A leather bag filled with food and a flask of hot tea. A pair of fur-lined gloves that Cinna left behind. Three twigs, broken from the naked trees, lying in the snow, pointing in the direction I will travel. This is what I leave for Gale at our usual meeting place on the first Sunday after the Harvest Festival.
I have continued on through the cold, misty woods, breaking a path that will be unfamiliar to Gale but is simple for my feet to find. It leads to the lake. I no longer trust that our regular rendezvous spot offers privacy, and I’ll need that and more to spill my guts to Gale today. But will he even come? If he doesn’t, I’ll have no choice but to risk going to his house in the dead of night. There are things he has to know… things I need him to help me figure out…
Once the implications of what I was seeing on Mayor Undersee’s television hit me, I made for the door and started down the hall. Just in time, too, because the mayor came up the steps moments later. I gave him a wave.
“Looking for Madge?” he said in a friendly tone.
“Yes. I want to show her my dress,” I said.
“Well, you know where to find her.” Just then, another round of beeping came from his study. His face turned grave. “Excuse me,” he said. He went into his study and closed the door tightly.
I waited in the hall until I had composed myself. Reminded myself I must act naturally. Then I found Madge in her room, sitting at her dressing table, brushing out her wavy blond hair before a mirror. She was in the same pretty white dress she’d worn on reaping day. She saw my reflection behind her and smiled. “Look at you. Like you came right off the streets of the Capitol.”
I stepped in closer. My fingers touched the mockingjay. “Even my pin now. Mockingjays are all the rage in the Capitol, thanks to you. Are you sure you don’t want it back?” I asked.
“Don’t be silly, it was a gift,” said Madge. She tied back her hair in a festive gold ribbon.
“Where did you get it, anyway?” I asked.
“It was my aunt’s,” she said. “But I think it’s been in the family a long time.”
“It’s a funny choice, a mockingjay,” I said. “I mean, because of what happened in the rebellion. With the jabber-jays backfiring on the Capitol and all.”
The jabberjays were muttations, genetically enhanced male birds created by the Capitol as weapons to spy on rebels in the districts. They could remember and repeat long passages of human speech, so they were sent into rebel areas to capture our words and return them to the Capitol. The rebels caught on and turned them against the Capitol by sending them home loaded with lies. When this was discovered, the jabberjays were left to die. In a few years, they became extinct in the wild, but not before they had mated with female mockingbirds, creating an entirely new species.
“But mockingjays were never a weapon,” said Madge. “They’re just songbirds. Right?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said. But it’s not true. A mockingbird is just a songbird. A mockingjay is a creature the Capitol never intended to exist. They hadn’t counted on the highly controlled jabberjay having the brains to adapt to the wild, to pass on its genetic code, to thrive in a new form. They hadn’t anticipated its will to live.
Now, as I trudge through the snow, I see the mockingjays hopping about on branches as they pick up on other birds’ melodies, replicate them, and then transform them into something new. As always, they remind me of Rue. I think of the dream I had the last night on the train, where I followed her in mockingjay form. I wish I could have stayed asleep just a bit longer and found out where she was trying to take me.
It’s a hike to the lake, no question. If he decides to follow me at all, Gale’s going to be put out by this excessive use of energy that could be better spent in hunting. He was conspicuously absent from the dinner at the mayor’s house, although the rest of his family came. Hazelle said he was home sick, which was an obvious lie. I couldn’t find him at the Harvest Festival, either. Vick told me he was out hunting. That was probably true.
After a couple of hours, I reach an old house near the edge of the lake. Maybe “house” is too big a word for it. It’s only one room, about twelve feet square. My father thought that a long time ago there were a lot of buildings — you can still see some of the foundations — and people came to them to play and fish in the lake. This house outlasted the others because it’s made of concrete. Floor, roof, ceiling. Only one of four glass windows remains, wavy and yellowed by time. There’s no plumbing and no electricity, but the fireplace still works and there’s a woodpile in the corner that my father and I collected years ago. I start a small fire, counting on the mist to obscure any telltale smoke. While the fire catches, I sweep out the snow that has accumulated under the empty windows, using a twig broom my father made me when I was about eight and I played house here. Then I sit on the tiny concrete hearth, thawing out by the fire and waiting for Gale.
It’s a surprisingly short time before he appears. A bow slung over his shoulder, a dead wild turkey he must have encountered along the way hanging from his belt. He stands in the doorway as if considering whether or not to enter. He holds the unopened leather bag of food, the flask, Cinna’s gloves. Gifts he will not accept because of his anger at me. I know exactly how he feels. Didn’t I do the same thing to my mother?
I look in his eyes. His temper can’t quite mask the hurt, the sense of betrayal he feels at my engagement to Peeta. This will be my last chance, this meeting today, to not lose Gale forever. I could take hours trying to explain, and even then have him refuse me. Instead I go straight to the heart of my defense.
