9.

I stop trying to sleep after my first few attempts are interrupted by unspeakable nightmares. After that, I just lie still and do fake breathing whenever someone checks on me. In the morning, I’m released from the hospital and instructed to take it easy. Cressida asks me to record a few lines for a new Mockingjay propo. At lunch, I keep waiting for people to bring up Peeta’s appearance, but no one does. Someone must have seen it besides Finnick and me.

I have training, but Gale’s scheduled to work with Beetee on weapons or something, so I get permission to take Finnick to the woods. We wander around awhile and then ditch our communicators under a bush. When we’re a safe distance away, we sit and discuss Peeta’s broadcast.

«I haven’t heard one word about it. No one’s told you anything?» Finnick says. I shake my head. He pauses before he asks, «Not even Gale?» I’m clinging to a shred of hope that Gale honestly knows nothing about Peeta’s message. But I have a bad feeling he does. «Maybe he’s trying to find a time to tell you privately.»

«Maybe,» I say.

We stay silent so long that a buck wanders into range. I take it down with an arrow. Finnick hauls it back to the fence.

For dinner, there’s minced venison in the stew. Gale walks me back to Compartment E after we eat. When I ask him what’s been going on, again there’s no mention of Peeta. As soon as my mother and sister are asleep, I slip the pearl from the drawer and spend a second sleepless night clutching it in my hand, replaying Peeta’s words in my head. «Ask yourself, do you really trust the people you’re working with? Do you really know what’s going on? And if you don’t…find out.» Find out. What? From who? And how can Peeta know anything except what the Capitol tells him? It’s just a Capitol propo. More noise. But if Plutarch thinks it’s just the Capitol line, why didn’t he tell me about it? Why hasn’t anyone let me or Finnick know?

Under this debate lies the real source of my distress: Peeta. What have they done to him? And what are they doing to him right now? Clearly, Snow did not buy the story that Peeta and I knew nothing about the rebellion. And his suspicions have been reinforced, now that I have come out as the Mockingjay. Peeta can only guess about the rebel tactics or make up things to tell his torturers. Lies, once discovered, would be severely punished. How abandoned by me he must feel. In his first interview, he tried to protect me from the Capitol and rebels alike, and not only have I failed to protect him, I’ve brought down more horrors upon him.

Come morning, I stick my forearm in the wall and stare groggily at the day’s schedule. Immediately after breakfast, I am slated for Production. In the dining hall, as I down my hot grain and milk and mushy beets, I spot a communicuff on Gale’s wrist. «When did you get that back, Soldier Hawthorne?» I ask.

«Yesterday. They thought if I’m going to be in the field with you, it could be a backup system of communication,» says Gale.

No one has ever offered me a communicuff. I wonder, if I asked for one, would I get it? «Well, I guess one of us has to be accessible,» I say with an edge to my voice.

«What’s that mean?» he says.

«Nothing. Just repeating what you said,» I tell him. «And I totally agree that the accessible one should be you. I just hope I still have access to you as well.»

Our eyes lock, and I realize how furious I am with Gale. That I don’t believe for a second that he didn’t see Peeta’s propo. That I feel completely betrayed that he didn’t tell me about it. We know each other too well for him not to read my mood and guess what has caused it.

«Katniss—» he begins. Already the admission of guilt is in his tone.

I grab my tray, cross to the deposit area, and slam the dishes onto the rack. By the time I’m in the hallway, he’s caught up with me.

«Why didn’t you say something?» he asks, taking my arm.

«Why didn’tI ?» I jerk my arm free. «Why didn’tyou , Gale? And I did, by the way, when I asked you last night about what had been going on!»

«I’m sorry. All right? I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to tell you, but everyone was afraid that seeing Peeta’s propo would make you sick,» he says.

«They were right. It did. But not quite as sick as you lying to me for Coin.» At that moment, his communicuff starts beeping. «There she is. Better run. You have things to tell her.»

