"You're coming with me?" I ask. "I thought you were just bringing my things."
She leans the banjo up against a rock. "I see you brought dinner."
I look at the game bag and nod stupidly, then say, "Misty, I don't even know where I'm going. Other than to the big river, and probably down to the Ghost Gulf, because that's where they knew Dad was. It's not where he is, and it's a long way."
"Then we should get some rest before we start." She has two satchels with her, and she hands one to me. "I figured we could probably use at least one change of clothes. We can wash things out in creeks, but things have a way of ripping. It's summer, but it could get cold, so I lifted the blankets from the beds. They're pretty thin, but -- "
"Misty, you can't go."
She frowns. "You'd rather I went back for lessons? No way. They won't let up on me until you get back, anyway, so I may as well go with you. Do you think we're far enough from town to light a fire here?"
I nod. "There's a hillock in the way. But maybe we should wait for daylight, so it's not quite as obvious. Just in case. I don't know how hard they're looking for us."
"Will the meat keep?"
"It should. And we'll cook it all the way. I wish we could cure it and make it last longer. I don't know what we'll do after I use the last bullet."
"I brought the slingshots." She grins. "See? I thought of everything."
"Except that this is nuts."
"Oh, no. I thought of that, too. But I couldn't think what else to do."
"Where are we going to sleep?"
She winces. "I didn't think of that. But it's still warm. We can sleep on the ground tonight. There's a fern patch on the other side of the falls that looks pretty soft."
"What were you going to do about them without me? At least with both of us, we can sleep in shifts and keep an eye out."
I can't argue with the logic. She's right. It won't help the guilt if she ends up getting hurt for helping me, but she's right.
We try to settle in for the night. Since we can't cook the meat, we make a supper of berries Misty found earlier. It's not much, but we've both gotten by on less. Once we decide that no one is combing this part of the woods for us, I play the banjo for a little while and sing a couple of old ballads. I don't really feel like it, though.
I go into the waterfall, hoping that there's a cave behind it, but have no luck. We go to the fern patch and wrap up in the thin Community Home blankets. It's warm out and they're soft enough, but I guess we both have the journey ahead of us on our minds, because neither one of us can sleep.
"Where do you think he might have gone after the Ghost Gulf?" Misty asks me, not long after moonrise.
"I don't know. Can't go much further south without getting pretty wet. At least on this side of it. Do you know which side the battle was on?"
"No. The newsreels said it was between District Eleven and District Four. Could be either side of River Bay."
"I hope it's this side. I don't want to try and cross the bay." I shudder at the thought of it. Before the Catastrophes, the Mississippi River flowed straight into what we call the Ghost Gulf. As the oceans rose, the gulf invaded the river basin for nearly four hundred miles, making a shallow bay about a hundred miles across. The river's most likely wide enough as a river, probably a stretch to swim, but I'm hoping it's at least possible. By the time it's a bay? Misty's clever, but I doubt even she could make a boat out of a couple of blankets and our spare clothes.
"Maybe we could cross the river further up, before it goes into the bay," she suggests.
"Then we'd probably find out he was still on this side of it."
"That's a cheerful thought."
"You feeling cheerful?"
She's quiet for a long time, then she says, "Kind of. It's nice being out here. Maybe we could just get further away from the district and… I don't know. Build a house or something. Live out here."
"All by ourselves?"
"We could. I mean, there's nothing stopping us. You know how to build things and fix things from the resort. Maybe we could find some old city and there will still be equipment I could figure out how to fix and -- "
"I want to see my dad again, Misty." I wince, remembering that she won't get that chance. "Sorry."
"It's okay. I want to see mine, too." She looks up at the sky. "I guess it would get pretty lonely if it were for real. But let's pretend. Remember when we were little, and we'd pretend the empty cabins were really other places? And we were exploring them? It could be like that."
"Sure. Why not?"
"We'd discover gold. And you'd have a pet bobcat. I'd invent… I don't know. I'd invent a way we could look in on everyone else without getting caught."
"If we're pretending, why don't we pretend some other people are there?"
"As long as we've still got our house."
"Okay." I think about it. "Other than my dad, I want Pappy Angus there to tell us stories. Who do you want?"
"Do they have to be alive now?"
"Yeah. We'll say that's the rule. Pretending's better if you can believe it."
"And you can believe we'd get Pappy Angus out of District Twelve? You have a good imagination." She grins. "Okay. Hmm. I can't think of who I want there, other than you." She looks at me awkwardly, then looks away. "How about Duncan Coburn? He's always nice to me."
"He'd come with Juneberry Haggard. She's never nice to me."
"Oh, she's not that bad. You just have to stop deviling her about her fancy hair. She gets in enough trouble at school over it."
