The gong sounds and I’m off the launchpad before the echo fades away. I snatch up a knife in a sheath and that’s all I have time for before the bloodbath begins. The boy from District Two grabs a scythe and slices the nearest person open, laughing as a fourteen-year-old girl tries to hold her intestines in with her hands. My heart’s pounding, the sunlight’s blinding and I can hear people screaming, laughing, bones cracking and muscles tearing. I’m splashed with something, I think it might be brain matter, and if I don’t get my ass out of here I’m going to be meat. I yank the knife from the sheath just as a scrawny beanstalk of a guy tries to gut a twelve-year-old boy with a spear. I stab the beanstalk in the back, under the ribs and into the heart, like Talia taught me. She didn’t tell me how the blood would feel on my hands, hot and wet, but it’s too late to get squeamish. The kid I just saved bolts away, carrying a scrap of plastic for his trouble.
I planned to grab food, supplies, more weapons, but there’s too many enemies in the way. I see something nearby and grab it because I can. It’s a backpack. Something rattles inside when I sling it over my shoulder.
I whip around at the sound of my name and see Zoanne, the other tribute from District Eight, stretching out her hand to me. She’s impaled on a sword, blood trickling from the side of her mouth. “I’m sorry,” I say. The girl who killed her yanks the sword out and Zoanne collapses, dead. My stomach twists, but I can’t afford guilt. I never promised her anything.
The boy from District Two heads right for me. He wipes his sleeve on his face and it leaves a bloody smile that looks grotesquely like a clown’s makeup. His scythe will slice me open before I get close enough to use my knife and I don’t want to throw my only weapon. I back up and stumble over someone’s body. I reach out to regain my balance and my hand hits a stack of food. I grab a can and throw it at his face. He ducks, but it gives me the moment I need to turn and run. Something whistles past my ear - a knife? Another can? I don’t know and I don’t care. It missed me, so I keep running. I run until I’m breathless and aching, my sides splitting, expecting every moment to get a knife or an arrow in the back. I can’t turn to look; it’ll only slow me down. I run until the noise of the battle fades and I’m sure the only footsteps are my own. Then I walk and keep walking until I find water.
We’re in a desert, a gorgeous, deadly red desert. The terrain rises and falls in low, rocky slopes which form into full-fledged hills in a few places. I don’t know where to go, so I keep moving forward. After a bit, I see a few spiky trees gathered in one spot and head for it. There’s a stream running through them and a tiny waterfall pouring over polished rocks. I stick my hands under it and watch the clear water turn dark and cloudy as I scrub the blood from my hands and knife. The water’s fast and cold and soon runs clear again. It leaves my hands clean, bare and pale against the red of the stones.
Most of the screentime will be focused on the bloodbath right now, but they’ll cut to me now and again to show I’m still alive. I splash cool water on my face and check the backpack. I spot the canteen first and dig in the pockets until I find a little bottle of iodine. I fill the canteen, treat the water and look through the rest of my supplies. There’s some dried meat and a few packets of nuts, a first-aid kit, an extra pair of socks and a roll of wire.
The cannon fires repeatedly, eight solid booms shaking the arena. Eight dead. The survivors will be moving out from the Cornucopia, dispersing into the arena. All except the lucky few, the kings on the mountain, who will take control of the bulk of the supplies and remain well-fed while the rest of us starve. Happy Hunger Games.
I recognize one of the plants growing at the edge of the stream. I gather its roots and stuff them into the backpack. They don’t look very tasty, but I’ll be hungry soon enough. Besides, it’s good to show the sponsors that I remember how to identify the plants I learned about in training. I take off my boots and walk upstream for a bit in my bare feet. I don’t suppose it’ll fool anyone who’s really good at tracking, but maybe they won’t be the ones following me.
I lift my chin, looking forward, not smirking, not over-confident. Solid. Tough. Smart. I’ve shown them I can kill and that’ll get me points, but they need to know I can survive. No sponsor wants to throw money at a kid that’ll poison himself in the first forty-eight hours.
