ever.
The fire is still going strong, but I give another log to the flames just in case. For a long time, I simply stare into the dancing flames. I'm not sure if I should try to go back to sleep, or keep awake. My situation is not an ideal one, and the more I think upon it, the more panicked I feel.
My mission was recon. There is a war going on in a distant galaxy, and the Capitol Army needs more—well, they don't tell us what they need, just that we have to find it on neighboring planets. This was supposed to be my first drop. I am wet behind the ears, fresh from training, and I have little to no idea at how these missions go. My only friend, if I used the term "friend" loosely, was supposed to be with me—but she didn't pass her field exam. I'm thankful for her failure now, although she would no doubt call me stupid for thinking so.
What will I do if our detachment is deemed unnecessary? How long before they send another shuttle here? It could be days, weeks, months, years. Surely I would not survive long enough for a rescue. Or perhaps I will become a wild woman, living upon the land, gone mad from the loneliness. Gale and I used to whisper amongst ourselves about running off beyond the fence. But I don't think I could do this alone.
I rub my face with my hands and decide it best to sleep. Hope is my best chance at staying alive, but I'm very poor at keeping an optimistic outlook. Unfortunately, I am restless. Although my body craves sleep, and I am more than willing to give into it, I can't find a position that is comfortable enough.
I take to counting the stars in the inky night sky, as I find no constellations that are familiar to me. I'm on number forty-six when I realize how quiet the forest has become. It's nowhere near dawn and the silence is deafening. I tuck myself further into my makeshift tent, and turn my better ear to catch sound. Nothing. Not even the wind. I search the forest floor, my eyes darting to and fro. Little, inconsequential things catch my eye in my panic. My heart pounds harder each time I think I've seen something.
I have no reason to think this, but I feel like something is watching me—stalking me. Hunting me. It takes all my willpower to not stamp out my fire and clamber up a tree. I reach for the knife at my ankle. The blade will do little good if I am attacked by a wild cat, but it calms my nerves some. The forest and I battle it out for some time, but nothing reveals itself.
All delusions of having a full night's rest effectively gone, I stay awake and watch the sunrise.