"Over her hair?" I shake my head. I've given her a hard time because she tries to do herself up like a princess (mostly because she's constantly turning her nose up at the rest of us), but it never occurred to me that anyone actually cared about it.
"Yeah. One time, they made her stand up and give a speech about why" -- she raises her voice to imitate our shrill civics teacher -- "uniformity of appearance fosters unity of purpose."
"For a few flowers in her hair? I'm on her side now. Juneberry can come with us. How about the Purdy kids?"
"Your cousins? Sure. Maybe your other cousins, too."
"The Purdys and the Halligans in the same place again? I don't think I'd get any of them to go along with it."
"But do you want them both?"
"Sure I do. Problem is, I pretty much want everybody except the Teachers, so we may as well go home anyway and make them leave."
She sighs. "How are we going to get rid of them, Effrim? And not end up with the Capitol back in our laps, because the older kids all say that was just as bad."
"I don't know. Maybe we should all run away. How'd the Capitol like that? We get rid of Thirteen, but when they come to grab us back, there's no one there waiting for them. We just pack up and fade off into the mountains."
"I like that. We'll just pretend they don't have hovercrafts that could spot something as big as a town."
"I can pretend that." I look up at the moon. "Do you think they'll be able to see us, once we start moving?"
"Not with the forest cover. I doubt they'd bother burning it down just for us."
"I guess not," I say, but when I finally do fall asleep in the deepest part of the night, when I have to wake Misty up because I can't keep my eyes open any longer, I dream that I'm lost in the woods, and the Capitol hovercrafts are burning out the forest behind me. I see my friends caught in the flames. Misty looks out at me helplessly as the inferno surrounds her, and I can't do anything to stop it. She crumbles into ash along with the rest of the world.
I wake up with the sun, mostly to get away from the dream, and Misty begs to get just a few more minutes of sleep. I'm grumpy with her, but there's no reason not to let her. We have meat to cook before it goes bad, and I can handle the fire by myself. The hardest part is finding dry wood, so we don't end up sending up a plume of smoke that they can see in town. I finally find a deadfall that's sheltered from the elements, and enough broken branches under it to get us going. It would be better if I could actually use bigger branches and chop them, but Misty didn't exactly have time to properly gear us up. I'm not even sure where she'd have stolen a hatchet from, anyway.
I let her sleep for nearly two hours while I butcher the prey and get it cooking, then she takes over and I get a few more winks, this time so tired that, if I dream, I don't remember it when she wakes me.
Yesterday seems very far away. I know why I'm here, but I can't seem to find any real urgency in my errand. We're not too far from town here. We've both had "lessons" before, and we can take them. I want to see my father, and prove that he's not doing what they say he is, but he seems distant in the morning light, a ghost of a memory, like my mother. The woods are coming alive, the morning sun catching on the bright flowers and the sparkling water, and the world looks more like a dream than my dreams did. I move through it carefully, not wanting to disturb it.
The meat seems cooked through, even a little burned on the outside. Misty thought to bring plastic bags from the kitchen, meant for rationing -- "Didn't I tell you I thought of everything?" -- and we separate it out. Without refrigeration, it still won't be good for long, but at least we'll have a couple of days of meat.
We both make noises about packing up and moving on up the river, but neither of us actually makes a move. I don't know why. I know I should be moving. But I'm not.
Neither of us is thinking about pursuit, and when we hear the footsteps crashing through the undergrowth, it's too late. We look at each other, and suddenly, everything is real again. This won't be a standard lesson. This will be a whipping… at best.
Before we can even adjust, the greenery seems to burst open, spitting out a solitary figure, burdened with what looks like a standard issue military backpack.
"I knew it!" Duronda Carson says. "I knew it when I smelled that meat. You two are almost in smelling distance of town, and you're still here."
I blink at her. "I -- "
"Why are you here?" Misty asks, blinking solemnly. Next to Duronda, she looks very young. I guess I do, too. Duronda is only fifteen, two years older than we are, but she's always had a way of simply assuming that she's in charge… which usually means she is in charge. If this has the effect of making everyone around her feel like they're five years old, she doesn't care.
She drags a heavy breath in through her teeth, making a whistling sound. "I was going to go it alone. Seems they decided I had ulterior motives after all. Your cousin Rory Purdy told me that my name came up in conversation at the Community Home. And it's a big conversation. They're keeping people back from school until it's sorted out."
"We should go back!" I say. "I don't want anyone getting hurt."
"They're not hurting anyone, just asking questions. And people are covering for you, so you can get away. And instead, you're out here playing the banjo." She eyes it with malevolence. "I can't believe you brought that, Magill."
"I wasn't going to leave it for them."
"You bring a banjo. I brought a pup tent." She pats the backpack, which has a rack at the bottom of it, where I can, in fact, see canvas and lightweight tent poles.
"You stole that," I say.