“President Snow personally threatened to have you killed,” I say.
Gale raises his eyebrows slightly, but there’s no real show of fear or astonishment. “Anyone else?”
“Well, he didn’t actually give me a copy of the list. But it’s a good guess it includes both our families,” I say.
It’s enough to bring him to the fire. He crouches before the hearth and warms himself. “Unless what?”
“Unless nothing, now,” I say. Obviously this requires more of an explanation, but I have no idea where to start, so I just sit there staring gloomily into the fire.
After about a minute of this, Gale breaks the silence. “Well, thanks for the heads-up.”
I turn to him, ready to snap, but I catch the glint in his eye. I hate myself for smiling. This is not a funny moment, but I guess it’s a lot to drop on someone. We’re all going to be obliterated no matter what. “I do have a plan, you know.”
“Yeah, I bet it’s a stunner,” he says. He tosses the gloves on my lap. “Here. I don’t want your fiancé’s old gloves.”
“He’s not my fiancé. That’s just part of the act. And these aren’t his gloves. They were Cinna’s,” I say.
“Give them back, then,” he says. He pulls on the gloves, flexes his fingers, and nods in approval. “At least I’ll die in comfort.”
“That’s optimistic. Of course, you don’t know what’s happened,” I say.
“Let’s have it,” he says.
I decide to begin with the night Peeta and I were crowned victors of the Hunger Games, and Haymitch warned me of the Capitol’s fury. I tell him about the uneasiness that dogged me even once I was back home, President Snow’s visit to my house, the murders in District 11, the tension in the crowds, the last-ditch effort of the engagement, the president’s indication that it hadn’t been enough, my certainty that I’ll have to pay.
Gale never interrupts. While I talk, he tucks the gloves in his pocket and occupies himself with turning the food in the leather bag into a meal for us. Toasting bread and cheese, coring apples, placing chestnuts in the fire to roast. I watch his hands, his beautiful, capable fingers. Scarred, as mine were before the Capitol erased all marks from my skin, but strong and deft. Hands that have the power to mine coal but the precision to set a delicate snare. Hands I trust.
I pause to take a drink of tea from the flask before I tell him about my homecoming.
“Well, you really made a mess of things,” he says. “I’m not even done,” I tell him.
“I’ve heard enough for the moment. Let’s skip ahead to this plan of yours,” he says.
I take a deep breath. “We run away.”
“What?” he asks. This has actually caught him off guard.
“We take to the woods and make a run for it,” I say. His face is impossible to read. Will he laugh at me, dismiss this as foolishness? I rise in agitation, preparing for an argument. “You said yourself you thought that we could do it! That morning of the reaping. You said—”
He steps in and I feel myself lifted off the ground. The room spins, and I have to lock my arms around Gale’s neck to brace myself. He’s laughing, happy.
“Hey!” I protest, but I’m laughing, too.
Gale sets me down but doesn’t release his hold on me. “Okay, let’s run away,” he says.
“Really? You don’t think I’m mad? You’ll go with me?” Some of the crushing weight begins to lift as it transfers to Gale’s shoulders.
“I do think you’re mad and I’ll still go with you,” he says. He means it. Not only means it but welcomes it. “We can do it. I know we can. Let’s get out of here and never come back!”
“You’re sure?” I say. “Because it’s going to be hard, with the kids and all. I don’t want to get five miles into the woods and have you—”
“I’m sure. I’m completely, entirely, one hundred percent sure.” He tilts his forehead down to rest against mine and pulls me closer. His skin, his whole being, radiates heat from being so near the fire, and I close my eyes, soaking in his warmth. I breathe in the smell of snow-dampened leather and smoke and apples, the smell of all those wintry days we shared before the Games. I don’t try to move away. Why should I, anyway? His voice drops to a whisper. “I love you.”
I never see these things coming. They happen too fast. One second you’re proposing an escape plan and the next… you’re expected to deal with something like this. I come up with what must be the worst possible response. “I know.”
It sounds terrible. Like I assume he couldn’t help loving me but that I don’t feel anything in return. Gale starts to draw away, but I grab hold of him. “I know! And you… you know what you are to me.” It’s not enough. He breaks my grip. “Gale, I can’t think about anyone that way now. All I can think about, every day, every waking minute since they drew Prim’s name at the reaping, is how afraid I am. And there doesn’t seem to be room for anything else. If we could get somewhere safe, maybe I could be different. I don’t know.”
I can see him swallowing his disappointment. “So, we’ll go. We’ll find out.” He turns back to the fire, where the chestnuts are beginning to burn. He flips them out onto the hearth. “My mother’s going to take some convincing.”
