The cold collar chafes my neck and makes the shivering even harder to control. At least I am no longer in the claustrophobic tube, while the machines click and whir around me, listening to a disembodied voice telling me to hold still while I try to convince myself I can still breathe. Even now, when I’ve been assured there will be no permanent damage, I hunger for air.
The medical team’s main concerns—damage to my spinal cord, airway, veins, and arteries—have been allayed. Bruising, hoarseness, the sore larynx, this strange little cough—not to be worried about. It will all be fine. The Mockingjay will not lose her voice. Where, I want to ask, is the doctor who determines if I am losing my mind? Only I’m not supposed to talk right now. I can’t even thank Boggs when he comes to check on me. To look me over and tell me he’s seen a lot worse injuries among the soldiers when they teach choke holds in training.
It was Boggs who knocked out Peeta with one blow before any permanent damage could be done. I know Haymitch would have come to my defense if he hadn’t been utterly unprepared. To catch both Haymitch and myself off guard is a rare thing. But we have been so consumed with saving Peeta, so tortured by having him in the Capitol’s hands, that the elation at having him back blinded us. If I’d had a private reunion with Peeta, he would have killed me. Now that he’s deranged.
No, not deranged, I remind myself.Hijacked. That’s the word I heard pass between Plutarch and Haymitch as I was wheeled past them in the hallway.Hijacked. I don’t know what it means.
Prim, who appeared moments after the attack and has stayed as close to me as possible ever since, spreads another blanket over me. „I think they’ll take the collar off soon, Katniss. You won’t be so cold then.“ My mother, who’s been assisting in a complicated surgery, has still not been informed of Peeta’s assault. Prim takes one of my hands, which is clutched in a fist, and massages it until it opens and blood begins to flow through my fingers again. She’s starting on the second fist when the doctors show up, remove the collar, and give me a shot of something for pain and swelling. I lie, as instructed, with my head still, not aggravating the injuries to my neck.
Plutarch, Haymitch, and Beetee have been waiting in the hall for the doctors to give them clearance to the doctors out and tries to order Prim to go as well, but she says, „No. If you force me to leave, I’ll go directly to surgery and tell my mother everything that’s happened. And I warn you, she doesn’t think much of a Gamemaker calling the shots on Katniss’s life. Especially when you’ve taken such poor care of her.“
Plutarch looks offended, but Haymitch chuckles. „I’d let it go, Plutarch,“ he says. Prim stays.
„So, Katniss, Peeta’s condition has come as a shock to all of us,“ says Plutarch. „We couldn’t help but notice his deterioration in the last two interviews. Obviously, he’d been abused, and we put his psychological state down to that. Now we believe something more was going on. That the Capitol has been subjecting him to a rather uncommon technique known as hijacking. Beetee?“
„I’m sorry,“ Beetee says, „but I can’t tell you all the specifics of it, Katniss. The Capitol’s very secretive about this form of torture, and I believe the results are inconsistent. This we do know. It’s a type of fear conditioning. The termhijack comes from an old English word that means ‘to capture,’ or even better, ‘seize.’ We believe it was chosen because the technique involves the use of tracker jacker venom, and thejack suggestedhijack . You were stung in your first Hunger Games, so unlike most of us, you have firsthand knowledge of the effects of the venom.“
Terror. Hallucinations. Nightmarish visions of losing those I love. Because the venom targets the part of the brain that houses fear.
„I’m sure you remember how frightening it was. Did you also suffer mental confusion in the aftermath?“ asks Beetee. „A sense of being unable to judge what was true and what was false? Most people who have been stung and lived to tell about it report something of the kind.“
Yes. That encounter with Peeta. Even after I was clearheaded, I wasn’t sure if he had saved my life by taking on Cato or if I’d imagined it.
„Recall is made more difficult because memories can be changed.“ Beetee taps his forehead. „Brought to the forefront of your mind, altered, and saved again in the revised form. Now imagine that I ask you to remember something—either with a verbal suggestion or by making you watch a tape of the event—and while that experience is refreshed, I give you a dose of tracker jacker venom. Not enough to induce a three-day blackout. Just enough to infuse the memory with fear and doubt. And that’s what your brain puts in long-term storage.“
I start to feel sick. Prim asks the question that’s in my mind. „Is that what they’ve done to Peeta? Taken his memories of Katniss and distorted them so they’re scary?“
Beetee nods. „So scary that he’d see her as life-threatening. That he might try to kill her. Yes, that’s our current theory.“
I cover my face with my arms because this isn’t happening. It isn’t possible. For someone to make Peeta forget he loves me…no one could do that.
„But you can reverse it, right?“ asks Prim.