"Of course I did. I hope you don't think I'm going to feel guilty about it, either." She looks at our small pile of belongings. "Do either of you have room in a bag to take some of what's in here? It's heavy. I hope it's got food, too; I didn't have a chance to look. It's one of their bug-out bags, in case there's a battle they have to go fight. Or run away from and leave us to fight it, more likely. The bags are packed up and ready to go, so I grabbed one. You should have grabbed at least one, Magill."
"I didn't know about them."
"Hmm." She looks at us like we're some particularly thorny problem, then says, "Well? Can I spread some of this stuff into the bags you did bring, or are they loaded up with tambourines and fiddles?"
"I…" I start. "I have some… Misty, is there room in my bag?"
"There's room in both, but they won't hold a lot. They're not very sturdy."
"Fine. I won't put a lot in. We can take turns carrying the big one. You two get the fire out and try to make it look like you haven't been out camping here. I'll get things rearranged."
Without so much as asking whether or not she can come along, she sits down on a rock, pulls off her backpack, and starts loading things into our bags.
I stand, gape-mouthed, for a few seconds, feeling like I've quite suddenly lost any semblance of control over my own running away. First Misty, now Duronda.
Then again, Duronda brought a tent. And what looks like a couple of water bottles, and a few tins of food. I think tinned food is kind of redundant in the woods -- there's plenty to eat if you can catch it -- but I guess it's not a bad idea to have back up. I'm okay with a slingshot, but not great.
I put the fire out while Misty cleans up and tries to erase any memory of our presence from the falls. Duronda stands up when it's all in reasonable shape and straps her backpack on. She looks prone to start giving orders again, and if I let her, I'm going to be a passenger the whole way.
"We're going upriver," I tell them. "Toward the end of it, then we're turning west. Just follow the sun. Then south along the Mississippi."
"That's very decisive of you," Misty says, rolling her eyes.
"How the hell else would we get to the Ghost Gulf?" Duronda snaps.
"I should go alone," I try. "It's my quest."
"Quest?" Misty grins. "We're going on a quest."
"And here's me not even bringing a dragon-gun," Duronda says.
I make a rude gesture at them and decide not to bother with who's in charge of my escape. We're all going the same place, anyway.
We set off together, following the river south, maybe a little to the west. The river turns more westerly after about an hour's walk, then turns south again a few miles later. I have a gut feeling that it's going to twist on us quite a lot and end up wasting our time. I think it's an old river, and a wanderer for sure.
We don't talk much. I don't know what the girls are thinking about, but I'm guessing it's something like what I'm thinking -- that I don't know how the river flows, the further it gets from District Twelve. I don't know these woods. I don't know the world beyond the river at all. We have a tent, but we don't have a map. In school, I've seen some very general maps, showing North America like a half inflated balloon floating on the globe, the districts' central towns marked with stars. The big districts show borders beyond the towns as huge, featureless splotches on the countryside. None of them show for sure what's anywhere. We drink from the river, and I can only hope that it's not polluted or contaminated, or we have a really short trip ahead of us. It's not like we have anything to purify it in. Misty and I drank from the waterfall last night, and we're fine so far.
We take a rest after three hours, and Misty excuses herself into the woods.
Duronda sits down, looking like an old miner at the end of a long day. She starts rotating her ankles a little bit, probably for the ache in her feet.
"Thanks for getting us moving," I say.
She shrugs. "Sorry if I was a little short."
"It's okay. We should have been moving already."
She nods, then says, "Well, I'm kind of glad you weren't. It's better that we're all together."
"Are you scared?"
"Of course I am. I'm not crazy."
Though I think it should make me more scared to think that even Duronda is afraid, it doesn't. It actually makes me feel a little better. She starts to look a little younger, too, and I feel a little bit older. "Did you ever see much of a map between here and the Mississippi? Would we have gotten it in school?"
She shakes her head. "They drill us a little on history -- you know, how everything this side of the river used to be free, and everyone was happy until the Capitol came over with hovercrafts and wanted to get control of their graphite and our coal. It's a lot of empty space between here and there, and I think the mountains go west for a while. It's flat near the river, though, and the trees stop. They showed a picture. You could see a really long way."
I think it would be interesting to see a really long way, but I hope we don't have to cross land like that. I can't think where we'd hide from hovercrafts without the tree cover. From the look on Duronda's face, she's already thought of that.
"Guys!" Misty calls from across a copse of trees. "Come here!"
"You okay?" I call back.
"I'm fine. Come see this."
I go. A few seconds later, I hear Duronda following me.
Misty is kneeling on the ground, peering at something very closely. Suddenly, she brushes her hand forward, knocking away some dirt.
"What is it?" I ask.
"Look for yourself." She pulls herself up to her feet and points at whatever she was looking at.