I stuff my jacket in the backpack. The Gamemakers gave us thin mesh shirts and now I can see why. The sun’s beating down on me. There’s a light wind, but it’s so dry that it sucks the sweat from my skin without cooling me down. The water feels wonderful around my ankles, but I’m going to bruise my feet if I keep walking on rocks. I leave the stream and put my boots back on. As I’m tying my laces, a silver parachute drifts down. I have a sponsor! I resist pumping my fist in triumph, since Panem’s certainly watching me The parachute’s attached to a small tin of cream. I twist open the lid and sniff, but that gives me no idea of its purpose. Rubbing some on my arm doesn’t do anything. I even touch my tongue to it, but it tastes horrible and is probably not for eating. I give up and tuck it into my backpack. Maybe it’s in preparation for something I’ll encounter later.
The sun’s going down and there’s a chill rising in the air, so I start looking for a place to spend the night. The landscape's pretty bare. I decide to climb a rock and hope having a high vantage point will balance out the lack of cover. We're low on big rocks in my part of District Eight, but we've got plenty of crumbling buildings to scale. I pick one about twice my height, climb up and try to get my bearings. I see mostly red rocks and dirt, same as on the ground. There's some scattered greenery and a few dark shapes I can't identify. None of them are close enough to explore before dark.
I choke down some of the fern roots for dinner. My skin's hot, tight and sore and I realize I'm sunburnt. I wonder if the mystery lotion is to treat that, but I lift my arm in the setting sun and see a pale patch where I'd rubbed the stuff on earlier. Sun cream, then. I feel foolish for not realizing it earlier and hope the sponsors don't notice how dumb I was. I'll have protection tomorrow, at least.
I put on my jacket and lay down, using the backpack as a lumpy pillow. The sky darkens, the anthem plays and the Capitol seal is projected on a screen above the arena. All the tributes from One and Two have survived. The girl from Three is dead and the girl from Four. The girl from Five is the fourteen-year-old girl that I watched the boy from Two slice open. The girl from Six is dead. And there's Zoanne. I feel a pang in my chest at the sight of her face in the sky. I didn't know her well, but she was a familiar face from school and the factory. I also feel a wave of relief that I won't be forced to kill someone from home.
The next face is the boy from Ten, the tall, scrawny guy I'd killed myself.
The screen shows both the boy and the girl from Eleven and then the Capitol seal reappears. Eight dead. Sixteen of us remaining. I let out a long breath, close my eyes and try to get some sleep.
I wake up in the middle of the night, shivering with cold. The wind's risen in the night and it blows right through my jacket. I curl up on my side, trying to shelter myself from the gusts, and I spot a light out of the corner of my eye. I freeze, hoping I haven't been spotted. I turn my head slowly to get a better look.
It's a campfire. Someone's lit a campfire in the middle of the night and it's either an idiot or a trap. I should just go back to sleep, but my teeth are chattering now and I don't think I'll get any rest until the wind dies down. If I move, I'll at least warm up a little. I pick up my pack and climb down the rock, drawn like a moth to the light and the promise of heat. I draw my knife. It's got a wicked, wavy blade that shines in the moonlight. I hold it along the underside of my arm to hide the glint.
I'm near the fire now. I stop behind a rock and peer out to gauge the situation. The kid I saved this morning is curled up beside the small blaze, wrapped in his sheet of plastic. In the shelter of another rock, to my right, the boy from Six has a bow drawn and an arrow pointing at the kid. I don't think, I just move. I take a few quick steps and then I've got Six's hair in my grip. I yank his head back and slash his throat. Blood spurts against the rock and a moment later the cannon fires. I grab his bow and arrows and pat him down to see if he's got any other supplies. I don't find anything in a quick inspection and I don't have time to do a full strip search because I can hear footsteps heading my way.
I sling the bow and quiver over my shoulder and run to the fire. The kid's awake now, woken by the cannon, and he stares at me, wide-eyed and frightened. I realize my knife is still dripping with blood. We stare at each other for a moment, then I wipe my knife on my pants and shove it into its sheath. "Run," I tell him.
He's still staring and I hear the footsteps getting louder, boots crunching on rocky dirt. I grab the kid by the collar and drag him to his feet. "You're my ally now. Run." It's the stupidest thing I could do, taking this kid as my ally. I should kill him myself or leave him as bait in a trap, but the words are out of my mouth and I won't take them back.