I guess he’s still going, anyway. But the happiness has fled, leaving an all-too-familiar strain in its place. “Mine, too. I’ll just have to make her see reason. Take her for a long walk. Make sure she understands we won’t survive the alternative.”
“She’ll understand. I watched a lot of the Games with her and Prim. She won’t say no to you,” says Gale.
“I hope not.” The temperature in the house seems to have dropped twenty degrees in a matter of seconds. “Haymitch will be the real challenge.”
“Haymitch?” Gale abandons the chestnuts. “You’re not asking him to come with us?”
“I have to, Gale. I can’t leave him and Peeta because they’d—” His scowl cuts me off. “What?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize how large our party was,” he snaps at me.
“They’d torture them to death, trying to find out where I was,” I say.
“What about Peeta’s family? They’ll never come. In fact, they probably couldn’t wait to inform on us. Which I’m sure he’s smart enough to realize. What if he decides to stay?” he asks.
I try to sound indifferent, but my voice cracks. “Then he stays.”
“You’d leave him behind?” Gale asks.
“To save Prim and my mother, yes,” I answer. “I mean, no! I’ll get him to come.”
“And me, would you leave me?” Gale’s expression is rock hard now. “Just if, for instance, I can’t convince my mother to drag three young kids into the wilderness in winter.”
“Hazelle won’t refuse. She’ll see sense,” I say.
“Suppose she doesn’t, Katniss. What then?” he demands.
“Then you have to force her, Gale. Do you think I’m making this stuff up?” My voice is rising in anger as well.
“No. I don’t know. Maybe the president’s just manipulating you. I mean, he’s throwing your wedding. You saw how the Capitol crowd reacted. I don’t think he can afford to kill you. Or Peeta. How’s he going to get out of that one?” says Gale.
“Well, with an uprising in District Eight, I doubt he’s spending much time choosing my wedding cake!” I shout.
The instant the words are out of my mouth I want to reclaim them. Their effect on Gale is immediate—the flush on his cheeks, the brightness of his gray eyes. “There’s an uprising in Eight?” he says in a hushed voice.
I try to backpedal. To defuse him, as I tried to defuse the districts. “I don’t know if it’s really an uprising. There’s unrest. People in the streets —” I say.
Gale grabs my shoulders. “What did you see?”
“Nothing! In person. I just heard something.” As usual, it’s too little, too late. I give up and tell him. “I saw something on the mayor’s television. I wasn’t supposed to. There was a crowd, and fires, and the Peacekeepers were gunning people down but they were fighting back. …” I bite my lip and struggle to continue describing the scene. Instead I say aloud the words that have been eating me up inside. “And it’s my fault, Gale. Because of what I did in the arena. If I had just killed myself with those berries, none of this would’ve happened. Peeta could have come home and lived, and everyone else would have been safe, too.”
“Safe to do what?” he says in a gentler tone. “Starve? Work like slaves? Send their kids to the reaping? You haven’t hurt people—you’ve given them an opportunity. They just have to be brave enough to take it. There’s already been talk in the mines. People who want to fight. Don’t you see? It’s happening! It’s finally happening! If there’s an uprising in District Eight, why not here? Why not everywhere? This could be it, the thing we’ve been—”
“Stop it! You don’t know what you’re saying. The Peacekeepers outside of Twelve, they’re not like Darius, or even Cray! The lives of district people — they mean less than nothing to them!” I say.
“That’s why we have to join the fight!” he answers harshly.
“No! We have to leave here before they kill us and a lot of other people, too!” I’m yelling again, but I can’t understand why he’s doing this. Why doesn’t he see what’s so undeniable?
Gale pushes me roughly away from him. “You leave, then. I’d never go in a million years.”
“You were happy enough to go before. I don’t see how an uprising in District Eight does anything but make it more important that we leave. You’re just mad about—” No, I can’t throw Peeta in his face. “What about your family?”
“What about the other families, Katniss? The ones who can’t run away? Don’t you see? It can’t be about just saving us anymore. Not if the rebellion’s begun!” Gale shakes his head, not hiding his disgust with me. “You could do so much.” He throws Cinna’s gloves at my feet. “I changed my mind. I don’t want anything they made in the Capitol.” And he’s gone.
I look down at the gloves. Anything they made in the Capitol? Was that directed at me? Does he think I am now just another product of the Capitol and therefore something untouchable? The unfairness of it all fills me with rage. But it’s mixed up with fear over what kind of crazy thing he might do next.
I sink down next to the fire, desperate for comfort, to work out my next move. I calm myself by thinking that rebellions don’t happen in a day. Gale can’t talk to the miners until tomorrow. If I can get to Hazelle before then, she might straighten him out. But I can’t go now. If he’s there, he’ll lock me out. Maybe tonight, after everyone else is asleep … Hazelle often works late into the night finishing up laundry. I could go then, tap at the window, tell her the situation so she’ll keep Gale from doing anything foolish.
