“Welcome to the 74th Annual Hungry Games,” echoed a disembodied from above, the trees shaking with each syllable. “Pledges, please prepare for initiation. Good luck.”
Carl placed his left hand flat against the clear plastic cylinder surrounding him, his eyes locked on the grass below his feet. He’d been indoors just seconds ago, half asleep and eating a bowl of Lucky Charms. He’d had plans that day, goals and tasks he’d hoped to accomplish. Specifically, he was hoping to buy some weed. Yet now he was encased in a mysterious tube at some sort of competition, his bowl of Lucky Charms still held in his right hand. He glanced over to his left, spotting Dave. Apparently he, too, had been removed from their district housing and brought to this gathering.
“Begin,” erupted the voice from above. The plastic tubes sunk into the ground, a brisk, spring air rushing against Carl’s face. Several people, men and women no older than twenty-five, dashed forward, running toward some sort of mess of equipment several hundred feet away. Carl turned to Dave, who was brushing some dust off his vintage Bob Marley t-shirt.
“Where are we?” Carl said, slowly making his way over to Dave. A pained scream echoed from the direction of the equipment.
“I think we’re in a forest,” Dave said. Carl turned his head to the left and stared at the mass of trees surrounding them, which filled every gap except for the area immediately surrounding the equipment pile. Considering how many trees there were, Carl agreed they were likely in a forest.
“Cool,” Carl said, grabbing the spoon from his bowl of Lucky Charms and plunging it back into the cereal. It had gotten pretty soggy.
“Hey,” said a voice from behind Carl. He turned around, spoon now lodged between his lips, mouth filled with Lucky Charms.
“Hi,” Carl said, swallowing. There didn’t seem to be anyone there.
“Who are you guys? I didn’t see you during training.”
“I’m Carl,” he said. “And that’s Dave. He’s my roommate.” Carl took another bite of the Lucky Charms.
“Why did you two skip the training?” the voice repeated.
Carl shrugged. He had just gotten a job at the local factory, but both he and Dave had skipped last night’s safety seminar in order to practice their passion of smoking weed. It was weird that they had been illegally teleported to the next safety meeting, and that the factory had been relocated out of the dusty, grey of their district, instead into a lush, green forest populated by violent youths. It was also weird that there didn’t seem to be any factory nearby. Still, it wasn’t the weirdest thing ever. That title belonged to a bird he once saw while incredibly high, which he swore was speaking to him in Pig Latin. He didn’t even understand Pig Latin, yet it made perfect sense to him at the time.
“Didn’t think I needed it,” he said. He was pretty confident his safety abilities were already up to par, and figured skipping the session wouldn’t really do much for his career. He knew he’d probably not amount to anything, as was typical for the people who lived in the Districts. Maybe if he had been born in The New City he’d have put in a bit more effort, but part of him was glad he hadn’t. The weed was significantly better in the Districts, even if there were considerably more City-mandated beatings.
“Really? Do you want to team up with me, then?”
“For safety?” Carl said. He turned toward Dave and shrugged. “I guess,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
“Great,” said the voice. “We can—watch out!”
Carl turned his head as a thin, long object spiraled past his chest and directly into the bowl of Lucky Charms in his hand, knocking it onto the floor.
“Hey,” he shouted, “I was eating that.” He stared down at the object. It appeared to be some kind of spear, a sharp, metal point fastened to its front.
“Are you okay?” said the voice from earlier.
“Kind of,” Carl said, lightly kicking the spilled, soggy cereal. He was pretty much done with it anyway, so it wasn’t too big of a loss.
“You can have some of mine,” Dave said, pushing his bowl toward Carl.
“No way,” Carl said, squishing his face in disgust. Dave ate his cereal without milk, which was positively disgusting. He’d rather suffer premature completion of his Lucky Charms than be forced to chew the dry, flakey husks of what could only loosely be considered food.
“We need to get out of the open,” said the voice. Carl turned back toward its source, the trees behind still baring nothing but the emerald hue of the newly budded leaves.
“Are you a ghost?” Carl said, studying the emptiness ahead of him for any sign of humanity. He hated ghosts, even though he’d never met one. He knew he was being judgmental, but they were just too spooky.
“What? No,” said the voice, pausing suspiciously, “I’m not a ghost.” Carl was pretty confident that he was talking to a ghost.
“Then why can’t I see you?” Carl said. He’d once thought Dave had turned into a ghost after they’d gotten incredibly high before a walk through the forbidden remains of the Old City. Carl could hear him speaking, yet, no matter how hard he tried, was unable to see him. He concluded he had died and become a ghost. However, after a few minutes of panic, he discovered Dave was actually standing just behind him, which explained why he could not see him.
“I’m right here,” said a figure emerging from the trees a few feet ahead. Its face was painted in a dark brown camouflage, almost the exact same hues as the forest behind it. Likewise, its entire outfit seemed to be chosen specifically to look as tree-like as possible.
“You look like a tree,” Dave said through a full mouth, spoon dangling from between his pursed lips. “Speaking off, do you know where we can get some trees?”