We run. Kid's fast, at least. I spot a low, rocky hill with a shallow incline and lead him up it. At the top, I push him behind me, nock an arrow on the bowstring and turn to face our pursuers. It's the boy and girl from Nine. She has a short sword and he has a big rock. I draw the bow and point it at her, but I don't fire. We stare at each other, these other kids and me and the boy I just rescued. I'm not a huge guy, but I had a growth spurt just before my sixteenth birthday and these two are smaller than me. They lower their weapons slowly and start to back away. I lower the bow a bit and watch them. They keep backing away until they've put a large rock between us and then I hear their footsteps pick up as they run away.
I let out a long breath and put the arrow back in the quiver. Luckily, they didn't call my bluff. I can barely hit a standing target. "What's your name?" I ask the kid. I recognize him as the tribute from Five, but I didn't pay much attention to him in training.
"Bart," he says. He's got big eyes and fluffy, brown hair.
"I'm Jason," I say. "What the hell were you thinking?"
"Well," he says, "I was freezing and I'd learned to make a fire in training so I got some sticks and leaves together and it actually worked…." His voice trails off when he sees my face. "It was a bad idea, wasn't it?"
"Really bad," I say.
"Do you really want to be my ally?"
"I didn't kill you, did I?"
"Not yet," he agrees.
"Do you want to be my ally?" I ask, because maybe he doesn't.
"Sure," he says. He pauses, then asks, "Do you have anything to eat?"
I give him what I have left of the fern roots. "We better get moving." At least the action has warmed me up. We spend the night walking. Bart tries to chat a few times, but I shush him. We're making enough noise just walking along. Dawn approaches. I share my sun cream with Bart, but we need to find the stream again. We've drunk up all the water in the night and with all the running around, I'm not sure how to get back to it. Bart climbs up a rock to take a look around.
"There's a green spot over there," he points, "and one there - no, there's someone over there."
"Get down!" I say. "Before they see you!"
"No," he frowns, "she's not looking this way, she's…" He squints, trying to make out what's happening, then his eyes widen. "Run!" He scrambles down the rock.
"Who is it?" I ask, wanting to know what to expect. Maybe we should stand and fight.
Bart shakes his head. "Birds!" he yells and takes off running.
I look back. Coming our way are long-legged, long-necked, round, fluffy birds, at least as tall as me. They're almost comical, the way they bounce as they run, until one gets near enough that I can see the torn flesh hanging from its beak. Muttations. Some kind of animal the Capitol built for killing and released on us.
I follow Bart. He's still in my sight, though he's got a good lead on me. I don't know where he's going, but I don't think it's a good time to split up. We run under the rising sun, heat already beating down on our heads. We crash through the trees, stumble down a long slope and splash through a stream. I desperately want to stop, drink and fill the canteen, but one of the birds is right on my heels and it snaps at my leg. I try to make a mental note of where the stream is, in case there's a chance we can come back.
The bow catches on a spiky bush, but I don't dare leave it behind. I can't risk it falling into the hands of another tribute. Bart heads up the other side of the slope. My side aches, my throat feels like sandpaper and my feet are so heavy I can barely lift them, but I suck in a deep breath and charge up the slope. I'm halfway up when a rock shifts below my feet. I stumble and fall to my knees. I see a flash of pale brown feathers and a bird's beak sinks into my side. I scream and grab my knife, striking out at the first thing I see. I slash its skinny neck open and it falls over, but there are plenty more. One bites my calf and I cry out again. The audience must love watching me get torn apart by a pack of oversized chickens. Way more entertaining than plain old starvation.
A rock flies over my head and strikes a bird. It doesn't seem to do much damage, but the bird falls back. Another bird darts at my leg and a rock knocks it away. "Come on, Jason!" Bart yells. The next rock catches a bird in the eye and it squawks indignantly, like Bart's pebbles are an affront to its feathery little honor.
I try to push myself to my feet, but the slope's steep and I end up scrambling up it on my hands and knees. I know I'm dripping blood. Bart's rocks are confusing the birds. They snap their beaks in the air, trying to fight an enemy they can't see. The rest of the flock's nearly caught up, though, and he can't hit them all at once. At the top of the hill, Bart's hands grab mine and he pulls me to my feet. We run, me stumbling and swearing, him dragging me forward. I notice, after a few minutes, that the noise behind us has stopped. I turn around and see the birds at the top of the hill. They're hissing at us through open beaks, but they're not following us. Bart stops too and looks at the birds.
"I guess they reached the end of their territory," he says.
"Yeah," I gasp, trying to catch my breath.