For a moment, real hurt registers on his face. Then cold anger replaces it. He turns on his heel and goes. Maybe I have been too spiteful, not given him enough time to explain. Maybe everyone is just trying to protect me by lying to me. I don’t care. I’m sick of people lying to me for my own good. Because really it’s mostly for their own good. Lie to Katniss about the rebellion so she doesn’t do anything crazy. Send her into the arena without a clue so we can fish her out. Don’t tell her about Peeta’s propo because it might make her sick, and it’s hard enough to get a decent performance out of her as it is.

I do feel sick. Heartsick. And too tired for a day of production. But I’m already at Remake, so I go in.

Today, I discover, we will be returning to District 12. Cressida wants to do unscripted interviews with Gale and me throwing light on our demolished city.

«If you’re both up for that,» says Cressida, looking closely at my face.

«Count me in,» I say. I stand, uncommunicative and stiff, a mannequin, as my prep team dresses me, does my hair, and dabs makeup on my face. Not enough to show, only enough to take the edge off the circles under my sleepless eyes.

Boggs escorts me down to the Hangar, but we don’t talk beyond a preliminary greeting. I’m grateful to be spared another exchange about my disobedience in 8, especially since his mask looks so uncomfortable.

At the last moment, I remember to send a message to my mother about my leaving 13, and stress that it won’t be dangerous. We board a hovercraft for the short ride to 12 and I’m directed to a seat at a table where Plutarch, Gale, and Cressida are poring over a map. Plutarch’s brimming with satisfaction as he shows me the before/after effects of the first couple of propos. The rebels, who were barely maintaining a foothold in several districts, have rallied. They have actually taken 3 and 11—the latter so crucial since it’s Panem’s main food supplier—and have made inroads in several other districts as well.

«Hopeful. Very hopeful indeed,» says Plutarch. «Fulvia’s going to have the first round ofWe Remember spots ready tonight, so we can target the individual districts with their dead. Finnick’s absolutely marvelous.»

«It’s painful to watch, actually,» says Cressida. «He knew so many of them personally.»

«That’s what makes it so effective,» says Plutarch. «Straight from the heart. You’re all doing beautifully. Coin could not be more pleased.»

Gale didn’t tell them, then. About my pretending not to see Peeta and my anger at their cover-up. But I guess it’s too little, too late, because I still can’t let it go. It doesn’t matter. He’s not speaking to me, either.

It’s not until we land in the Meadow that I realize Haymitch isn’t among our company. When I ask Plutarch about his absence, he just shakes his head and says, «He couldn’t face it.»

«Haymitch? Not able to face something? Wanted a day off, more likely,» I say.

«I think his actual words were ‘I couldn’t face it without a bottle,’» says Plutarch.

I roll my eyes, long out of patience with my mentor, his weakness for drink, and what he can or can’t confront. But about five minutes after my return to 12, I’m wishing I had a bottle myself. I thought I’d come to terms with 12’s demise—heard of it, seen it from the air, and wandered through its ashes. So why does everything bring on a fresh pang of grief? Was I simply too out of it before to fully register the loss of my world? Or is it the look on Gale’s face as he takes in the destruction on foot that makes the atrocity feel brand-new?

Cressida directs the team to start with me at my old house. I ask her what she wants me to do. «Whatever you feel like,» she says. Standing back in my kitchen, I don’t feel like doing anything. In fact, I find myself focusing up at the sky—the only roof left—because too many memories are drowning me. After a while, Cressida says, «That’s fine, Katniss. Let’s move on.»

Gale doesn’t get off so easily at his old address. Cressida films him in silence for a few minutes, but just as he pulls the one remnant of his previous life from the ashes—a twisted metal poker—she starts to question him about his family, his job, life in the Seam. She makes him go back to the night of the firebombing and reenact it, starting at his house, working his way down across the Meadow and through the woods to the lake. I straggle behind the film crew and the bodyguards, feeling their presence to be a violation of my beloved woods. This is a private place, a sanctuary, already corrupted by the Capitol’s evil. Even after we’ve left behind the charred stumps near the fence, we’re still tripping over decomposing bodies. Do we have to record it for everyone to see?

