We walked through the portal.
This time, when I looked around, I was surrounded by crumbled buildings. A wind picked up dust and flung it into my face. I closed my eyes and coughed. When I opened them, a woman in a plain grey uniform was pointing a gun at me. I threw up my hands. “I mean no harm! I just— is this District Thirteen?”
“Of which you are now a prisoner.” She escorted me down into the facility, with its plain, solid walls, to the elevator, and we rode it down, down, down to floor Thirty-nine. I knew this floor— the prison ward.
“Please, I need to speak to President Coin. I’m not supposed to be here.”
“You bet you’re not.” She proceeded to shackle me to the wall.
“You don’t understand. I have friends in the Games!”
“They had better not! I’ve got to take them home with me. We’re not from this world.”
Her expression was hidden behind her helmet, but the incredulity was in her voice too. “Someone will be down here soon to interrogate you.” She left and shut the door.
I had always though that, being an introvert, solitary confinement wouldn’t be that bad.
I was wrong.
I sang every song I could think of, went over a detailed review of every book I could remember, and prayed till my throat was hoarse. Something was wrong in the air, though. My words were falling flat. That was when I realized— Susanne Collins hadn’t included God in her stories. That made me think. Of course God was still real in the real world, but where did that put me now?
A guard finally came in, escorting a woman with straight grey hair, grey eyes, and wearing a grey suit. Alma Coin herself.
“Where are you from?”
“The real world.”
“This is fictional: you, the Hunger Games, all of Panem. I and my friends are real. We traveled here through a portal from my bedroom.”
She watched me, her lip beginning to curl. “Why would you come here?”
“Well, we wanted to see if we could change it.” I shrugged.
“If it is, you cannot change what has already been written.” She stood then, motioning the guard to remove me from my seat and return me to my chains. “Get rid of her. I don’t need a storytelling Capitol brat on my hands.”
“What? No! That’s not—“
She left the room. The guard, after removing the table and chairs (probably so they wouldn’t get splattered with my blood), raised his gun and fired.
My body slammed against the wall. I could feel the bullet’s intrusion through my skull and into my brain, sending lighting waves of pain sizzling along my nerves before it all faded away.
I opened my eyes in the same blackness that had descended was supposed to descend when the story was done. It was a relief that I wasn’t dead. Now I could see five glowing portals. Through one was my bedroom, and I could see one of my friends in each of the others. Audrey was back in the capitol, this time in a magenta-feathered costume with her curly hair dyed lime green. Hallie was in the Games. So were Alex and Zach. I couldn’t tell which districts they were representing… how much time had I spent in that cell? I kept watching.
Alex splayed his fingers, palms facing the dark-haired girl a few yards in front of him. She was poised to throw the knife in her hand. I could hear her voice, as if it were far away.
“I don’t know what got into you, Cato. But this whole peace act isn’t going to get you anywhere. Come on! We trained for this. Now tough up, or I’ll have to get rid of you.”
“I’m not Cato. And I don’t want to kill you.”
Her lips pressed together. She threw the knife.
I didn’t know that Alex could move so fast. His bare arms rippled as he knocked the blade away. He lunged at Clove and tackled her to the ground.
“I don’t want to kill you!” he growled.
She didn’t say anything, just struggled. She got another knife from somewhere and took a slash at him. He tried to dodge but took it in the side, rolling off her in the process. She jumped on top of him, but with a yell, he shoved her off. Her head hit a stone, and she became still.
My heart broke as I watched my brother pick himself up off the ground. He grimaced and held a hand to his side. Blood dripped past his fingers. I automatically whispered a prayer that God would help him, but again, I realized that He wouldn’t. Our souls were safe, but our bodies… we had jumped into this of our own free will.
Clove wasn’t getting up. Alex stumbled away from her body, but only took a few steps before he collapsed against a tree. He looked absolutely horrified.
I turned to the other portals. Hallie was up in a tree. Zach was prowling through the woods, a thick piece of timber in his hands as a weapon. His face and hands were bruised, and he looked like he’d been through a few altercations already. His head jerked around at every bird chirp, at every crack of the branches beneath his feet. I turned to Audrey’s portal. She was alone in a house with baby pink walls, sitting straight and lady-like on a powder blue sofa, writing something while the Games played on a huge screen. I leaned forwards to see what she was writing, then tripped on nothing, as I have an uncanny knack for, and fell right through the portal.
She didn’t react at all. I stood up, massaging my knees. “It’s nice to see you too, Audrey.”
Then she jumped, a hand over her mouth. “Keri?” She looked around.