"Yeah," drawls an unfamiliar voice and the boy from Nine smashes his rock down on my head.
I fall down and the world spins. Bart screams in pain, but I can't see what's happening to him. I'm going to puke or pass out and if I do either, I'm dead. I remember there are cameras on me and if I stop moving, my mother's going to watch me die. My knife's still in my hand, so I slash out blindly, hoping I don't hit Bart. I don't, but I don't hit anything else, either. I give up trying to pretend the world's not moving and flop over onto my back. A rock comes down at my head and I roll in towards the boy from Nine, sinking my knife in the flesh of his thigh. I rip the knife out and there's blood, gushing from his leg and falling onto my face. I taste it on my lips, salty and foul, and I spit it out. The world's still spinning and I hear a girl screaming something, maybe a name.
I stab again and hit bone. It sends a shock up my arm. The boy from Nine falls back.
"Let's go!" the girl from Nine yells. She slashes out with her sword, but both Bart and I are out of reach.
The boy limps off, dragging his leg as the girl supports him. They're easy targets now, leaving a trail of blood that anyone could follow. I reach for an arrow, figuring it's worth trying to put one in his back, but the movement sets the world whirling again and I vomit up pieces of fern root instead.
The heat presses down on me and the sunlight stabs my eyes. I feel Bart's hands under my armpits and then he's dragging me into the shade. He props me up against a rock. I waver in and out of consciousness, but I wake right up when he dabs something on my side that burns like hell. "What the fuck," I gasp, wondering if he's decided to kill me slowly.
"Disinfectant," he says and I realize he's holding the first aid kit from my backpack. "I need to stitch you up. Don't worry, I took the workshop in training." I want to pass out, but Bart keeps pulling me back as he weaves fire through my skin. After he's satisfied with the job on my side, he stitches up my calf. "You need water," he frowns.
"So do you," I say. I can't tell if he's hurt. He's smeared with blood, but it could be mine or someone else's. I notice he's holding his arm against his body. "What happened?" I ask, reaching for it.
"She got me with her sword," he says. "But I put my thumb in her eye."
I poke at his arm while he grits his teeth and decide it's got to be stitched up. I'm no healer, but I'm from District Eight, Textiles, and I can handle a needle and thread in my sleep. Lucky that, because I can barely focus my eyes. Bart dabs the disinfectant on himself and I clumsily stitch up his arm while he grits his teeth. I wrap a bandage around the wound and tape it up. That should hold off infection and keep us from leaving a blood trail.
"Can you walk?" he asks anxiously. "We need to move. They'll be back."
Will they? I'm pretty sure the guy from Nine will bleed to death within the hour, but she could come after us in revenge. And who knows if they've got allies?
I lean heavily on the rock and drag myself to my feet. The movement makes the pain in my side and calf flare up, but that clears away some of the fuzziness in my head. I take a few steps and I get steadier on my feet. The calf wound is painful, but not deep. "Water, food and shelter," I say.
Bart nods. "Let's head north," he suggests. I glance up at the sky to get my bearings. North's parallel to the hill where we left the birds and the opposite direction of where the tributes from Nine went. North sounds good to me.
Bart takes my arm and helps steady me as we walk slowly. I give him the bow and arrows to carry, but the bow drags on the ground and he gives them back, taking the backpack instead.
"You should have a weapon," I say.
He shrugs, but collects a few small rocks and finds a stick that'll work as a small club. It's not much, but it's better than nothing. If my head clears up, it might be worth taking a scouting trip back to the Cornucopia to see if we can steal any weapons. Odds are good that it's the Career tributes who have taken control of the bulk of the supplies. Five of the kids from One, Two and Four are still alive, and they may have other allies, but someone who's fast and clever might be able to slip in and grab something useful. Right now I'm neither, so it'd be suicide to try.
I worry that my head wound has done real damage to my brain, but after walking a little ways, the dizziness fades enough that I don't have to lean on Bart. "I owe you," I say. "You saved my life back there."
He smiles. "You saved mine first. Let's call it even for now."
We walk a little while longer in silence, until Bart says, "You're different than I'd thought you'd be."
I'm surprised that he put any thought into what I'd be like. "What were you expecting?"
He shrugs. "I thought you'd join up with the Careers. You seemed so sure of yourself in training and you did volunteer." He looks up at me. "Why did you volunteer?"