By the time we reach the lake, Gale seems to have lost his ability to speak. Everyone’s dripping in sweat—especially Castor and Pollux in their insect shells—and Cressida calls for a break. I scoop up handfuls of water from the lake, wishing I could dive in and surface alone and naked and unobserved. I wander around the perimeter for a while. When I come back around to the little concrete house beside the lake, I pause in the doorway and see Gale propping the crooked poker he salvaged against the wall by the hearth. For a moment I have an image of a lone stranger, sometime far in the future, wandering lost in the wilderness and coming upon this small place of refuge, with the pile of split logs, the hearth, the poker. Wondering how it came to be. Gale turns and meets my eyes and I know he’s thinking about our last meeting here. When we fought over whether or not to run away. If we had, would District 12 still be there? I think it would. But the Capitol would still be in control of Panem as well.

Cheese sandwiches are passed around and we eat them in the shade of the trees. I intentionally sit at the far edge of the group, next to Pollux, so I don’t have to talk. No one’s talking much, really. In the relative quiet, the birds take back the woods. I nudge Pollux with my elbow and point out a small black bird with a crown. It hops to a new branch, momentarily opening its wings, showing off its white patches. Pollux gestures to my pin and raises his eyebrows questioningly. I nod, confirming it’s a mockingjay. I hold up one finger to sayWait, I’ll show you , and whistle a birdcall. The mockingjay cocks its head and whistles the call right back at me. Then, to my surprise, Pollux whistles a few notes of his own. The bird answers him immediately. Pollux’s face breaks into an expression of delight and he has a series of melodic exchanges with the mockingjay. My guess is it’s the first conversation he’s had in years. Music draws mockingjays like blossoms do bees, and in a short while he’s got half a dozen of them perched in the branches over our heads. He taps me on the arm and uses a twig to write a word in the dirt. SING?

Usually, I’d decline, but it’s kind of impossible to say no to Pollux, given the circumstances. Besides, the mockingjays’ song voices are different from their whistles, and I’d like him to hear them. So, before I actually think about what I’m doing, I sing Rue’s four notes, the ones she used to signal the end of the workday in 11. The notes that ended up as the background music to her murder. The birds don’t know that. They pick up the simple phrase and bounce it back and forth between them in sweet harmony. Just as they did in the Hunger Games before the muttations broke through the trees, chased us onto the Cornucopia, and slowly gnawed Cato to a bloody pulp—

«Want to hear them do a real song?» I burst out. Anything to stop those memories. I’m on my feet, moving back into the trees, resting my hand on the rough trunk of a maple where the birds perch. I have not sung «The Hanging Tree» out loud for ten years, because it’s forbidden, but I remember every word. I begin softly, sweetly, as my father did.

 

«Are you, are you

Coming to the tree

Where they strung up a man they say murdered three.

Strange things did happen here

No stranger would it be

If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree.»

The mockingjays begin to alter their songs as they become aware of my new offering.

«Are you, are you

Coming to the tree

Where the dead man called out for his love to flee.

Strange things did happen here

No stranger would it be

If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree.»

I have the birds’ attention now. In one more verse, surely they will have captured the melody, as it’s simple and repeats four times with little variation.

«Are you, are you

Coming to the tree

Where I told you to run, so we’d both be free.

Strange things did happen here

No stranger would it be

If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree.»

A hush in the trees. Just the rustle of leaves in the breeze. But no birds, mockingjay or other. Peeta’s right. They do fall silent when I sing. Just as they did for my father.

«Are you, are you

Coming to the tree

Wear a necklace of rope, side by side with me.

Strange things did happen here

No stranger would it be

If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree.»

The birds are waiting for me to continue. But that’s it. Last verse. In the stillness I remember the scene. I was home from a day in the woods with my father. Sitting on the floor with Prim, who was just a toddler, singing «The Hanging Tree.» Making us necklaces out of scraps of old rope like it said in the song, not knowing the real meaning of the words. The tune was simple and easy to harmonize to, though, and back then I could memorize almost anything set to music after a round or two. Suddenly, my mother snatched the rope necklaces away and was yelling at my father. I started to cry because my mother never yelled, and then Prim was wailing and I ran outside to hide. As I had exactly one hiding spot—in the Meadow under a honeysuckle bush—my father found me immediately. He calmed me down and told me everything was fine, only we’d better not sing that song anymore. My mother just wanted me to forget it. So, of course, every word was immediately, irrevocably branded into my brain.

