My first impulse is to scramble from the tree, but I’m belted in. Somehow my fumbling fingers release the buckle and I fall to the ground in a heap, still snarled in my sleeping bag. There’s no time for any kind of packing. Fortunately, my backpack and water bottle are already in the bag. I shove in the belt, hoist the bag over my shoulder, and flee.
The world has transformed to flame and smoke. Burning branches crack from trees and fall in showers of sparks at my feet. All I can do is follow the others, the rabbits and deer and I even spot a wild dog pack shooting through the woods. I trust their sense of direction because their instincts are sharper than mine. But they are much faster, flying through the underbrush so gracefully as my boots catch on roots and fallen tree limbs, that there’s no way I can keep apace with them.
The heat is horrible, but worse than the heat is the smoke, which threatens to suffocate me at any moment. I pull the top of my shirt up over my nose, grateful to find it soaked in sweat, and it offers a thin veil of protection. And I run, choking, my bag banging against my back, my face cut with branches that materialize from the gray haze without warning, because I know I am supposed to run.
This was no tribute’s campfire gone out of control, no accidental occurrence. The flames that bear down on me have an unnatural height, a uniformity that marks them as human-made, machine-made, Gamemaker-made. Things have been too quiet today. No deaths, perhaps no fights at all. The audience in the Capitol will be getting bored, claiming that these Games are verging on dullness. This is the one thing the Games must not do.
It’s not hard to follow the Gamemakers’ motivation. There is the Career pack and then there are the rest of us, probably spread far and thin across the arena. This fire is designed to flush us out, to drive us together. It may not be the most original device I’ve
seen, but it’s very, very effective.
I hurdle over a burning log. Not high enough. The tail end of my jacket catches on fire and I have to stop to rip it from my body and stamp out the flames. But I don’t dare leave the jacket, scorched and smoldering as it is, I take the risk of shoving it in my sleeping bag, hoping the lack of air will quell what I haven’t extinguished. This is all I have, what I carry on my back, and it’s little enough to survive with.
In a matter of minutes, my throat and nose are burning. The coughing begins soon after and my lungs begin to feel as if they are actually being cooked. Discomfort turns to distress until each breath sends a searing pain through my chest. I manage to take cover under a stone outcropping just as the vomiting begins, and I lose my meager supper and whatever water has remained in my stomach. Crouching on my hands and knees, I retch until there’s nothing left to come up.
I know I need to keep moving, but I’m trembling and light-headed now, gasping for air. I allow myself about a spoonful of water to rinse my mouth and spit then take a few swallows from my bottle. You get one minute, I tell myself. One minute to rest. I take the time to reorder my supplies, wad up the sleeping bag, and messily stuff everything into the backpack. My minute’s up. I know it’s time to move on, but the smoke has clouded my thoughts. The swift-footed animals that were my compass have left me behind. I know I haven’t been in this part of the woods before, there were no sizable rocks like the one I’m sheltering against on my earlier travels. Where are the Gamemakers driving me?