A weariness hangs over me. I consider brushing off the question like I did in my interview, but none of the other tributes are around to hear my answer and the truth might be appealing to the audience. "My mother's really sick," I say. "She's going to die soon, unless I get a Capitol doctor to heal her."
"She wanted you to volunteer?" Bart asks.
I laugh, but it's a bitter sound. "I didn't tell her. I only told one person I was going to volunteer."
"Talia. My mentor. I asked her to tell me about the Games." I say. It was four months ago. The apothecary told us he couldn't do any more to help my mother and the District doctor wouldn't even see us. I took my mom home, helped her into bed and then slipped out. I knew Talia already. I used to deliver messages for her when I was younger, before I started working in the factory after school.
She answered the door wearing a long, silk robe and carrying a wine glass. "Jason?"
"I want to win the Hunger Games," I said. Might as well get straight to the point.
"For fame?" she asked dryly. "Money? Glory? You would kill for such things?"
"For my mother," I said. I told Talia about my mom's illness. "If I won the Games, I could get a Capitol doctor to heal her, couldn't I?"
She swirled her wine glass. "Perhaps. You would have the money, certainly, and you'd have an excellent chance to attract a Capitol patron who could assist you."
"Then I need you to do it. I need you to train me."
"Technically," she pointed her wine glass at me, "training potential tributes before the Reaping is illegal."
"They do it all the time in One, Two and Four," I said.
She sipped her wine, weighing her options. "Come back tomorrow," she said. "I'll consider it."
The next day, she sat me down and we had a talk. "There's no guarantee you'll win," she said. "Even if I had a lifetime to train you and you were the strongest, fastest, cleverest tribute in the arena, you could still be taken out by a lucky shot, or by an avalanche, or die of thirst. I am prepared to send you to your death. I do it every year. But are you prepared to die?"
"No," I admitted.
She gave me a small smile. "Good. A death wish won't make you a winner. Are you prepared to kill?"
I knew the right answer to that question, but I didn't see any point in lying. "I don't know."
She nodded. "I can teach you all the soft points on the human body, all the known natural poisons, teach you how to shoot a bow and throw a spear and wield a knife, but I can't teach you how to take a life. That you will have to learn in the arena. But one rule will help you." She leaned forward. "Forget they are people. They are objects in your way and nothing more. Give them a clean death, if you can - suffering benefits no one - but you owe them no more than that."
I don't tell Bart this, or how I practiced hand-to-hand combat against Talia and her eleven-year-old son. Victor's children have a higher than average chance of ending up in the arena, even though the Reapings are supposed to be random. Talia had been training her son for the arena practically since birth.
"Next year I'll show them all," Damian bragged. "I'll be the youngest volunteer and the youngest victor in history."
"You will not," Talia said sharply. "You'll go when you're reaped and not before."
He sniffed and said to me, "They'll wipe the floor with you. I bet you don't last eight hours."
Well, he was wrong. It's been at least twenty-four hours and I'm still going.
Bart peers at me. "Do you have any brothers or sisters?" he asks.
I shake my head.
"Where's your father?"
"He died a few years back." Strung up by the neck in the Town Square after getting caught stealing. I watched him struggling on the rope, kicking the air and clawing at his throat. My mother didn't stop crying for a week, but she went to the factory every day, stitching feathers onto clothes for Capitol people and keeping her tears from falling on her work.
"What will your mother do if you don't come back?" Bart asks.
Die, I think. Same thing she'd have done if I hadn't volunteered for the Games. "I'm going home," I say.
Bart smiles. "I think you might." But the smile doesn't reach his eyes. There can't be more than one victor. Ever. One year, a girl tried to play the Capitol, threatening a double suicide if she and her boyfriend couldn't both win the Games. The Gamemakers surrounded them in a ring of fire and they swallowed poison berries so they wouldn't be burned alive. They still rerun that Game every February, the tragic romance of the star-crossed lovers from District Twelve.
I don't ask Bart about his family. I don't want to know.
"Everyone but you is dead the minute they step into the arena," Talia told me. "All you do is make it official."
The cannon fires and I know that the boy from Nine is dead. That's three I've killed so far. I wonder if their families were watching. I wonder how my mom feels, seeing me kill. But I'd rather have her alive and hating me than dead and thinking I'm still her little boy. I realize my hands are covered in dried blood, so I scoop up a handful of sand and use it to scrub off as much as I can. I've got dirt rubbed into my knuckles now, but I feel cleaner.