We didn’t sing it anymore, my father and I, or even speak of it. After he died, it used to come back to me a lot. Being older, I began to understand the lyrics. At the beginning, it sounds like a guy is trying to get his girlfriend to secretly meet up with him at midnight. But it’s an odd place for a tryst, a hanging tree, where a man was hung for murder. The murderer’s lover must have had something to do with the killing, or maybe they were just going to punish her anyway, because his corpse called out for her to flee. That’s weird obviously, the talking-corpse bit, but it’s not until the third verse that «The Hanging Tree» begins to get unnerving. You realize the singer of the song is the dead murderer. He’s still in the hanging tree. And even though he told his lover to flee, he keeps asking if she’s coming to meet him. The phraseWhere I told you to run, so we’d both be free is the most troubling because at first you think he’s talking about when he told her to flee, presumably to safety. But then you wonder if he meant for her to run to him. To death. In the final stanza, it’s clear that that’s what he’s waiting for. His lover, with her rope necklace, hanging dead next to him in the tree.

I used to think the murderer was the creepiest guy imaginable. Now, with a couple of trips to the Hunger Games under my belt, I decide not to judge him without knowing more details. Maybe his lover was already sentenced to death and he was trying to make it easier. To let her know he’d be waiting. Or maybe he thought the place he was leaving her was really worse than death. Didn’t I want to kill Peeta with that syringe to save him from the Capitol? Was that really my only option? Probably not, but I couldn’t think of another at the time.

I guess my mother thought the whole thing was too twisted for a seven-year-old, though. Especially one who made her own rope necklaces. It wasn’t like hanging was something that only happened in a story. Plenty of people were executed that way in 12. You can bet she didn’t want me singing it in front of my music class. She probably wouldn’t like me doing it here for Pollux even, but at least I’m not—wait, no, I’m wrong. As I glance sideways, I see Castor has been taping me. Everyone is watching me intently. And Pollux has tears running down his cheeks because no doubt my freaky song has dredged up some terrible incident in his life. Great. I sigh and lean back against the trunk. That’s when the mockingjays begin their rendition of «The Hanging Tree.» In their mouths, it’s quite beautiful. Conscious of being filmed, I stand quietly until I hear Cressida call, «Cut!»

Plutarch crosses to me, laughing. «Where do you come up with this stuff? No one would believe it if we made it up!» He throws an arm around me and kisses me on the top of my head with a loud smack.

«You’re golden!»

«I wasn’t doing it for the cameras,» I say.

«Lucky they were on, then,» he says. «Come on, everybody, back to town!»

As we trudge back through the woods, we reach a boulder, and both Gale and I turn our heads in the same direction, like a pair of dogs catching a scent on the wind. Cressida notices and asks what lies that way. We admit, without acknowledging each other, it’s our old hunting rendezvous place. She wants to see it, even after we tell her it’s nothing really.

Nothing but a place where I was happy, I think.

Our rock ledge overlooking the valley. Perhaps a little less green than usual, but the blackberry bushes hang heavy with fruit. Here began countless days of hunting and snaring, fishing and gathering, roaming together through the woods, unloading our thoughts while we filled our game bags. This was the doorway to both sustenance and sanity. And we were each other’s key.

There’s no District 12 to escape from now, no Peacekeepers to trick, no hungry mouths to feed. The Capitol took away all of that, and I’m on the verge of losing Gale as well. The glue of mutual need that bonded us so tightly together for all those years is melting away. Dark patches, not light, show in the spaces between us. How can it be that today, in the face of 12’s horrible demise, we are too angry to even speak to each other?

Gale as good as lied to me. That was unacceptable, even if he was concerned about my well-being. His apology seemed genuine, though. And I threw it back in his face with an insult to make sure it stung. What is happening to us? Why are we always at odds now? It’s all a muddle, but I somehow feel that if I went back to the root of our troubles, my actions would be at the heart of it. Do I really want to drive him away?