I bend over. Poking up under the dirt is part of a reddish stone. "Granite?" I suggest.
"Rust." She gestures to Duronda to bring her over. "I've been walking about fifty feet. I stubbed my toe when I got up from my business and that's when I saw it. Some of the dirt's been washed away by a rainstorm or something. But it's metal. Buried, mostly, but it pokes up here and there. It follows the river."
"A train track," I realize.
"Yeah. Must've been here forever."
"The Catastrophes were a long time ago," Duronda says. "Would it have lasted that long? Wouldn't it be under a whole lot more dirt?"
I think about it. "Well, it's not like one day, someone said, 'Oh, the Catastrophes are over, so let's move on to the In-Gathering era, and then to the Kearney Collective, and then to Panem.' They probably thought things would pick up again for a while. I bet people stayed here for a long time before they finally gave up the ghost and went to a district. I bet they figured the whole old world would get fixed. Maybe they even kept a coal train running for a while to some other place."
Duronda raises an eyebrow. "I hope you're not having fantasies about finding some long-lost elf city or something on your quest."
"Of course not," I say.
"It wouldn't be a city," Misty says. "The cities out here mostly got bombed to rubble. It would have been someplace small, and it wouldn't still be there… but it might have been there a lot longer than other places. There could be something still standing."
I nod. "It's true. My Uncle Colum says that my grandfather told him that the merchants used to travel around out here, and they talked about stopping in towns. Empty towns that they just used once a year or so, but towns. Not ruins. He has a diary that someone wrote."
"That was three hundred years ago," Duronda says cautiously.
"Yeah, but… maybe something's there," Misty says. "Maybe someplace with a map."
I don't want to get my hopes up. Three hundred years is a long time, and the railroad they used is buried most of the way. The mountains and the forest eat up human creations. Then again, Pappy Angus has a dictionary that his daddy found when he was stationed near the Capitol, and it was in a whole building full of books. He sneaked it out because Pappy liked words so much. "Even when I was knee high to a grasshopper," he told me, "I used to want to hear all the words, and that's why my daddy brought this back for me. It was just to make me happy, and it does to this day. And I reckon your daddy will bring something back for you, too."
I think it's dryer near the Capitol, so things keep better, but maybe something could have lasted, even around here. Maybe.
"Anyway," Misty says, "one way or the other, the tracks follow the river, but the canopy goes all the way across. If we follow them instead of the water, we might find ruins or something. But we'll definitely be safer from anyone in a hovercraft." She says all of this very rationally, and Duronda is clearly convinced by the reasoning, but I know Misty. I see it in her eyes.
She's got elf-cities on the brain.
We all crawl around a little bit, looking for bits of track, and gradually it becomes clearer. There's not much of the track left, but whatever they did when they were building it flattened out the ground. It's not exactly level anymore after a few centuries of weather, but, very faintly, we can see the traces of the earthwork.
We go back to the riverside to get our things and we move on.
We keep going until dark, then I make a small fire -- we're far from everything here -- and we set up the tent. It actually sleeps two, so we agree to each take a third of the night on guard while the other two sleep. Misty suggests that we rotate, so that everyone gets a turn to have a nice, long sleep.
We follow the railroad tracks for five days as the river meanders through the mountains, sometimes twisting east, sometimes west, sometimes even slightly north, though never too far.
It rains for a while on the second day, and we all squeeze into the tent to ride it out. We get laughing over Duronda's impersonations of the teachers at school, and tell each other stories we've heard from our parents, and end up all sleeping part of the afternoon away in a tangled up pile.
On the third day, Duronda and Misty are cross with each other over a disagreement about the merits of hydroelectric power, of all things, but it fizzles out by evening. I stay out of it.
On the fourth day, I have to hunt again. I see a deer, but we'd never be able to store that much meat on the road, so I pass it up, even though the rifle could take it. No sense killing an animal if the meat's going to waste.
No sense using up my eight bullets on rabbits and squirrels, when there could be dangerous people about, as Duronda points out.
I catch a couple of squirrels with the slingshot. I feel a little less fearful about going forward, though the squirrels are tough and it took me too long to get them. I propose making a bow and arrows. Misty says it's harder than it looks, but she can figure it out. "The bow, I pretty much understand. I'll need some stronger gut than the squirrels, though -- see if you can catch a raccoon or something. But making the arrows straight and getting them fletched? That's going to be hard. I can do it, though."
Duronda is neutral on the issue. She obsessively re-sorts supplies, and tries to make water containers out of anything we can find, because she doesn't trust the forest to keep supplying it. She's gotten used to my banjo, though. Now she's the one who gets it out at night and hands it to me, and asks for her favorite ballads. The three of us pass time singing under the moon at night.
It's past noon on the fifth day when we come to the elf-city.