“I’m right here,” I said, motioning down myself. I noticed that my clothes didn’t change this time; I was still in my adventurous clothes from exploring in District Thirteen.
She looked right through me. “Where?”
“Oh… I’m probably a ghost. I got shot in District Thirteen, and it sent me beck to the portal entrance. I could see everyone. Then I fell into this one.”
She looked relieved. “Well, it’s nice to know that we can’t actually die here.” She motioned to the quiet screen on her wall. “When did you put the bedtime bookmark in?”
“Um, it was right where the Games begin.”
“Shouldn’t we be out already then?”
I smiled at the irony. “I guess the portal knows that those bookmarks are ineffective. We just read on anyways.”
“So, we’re stuck in here till the end of the book.”
“Yeah. But wait! The book will need to come to an end for us to get out—“
“And if we mess up the ending, we’re stuck.”
“Yeah, something like that.” I glanced behind me and, to my surprise, seen the portal waiting for me. “If you can’t see me, you can’t see the portal, can you?”
She shook her head.
I reached out my hand, but it passed through hers. “I’ll lead you then. Follow my voice.” I proceeded to hum as I walked slowly back towards the portal. She followed me, hands outstretched. I stepped through.
Audrey felt around where I had disappeared, then glanced up at the ceiling and shrugged. “Guess not. Good luck!”
“Thanks,” I replied, but she couldn’t hear me. I found Zach’s portal and entered it. He was stomping through the woods, as stealthy as Peeta. “Zach!”
He jumped a foot in the air, then swung his beam in my direction. I jumped reflexively, but not far enough— it didn’t matter.
“Nice swing,” I said. “Right through where my head should be. I would have been dead if I wasn’t already.”
He looked around, squinting. “Keri?”
“The one and only. I’m a ghost cause I was already killed, so you can’t see me. But I came here to tell you: the only way we can get out of the book is if it ends. And it can’t end if other competitors are still alive.”
“So I have to… die?” He squinted even more. “How do I know this isn’t from a tracker-jacker sting?”
“Did you get stung?”
“I don’t know.”
“Come on. I’m probably the last person you would hallucinate about. Have you seen any of your friends? Your parents? Your girlfriend?”
He flushed. “She’s not my girlfriend.”
“Psht. Not yet, you mean. Well, I’m pretty rational, for a hallucination. I’m going to get Hallie now. Go to the cornucopia. Use the time to figure out if you believe me or if you’re going to hit her with your stick.” I returned to my portal.
Hallie was next. She was still in her tree. I went through the explanation again. “By the way, you look really pretty.”
“Ha. Thanks. I’m a mess.”
I laughed. “Well, Zach is going to the cornucopia. You should meet him and figure out how you’re going to die. I suggest something quick.”
“Never thought I’d go on a suicide mission.” She began to climb down the branches. “Have you seen Alex?”
“He’s my next stop, if he’s not waiting for me when I get back. Clove knifed him.”
She paled, and I regretted telling her, but she maintained her grip. “Is Clove still alive?”
“She hit her head on a rock. I don’t think she’ll make it.”
“It serves her right!” She clambered down a few more branches, but by the time she had dropped to the ground, pity had filled her eyes. “I don’t mean that. I mean, kind of, for killing Alex, but what else was she supposed to do?” She adjusted her backpack. “She was only fifteen, you know.”
“Yeah. I’m so thankful this isn’t real.”
“Amen. You said cornucopia?”
“You’re welcome.” I left her.
Alex wasn’t waiting for me. His portal was still open. I walked in. How do I introduce myself to my dying brother?
He didn’t even open his eyes. “This sucks.”
“You’re telling me.” I took a breath, trying not to cry, telling myself that it was just a book, just a book, this wasn’t real. But that was my brother! “So, good news,” I tried again. “It’ll be fine after you die.”
“You tried it?”
“Yeah. I’m a ghost now, and I can see the portals. Very handy.”
“Great.” He stood up then, grimacing, and tore his hand away from where the dried blood stuck it to his clothing. More seeped out. “Hard work,” he muttered, standing up straight. His face was contorted, but he took a step, then another, then another. He started to run, then collapsed face first. I caught up to him just as the portal swallowed us both up.
He sat up, gasping. His hand flew to his stomach, where now his guts weren’t spilling out. He stared up at me in the dim light of the four open portals. “That was awful.”
“Well, I kind of convinced you in here.”
He shrugged. “I followed. Where’s Zach? And the girls?”