My fingers encircle a blackberry and pluck it from its stem. I roll it gently between my thumb and forefinger. Suddenly, I turn to him and toss it in his direction. «And may the odds—» I say. I throw it high so he has plenty of time to decide whether to knock it aside or accept it.

Gale’s eyes train on me, not the berry, but at the last moment, he opens his mouth and catches it. He chews, swallows, and there’s a long pause before he says «—beever in your favor.» But he does say it.

Cressida has us sit in the nook in the rocks, where it’s impossible not to be touching, and coaxes us into talking about hunting. What drove us out into the woods, how we met, favorite moments. We thaw, begin to laugh a little, as we relate mishaps with bees and wild dogs and skunks. When the conversation turns to how it felt to translate our skill with weapons to the bombing in 8, I stop talking. Gale just says, «Long overdue.»

By the time we reach the town square, afternoon’s sinking into evening. I take Cressida to the rubble of the bakery and ask her to film something. The only emotion I can muster is exhaustion. «Peeta, this is your home. None of your family has been heard of since the bombing. Twelve is gone. And you’re calling for a cease-fire?» I look across the emptiness. «There’s no one left to hear you.»

As we stand before the lump of metal that was the gallows, Cressida asks if either of us has ever been tortured. In answer, Gale pulls off his shirt and turns his back to the camera. I stare at the lash marks, and again hear the whistling of the whip, see his bloody figure hanging unconscious by his wrists.

«I’m done,» I announce. «I’ll meet you at the Victor’s Village. Something for…my mother.»

I guess I walked here, but the next thing I’m conscious of is sitting on the floor in front of the kitchen cabinets of our house in the Victor’s Village. Meticulously lining ceramic jars and glass bottles into a box. Placing clean cotton bandages between them to prevent breaking. Wrapping bunches of dried flowers.

Suddenly, I remember the rose on my dresser. Was it real? If so, is it still up there? I have to resist the temptation to check. If it’s there, it will only frighten me all over again. I hurry with my packing.

When the cabinets are empty, I rise to find that Gale has materialized in my kitchen. It’s disturbing how soundlessly he can appear. He’s leaning on the table, his fingers spread wide against the wood grain. I set the box between us. «Remember?» he asks. «This is where you kissed me.»

So the heavy dose of morphling administered after the whipping wasn’t enough to erase that from his consciousness. «I didn’t think you’d remember that,» I say.

«Have to be dead to forget. Maybe even not then,» he tells me. «Maybe I’ll be like that man in ‘The Hanging Tree.’ Still waiting for an answer.» Gale, who I have never seen cry, has tears in his eyes. To keep them from spilling over, I reach forward and press my lips against his. We taste of heat, ashes, and misery. It’s a surprising flavor for such a gentle kiss. He pulls away first and gives me a wry smile. «I knew you’d kiss me.»

«How?» I say. Because I didn’t know myself.

«Because I’m in pain,» he says. «That’s the only way I get your attention.» He picks up the box. «Don’t worry, Katniss. It’ll pass.» He leaves before I can answer.

I’m too weary to work through his latest charge. I spend the short ride back to 13 curled up in a seat, trying to ignore Plutarch going on about one of his favorite subjects—weapons mankind no longer has at its disposal. High-flying planes, military satellites, cell disintegrators, drones, biological weapons with expiration dates. Brought down by the destruction of the atmosphere or lack of resources or moral squeamishness. You can hear the regret of a Head Gamemaker who can only dream of such toys, who must make do with hovercraft and land-to-land missiles and plain old guns.

After dropping off my Mockingjay suit, I go straight to bed without eating. Even so, Prim has to shake me to get me up in the morning. After breakfast, I ignore my schedule and take a nap in the supply closet. When I come to, crawling out from between the boxes of chalk and pencils, it’s dinnertime again. I get an extra-large portion of pea soup and am headed back to Compartment E when Boggs intercepts me.

«There’s a meeting in Command. Disregard your current schedule,» he says.

«Done,» I say.