My conversation with President Snow in the study comes back to me.
“My advisors were concerned you would be difficult, but you’re not planning on being difficult at all, are you?”
“That’s what I told them. I said any girl who goes to such lengths to preserve her life isn’t going to be interested in throwing it away with both hands.”
I think of how hard Hazelle has worked to keep that family alive. Surely she’ll be on my side in this matter. Or won’t she?
It must be getting on toward noon now and the days are so short. No point in being in the woods after dark if you don’t have to. I stamp out the remains of my little fire, clear up the scraps of food, and tuck Cinna’s gloves in my belt. I guess I’ll hang on to them for a while. In case Gale has a change of heart. I think of the look on his face when he flung them to the ground. How repelled he was by them, by me …
I trudge through the woods and reach my old house while there’s still light. My conversation with Gale was an obvious setback, but I’m still determined to carry on with my plan to escape District 12. I decide to find Peeta next. In a strange way, since he’s seen some of what I’ve seen on the tour, he may be an easier sell than Gale was. I run into him as he’s leaving the Victor’s Village.
“Been hunting?” he asks. You can see he doesn’t think it’s a good idea.
“Not really. Going to town?” I ask.
“Yes. I’m supposed to eat dinner with my family,” he says.
“Well, I can at least walk you in.” The road from the Victor’s Village to the square gets little use. It’s a safe enough place to talk. But I can’t seem to get the words out. Proposing it to Gale was such a disaster. I gnaw on my chapped lips. The square gets closer with every step. I may not have an opportunity again soon. I take a deep breath and let the words rush out. “Peeta, if I asked you to run away from the district with me, would you?”
Peeta takes my arm, bringing me to a stop. He doesn’t need to check my face to see if I’m serious. “Depends on why you’re asking.”
“President Snow wasn’t convinced by me. There’s an uprising in District Eight. We have to get out,” I say.
“By ‘we’ do you mean just you and me? No. Who else would be going?” he asks.
“My family. Yours, if they want to come. Haymitch, maybe,” I say.
“What about Gale?” he says.
“I don’t know. He might have other plans,” I say.
Peeta shakes his head and gives me a rueful smile. “I bet he does. Sure, Katniss, I’ll go.”
I feel a slight twinge of hope. “You will?”
“Yeah. But I don’t think for a minute you will,” he says.
I jerk my arm away. “Then you don’t know me. Be ready. It could be any time.” I take off walking and he follows a pace or two behind.
“Katniss,” Peeta says. I don’t slow down. If he thinks it’s a bad idea, I don’t want to know, because it’s the only one I have. “Katniss, hold up.” I kick a dirty, frozen chunk of snow off the path and let him catch up. The coal dust makes everything look especially ugly. “I really will go, if you want me to. I just think we better talk it through with Haymitch. Make sure we won’t be making things worse for everyone.” He raises his head. “What’s that?”
I lift my chin. I’ve been so consumed with my own worries, I haven’t noticed the strange noise coming from the square. A whistling, the sound of an impact, the intake of breath from a crowd.
“Come on,” Peeta says, his face suddenly hard. I don’t know why. I can’t place the sound, even guess at the situation. But it means something bad to him.
When we reach the square, it’s clear something’s happening, but the crowd’s too thick to see. Peeta steps up on a crate against the wall of the sweetshop and offers me a hand while he scans the square. I’m halfway up when he suddenly blocks my way. “Get down. Get out of here!” He’s whispering, but his voice is harsh with insistence.
“What?” I say, trying to force my way back up.
“Go home, Katniss! I’ll be there in a minute, I swear!” he says.
Whatever it is, it’s terrible. I yank away from his hand and begin to push my way through the crowd. People see me, recognize my face, and then look panicked. Hands shove me back. Voices hiss.
“Get out of here, girl.”
“Only make it worse.”
“What do you want to do? Get him killed?”
But at this point, my heart is beating so fast and fierce I hardly hear them. I only know that whatever waits in the middle of the square is meant for me. When I finally break through to the cleared space, I see I am right. And Peeta was right. And those voices were right, too.
Gale’s wrists are bound to a wooden post. The wild turkey he shot earlier hangs above him, the nail driven through its neck. His jacket’s been cast aside on the ground, his shirt torn away. He slumps unconscious on his knees, held up only by the ropes at his wrists. What used to be his back is a raw, bloody slab of meat.
Standing behind him is a man I’ve never seen, but I recognize his uniform. It’s the one designated for our Head Peacekeeper. This isn’t old Cray, though. This is a tall, muscular man with sharp creases in his pants.
The pieces of the picture do not quite come together until I see his arm raise the whip.