I wonder how the betting's going. Does anyone favor me to win?
The dry air feels like it's sucking the water from our pores. We find a bush full of red berries that Bart and I both recognize from training, so we gather all we can find. We wrap a few up to save for later, but we eat most of them right away. The sun-heated berries are tart and warm, but they're edible, blessedly moist, and way better than the fern roots.
Bart climbs a rock, wincing when he puts weight on his injured arm. He spots a clump of trees that looks like a prospect for water. We head that way. Maybe we'll also find some edible plants, or even fish.
"Have you ever caught a fish?" I ask Bart.
"No, but I learned how to make fishhooks in training!" he says.
I smile. "You learned a lot in training."
"I pick things up quickly," Bart says. "I'm not very good at combat, though. I don't want to hurt anyone."
"That's not how it works here," I say.
"I know," he says sadly. He brightens a bit. "But you're good at it! Maybe you can teach me?"
"How to hurt people?" I ask. My head aches and I'm feeling queasy again.
"How to fight," Bart says.
He's my opponent. I shouldn't do it. But he's also my ally, and the stronger he is, the better chance I have at survival. "There's a couple of things I could show you," I say. "But let's find water first."
We approach the trees slowly, circling around and looking for tracks, but there's no sign that humans have ever been here. We fill my canteen and treat it with iodine. It's terrible, waiting for the water to purify when there's so much of it in front of us, but getting sick will likely be fatal.
I splash some water on my face. It makes the thirst worse, but it feels marvelous on my skin. Bart strips down to his underwear and hops into the stream to bathe. The water's about knee-deep and he splashes around, then ducks his head under water and pops up a moment later with something squirming in his hand. "Fish!" he cries gleefully. "I caught a fish!"
The fish gives a desperate flip of its tail and pops out of Bart's hand. I laugh at his expression and then strip down to join him in the stream, though I strap on my knife just in case we get visitors. The water's blessedly cool and full of small fish. We use Bart's shirt as a makeshift net and manage to snag a few of them for lunch. We drink the water as soon as it's safe. Bart builds a small fire and roasts the fish while I try to scrub the blood out of our clothes.
I lay the clothes out on a rock. Between the sun and the arid air, they should be dry in no time. Bart and I sit in the shade in our underwear, drink more water and eat the fish. Bart cooked them up with some of the fern roots and the fish makes even those awful roots taste good.
After we eat, I show Bart a simple combat move, one where you grab the opponent's arm when he takes a swing at you and use it to pull him off balance. We practice a bit until he's got it down.
As the sun moves lower in the sky, we get dressed again and bury the signs of our fire. We walk upstream a bit in the water, then put our boots back on and head away from the stream. Our canteen and our bellies are full and we stand less chance of being spotted if we're away from the water source.
We find a rock braced against a hill and a natural alcove beneath it. We settle in and watch the night sky. The anthem plays, the Capitol seal appears and I see the face of the boy from Six, the one I'd killed at the fire last night. Then the boy from Nine, who I killed earlier today. Last, the girl from Twelve.
"The birds," Bart whispers.
I guess she's the one he watched die this morning. The Capitol seal appears again. Two out of three of today's dead were my kills. I hope that makes some sponsors very happy.
Bart and I curl together for warmth and I take the first watch. When the moon is high in the sky, I rouse Bart and we shift places so he can sit up for the watch. It feels odd. I haven't slept next to another human being since I got too old to crawl into my parents' bed. But having Bart's arms around me is not unpleasant and I'm a dozen times warmer than last night.
He wakes me at dawn, we eat some berries and head back in the direction of the stream. I make a mental note of where our little alcove is, though it's probably not safe to return to the same place every night.
We find the stream and refill our canteen. We also wash, disinfect and re-bandage our wounds. I've still got a low-level headache, but the dizziness from yesterday is thankfully gone. As we walk upstream, searching for more roots or berries and a good place to catch fish, I realize we're in pretty good shape. We've got water and a decent night's sleep, we're in a good position to get more food and our wounds aren't infected.
"There's berries!" Bart grins. I smile back. The kid's good moods are contagious. He jogs ahead to the berry bush and I see the ground crumble beneath him and swallow him up.