“Good question,” Carl said, nodding toward Dave. Just because they had been teleported to a safety seminar didn’t mean Carl had to abandon the day’s plan. He could still pick up some weed before his training.
“Yes, but we need to get the paint from some of these other guys, they already got all the supplies from—incoming!” shouted the tree, raising its branch-like arm and pointing behind Carl. He turned, facing the direction the tree had signaled. A man was charging at him, a sword clutched between his hands. He was shirtless, his muscular chest tensed as he rushed toward him.
“Hello,” Carl said, waving toward the fast-approaching man. This must be that weed guy the tree had mentioned.
The shirtless man yelled with a deep bellow, a familiar war-cry he’d heard countless times from the rebels that protested and rioted against the New City guards. Their screams tended to turn to death rattles, though, as they were all mercilessly slaughtered.
The man raised his sword higher as his feet pounded against the ground, then lowered it and pointed it directly at Carl. It was a very strange way to sell somebody weed, but he trusted that the tree knew what it was talking about. If anyone knew where to buy trees, it would certainly be a tree.
“I’d like to buy some weed,” Carl said, just as the man stepped into the spilled Lucky Charms no more than several inches away from his face. His feet slipped forward, the sword coming loose from his grip and launching straight into the air as he fell onto his back. He lifted his hands to his head, crossing his arms over his face. The sword turned over in the air, then plummeted straight down. The blade pierced his hands, entering his skull and splitting it open.
“Nicely done,” shouted the tree. “That was Drake from District 9, the toughest they got!”
“You okay?” Carl said, kneeling down and studying the man’s shattered skull. He was probably fine. He also probably had weed. Carl glanced up at Dave, who apparently had the same idea and was now approaching the body. He knelt down and nodded at Carl. The two of them began digging through the man’s pockets, searching for the bag of marijuana he surely had. The tree wandered over and joined in.
“Here,” the tree said, reaching out its branch-arm and handing them two small knives he’d taken from the body.
“What’s this?” Carl said, grabbing the knife and examining it. He pulled on the handle. No weed came out.
“Just a knife,” the tree said. “It’s not much, but it will hold you over until we can get to the better stuff. One of you can also have the sword.”
“No thanks,” Carl said, tossing the knife aside and glancing over at Dave. “We need some trees, though.”
“Right, the paint.” The tree resumed digging through the man’s belongings. “He has to have some on him—ah, here.” He reached out his branch-arm, a small flask of some kind resting in the middle of his sweaty, slightly pink palm. Carl grabbed it with his left hand.
“Nice,” he said, using his right hand to dig through his pockets for his lighter and rolling papers. “I so need this.” He pulled the paper out first, grabbing two sheets and setting them on top of each other over the grass on the ground.
“What are you doing?” said the tree.
“Hang on, I’ll roll you one after,” he said. He opened the tube and carefully tilted it over the rolling paper. A thick, brown liquid oozed out, soaking the paper and spilling over onto the grass below. “What the hell is this?” Carl said.
“Paint,” the tree said, standing up and staring out into the distance as another blood-curdling scream echoed through the air. “We need to move, we’re still in the open.”
“I thought you were getting us some weed,” Carl said.
“Weed, marijuana. You know, some pot.”
“Wait, what? Why would I be getting you marijuana? You’re in the middle of the Hungry Games. How is that going to help you survive?”
“Hungry Games?” Dave said, hand still rummaging through the pockets of the body beside him. “Isn’t that the thing where The New City forces kids to kill each other?”
“Exactly,” the tree said.
“I love that shit,” Carl said.
Dave nodded in agreement. There was almost nothing better than watching the poor saps murder each other at the yearly games. He was glad he would probably never get tricked into becoming a Pledge. He and Dave always ingeniously threw their Pledge Lottery papers into the garbage as soon as they arrived, and then never attended the mandated selection ceremonies. Coincidentally, this year’s Pledges apparently also didn’t show up, both to the training and the actual selection event. Poor suckers didn’t even know they had been chosen. He couldn’t wait to watch the broadcasting.
“So, where’s the weed?” Carl said.
“I don’t have any drugs,” the tree said, backing up slowly. “Why would I have drugs? I have an expertise in natural camouflage and hunting. I can help you survive long enough to figure out how we can defeat The New City.”
“There are no drugs here?” Carl said. “You lied to me?” He took a step forward.
“I don’t have any drugs,” the tree repeated.
“I want my fucking drugs,” Carl shouted, taking another step forward.
“Stay away, “the tree said. “I’m warning you. I will end this union.”
Carl lunged forward, grabbing the tree by the throat and slamming him against the grass, his body landing just next to the shattered skull of the weed salesman who was probably fine.
“Wait,” Dave said, tapping Carl on the shoulder. “Look what I got.”
Carl turned around and stared at Dave, a small baggy of weed resting in his palm. The weed salesman had a strange way of delivering his product, but he certainly got the job done.
“Fantastic,” Carl said, releasing his grip on the tree. “Let’s get high.” An arrow pierced through the air, landing on the ground directly next to Carl’s leg. He pulled it out and began scraping the brown liquid off the rolling papers. He figured the paint might help get him even higher.