I showed him the portals. “We can go back in, but it wouldn’t help them any. Once Zach and Hallie die, they’ll come in here. Then the Games will end, the book will be over, and Audrey will come back too.”
“Should we go back?” He motioned to the home portal. “We’ve been gone for days. They’ll be going crazy.”
“What’s a few more hours?”
“You want to see them die?”
“Well, I am kind of curious—“
“It’s all research! It’s not like they’re dying for real. And a couple of hours won’t change anything. You can’t say that you don’t want to watch too.”
He glowered at me, but stayed. Hallie and Zach marched on. Audrey sang trills while watching Katniss and Peeta kiss in their cave.
“Hey. What time was it when we went in?”
“I don’t know. Me and Zach followed them up the stairs to your room, so just after everyone got to our place. Right about nine am.”
“Wait— you followed them up the stairs?”
“They were just turning the corner when we climbed up. What’s your deal?”
“We were already in the portal when you picked up the book and pulled us back the first time, remember?”
“We were in there for three whole days!”
Realization smoothed his face. “So all this… isn’t taking any time in the real world.”
I could barely contain my grin. Just thinking of all the things I could learn and experience, in no time at all, made me feel dizzy. Alex caught me before I fell. My attention snagged back to the present as we seen our two contestants meet.
“Zachary. That’s a big stick.”
“Yeah. You want me to hit you with it?”
“Can you hit hard enough to kill me with one shot?”
She waited. He waited.
“I’m not going to do it,” he said.
“Why not? Get it over and done with. Keri said that’s the only way we can get out of this book.”
Zach scratched the back of his neck. “I’m not killing you.”
Hallie grounded her hands on her hips. “Katniss only has one arrow. Peeta is injured. Alex and everyone else is dead. Either you are going to kill me, or they’ll send the mutts after us.”
“Fine.” He gritted his teeth and swung his beam.
She crumpled. I could feel Alex flinch beside me as she went down. The her portal swooped her up and disappeared.
Hallie stood up from the floor. She ran and threw her arms around me. “Next time, let’s do poetry again, or a Shakespeare where no one dies,” she said into my shoulder.
“Don’t all of Shakespeare’s characters die?” Alex asked.
I shook my head, releasing Hallie, who quickly dried her eyes with the sleeves of her cardigan. “No one dies in the Merchant of Venice. Although actually—“
He lifted up a hand, blocking me from his sight. “Forget I asked.”
We turned back to Zach’s portal. He is meandering around the cornucopia when Katniss and Peeta come tearing out of the woods. The pack of muttations follows them. They run straight for him, and he immediately laces his hands together to give them a boost. Katniss passes him and jumps onto it herself, then reaches down for Peeta. She grabs his wrist, but he can’t lift his injured leg, so Zachary wraps his thick hands around Peeta’s boot and shoves him upwards. Katniss, not expecting the extra help, falls backwards. Zachary clambers up after them and they back away. They get to the highest point of the cornucopia, where the mutts can’t reach them, and Zach stands on the edge. He opens his arms.
“Here’s a clear shot.”
Katniss and Peeta both stare at him, waiting for him to move, to show his hand.
She unslings her bow, notches her last arrow, draws back, and lets it fly.
The portal did its swoopy thing again, and Zach was in our midst. He and Alex shared a bear hug, then he turned to me. “Let’s go. Audrey will come.”
We walked back into my bedroom. Again, I felt so astonished that nothing had changed here. Audrey walked out nearly on our heels, and I picked up the book.
Audrey gave a dramatic sigh. “I had to wait until Peeta and Katniss arrived safely in District Twelve before it all faded away and I could come back. How much longer did I take?”
I looked at the clock. “Well, I’d say about twenty seconds. We’ve been gone for five minutes, guys. Five minutes. Can you imagine everything we could do—“
Zachary stops me. “Not again.” The look in his eyes startles me. “I know it’s just a book, but to be there— to kill someone— I don’t want to do it again.”
“Alright,” I said. “I’m sorry. That’s not what I meant to happen. I’m not even sure what I… oh, forget it. What do we do now then? The parent’s meeting will go on for a couple hours yet.”
“This will make an awesome story,” Hallie said, getting her phone out and starting to type.
My fingers itched for my laptop.
“We could immortalize our adventure in song,” Audrey added.
“Definitely!” I agreed.
“Definitely not.” Alex brushed past me. “You girls go ahead if you want. Zach, let’s go softing.”
They walked out of the room, leaving us girls to write about our adventures and sing about our strife and glory and talk about the foolishness of boys who would rather airsoft than spend time in fiction.