«Did you follow it at all today?» he asks in exasperation.

«Who knows? I’m mentally disoriented.» I hold up my wrist to show my medical bracelet and realize it’s gone. «See? I can’t even remember they took my bracelet. Why do they want me in Command? Did I miss something?»

«I think Cressida wanted to show you the Twelve propos. But I guess you’ll see them when they air,» he says.

«That’s what I need a schedule of. When the propos air,» I say. He shoots me a look but doesn’t comment further.

People have crowded into Command, but they’ve saved me a seat between Finnick and Plutarch. The screens are already up on the table, showing the regular Capitol feed.

«What’s going on? Aren’t we seeing the Twelve propos?» I ask.

«Oh, no,» says Plutarch. «I mean, possibly. I don’t know exactly what footage Beetee plans to use.»

«Beetee thinks he’s found a way to break into the feed nationwide,» says Finnick. «So that our propos will air in the Capitol, too. He’s down working on it in Special Defense now. There’s live programming tonight. Snow’s making an appearance or something. I think it’s starting.»

The Capitol seal appears, underscored by the anthem. Then I’m staring directly into President Snow’s snake eyes as he greets the nation. He seems barricaded behind his podium, but the white rose in his lapel is in full view. The camera pulls back to include Peeta, off to one side in front of a projected map of Panem. He’s sitting in an elevated chair, his shoes supported by a metal rung. The foot of his prosthetic leg taps out a strange irregular beat. Beads of sweat have broken through the layer of powder on his upper lip and forehead. But it’s the look in his eyes—angry yet unfocused—that frightens me the most.

«He’s worse,» I whisper. Finnick grasps my hand, to give me an anchor, and I try to hang on.

Peeta begins to speak in a frustrated tone about the need for the cease-fire. He highlights the damage done to key infrastructure in various districts, and as he speaks, parts of the map light up, showing images of the destruction. A broken dam in 7. A derailed train with a pool of toxic waste spilling from the tank cars. A granary collapsing after a fire. All of these he attributes to rebel action.

Bam!Without warning, I’m suddenly on television, standing in the rubble of the bakery.

Plutarch jumps to his feet. «He did it! Beetee broke in!»

The room’s buzzing with reaction when Peeta’s back, distracted. He has seen me on the monitor. He tries to pick up his speech by moving on to the bombing of a water purification plant, when a clip of Finnick talking about Rue replaces him. And then the whole thing breaks down into a broadcast battle, as the Capitol tech masters try to fend off Beetee’s attack. But they are unprepared, and Beetee, apparently anticipating he would not hold on to control, has an arsenal of five- to ten-second clips to work with. We watch the official presentation deteriorate as it’s peppered with choice shots from the propos.

Plutarch’s in spasms of delight and most everybody is cheering Beetee on, but Finnick remains still and speechless beside me. I meet Haymitch’s eyes from across the room and see my own dread mirrored back. The recognition that with every cheer, Peeta slips even farther from our grasp.

The Capitol seal’s back up, accompanied by a flat audio tone. This lasts about twenty seconds before Snow and Peeta return. The set is in turmoil. We’re hearing frantic exchanges from their booth. Snow plows forward, saying that clearly the rebels are now attempting to disrupt the dissemination of information they find incriminating, but both truth and justice will reign. The full broadcast will resume when security has been reinstated. He asks Peeta if, given tonight’s demonstration, he has any parting thoughts for Katniss Everdeen.

At the mention of my name, Peeta’s face contorts in effort. «Katniss…how do you think this will end?

What will be left? No one is safe. Not in the Capitol. Not in the districts. And you…in Thirteen…» He inhales sharply, as if fighting for air; his eyes look insane. «Dead by morning!»

Off camera, Snow orders, «End it!» Beetee throws the whole thing into chaos by flashing a still shot of me standing in front of the hospital at three-second intervals. But between the images, we are privy to the real-life action being played out on the set. Peeta’s attempt to continue speaking. The camera knocked down to record the white tiled floor. The scuffle of boots. The impact of the blow that’s inseparable from Peeta’s cry of pain.

And his blood as it splatters the tiles.

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