„Um…very little data on that,“ says Plutarch. „None, really. If hijacking rehabilitation has been attempted before, we have no access to those records.“
„Well, you’re going to try, aren’t you?“ Prim persists. „You’re not just going to lock him up in some padded room and leave him to suffer?“
„Of course, we’ll try, Prim,“ says Beetee. „It’s just, we don’t know to what degree we’ll succeed. If any. My guess is that fearful events are the hardest to root out. They’re the ones we naturally remember the best, after all.“
„And apart from his memories of Katniss, we don’t yet know what else has been tampered with,“ says Plutarch. „We’re putting together a team of mental health and military professionals to come up with a counterattack. I, personally, feel optimistic that he’ll make a full recovery.“
„Do you?“ asks Prim caustically. „And what doyou think, Haymitch?“
I shift my arms slightly so I can see his expression through the crack. He’s exhausted and discouraged as he admits, „I think Peeta might get somewhat better. But…I don’t think he’ll ever be the same.“ I snap my arms back together, closing the crack, shutting them all out.
„At least he’s alive,“ says Plutarch, as if he’s losing patience with the lot of us. „Snow executed Peeta’s stylist and his prep team on live television tonight. We’ve no idea what happened to Effie Trinket. Peeta’s damaged, but he’s here. With us. And that’s a definite improvement over his situation twelve hours ago. Let’s keep that in mind, all right?“
Plutarch’s attempt to cheer me up—laced with the news of another four, possibly five, murders—somehow backfires. Portia. Peeta’s prep team. Effie. The effort to fight back tears makes my throat throb until I’m gasping again. Eventually, they have no choice but to sedate me.
When I wake, I wonder if this will be the only way I sleep now, with drugs shot into my arm. I’m glad I’m not supposed to talk for the next few days, because there’s nothing I want to say. Or do. In fact, I’m a model patient, my lethargy taken for restraint, obedience to the doctors’ orders. I no longer feel like crying. In fact, I can only manage to hold on to one simple thought: an image of Snow’s face accompanied by the whisper in my head.I will kill you.
My mother and Prim take turns nursing me, coaxing me to swallow bites of soft food. People come in periodically to give me updates on Peeta’s condition. The high levels of tracker jacker venom are working their way out of his body. He’s being treated only by strangers, natives of 13—no one from home or the Capitol has been allowed to see him—to keep any dangerous memories from triggering. A team of specialists works long hours designing a strategy for his recovery.
Gale’s not supposed to visit me, as he’s confined to bed with some kind of shoulder wound. But on the third night, after I’ve been medicated and the lights turned down low for bedtime, he slips silently into my room. He doesn’t speak, just runs his fingers over the bruises on my neck with a touch as light as moth wings, plants a kiss between my eyes, and disappears.
The next morning, I’m discharged from the hospital with instructions to move quietly and speak only when necessary. I’m not imprinted with a schedule, so I wander around aimlessly until Prim’s excused from her hospital duties to take me to our family’s latest compartment. 2212. Identical to the last one, but with no window.
Buttercup has now been issued a daily food allowance and a pan of sand that’s kept under the bathroom sink. As Prim tucks me into bed, he hops up on my pillow, vying for her attention. She cradles him but stays focused on me. „Katniss, I know this whole thing with Peeta is terrible for you. But remember, Snow worked on him for weeks, and we’ve only had him for a few days. There’s a chance that the old Peeta, the one who loves you, is still inside. Trying to get back to you. Don’t give up on him.“
I look at my little sister and think how she has inherited the best qualities our family has to offer: my mother’s healing hands, my father’s level head, and my fight. There’s something else there as well, something entirely her own. An ability to look into the confusing mess of life and see things for what they are. Is it possible she could be right? That Peeta could return to me?
„I have to get back to the hospital,“ Prim says, placing Buttercup on the bed beside me. „You two keep each other company, okay?“
Buttercup springs off the bed and follows her to the door, complaining loudly when he’s left behind. We’re about as much company for each other as dirt. After maybe thirty seconds, I know I can’t stand being confined in the subterranean cell, and leave Buttercup to his own devices. I get lost several times, but eventually I make my way down to Special Defense. Everyone I pass stares at the bruises, and I can’t help feeling self-conscious to the point that I tug my collar up to my ears.
Gale must have been released from the hospital this morning as well, because I find him in one of the research rooms with Beetee. They’re immersed, heads bent over a drawing, taking a measurement. Versions of the picture litter the table and floor. Tacked on the corkboard walls and occupying several computer screens are other designs of some sort. In the rough lines of one, I recognize Gale’s twitch-up snare. „What are these?“ I ask hoarsely, pulling their attention from the sheet.
„Ah, Katniss, you’ve found us out,“ says Beetee cheerfully.
„What? Is this a secret?“ I know Gale’s been down here working with Beetee a lot, but I assumed they were messing around with bows and guns.
„Not really. But I’ve felt a little guilty about it. Stealing Gale away from you so much,“ Beetee admits.
Since I’ve spent most of my time in 13 disoriented, worried, angry, being remade, or hospitalized, I can’t say Gale’s absences have inconvenienced me. Things haven’t been exactly harmonious between us, either. But I let Beetee think he owes me. „I hope you’ve been putting his time to good use.“
„Come and see,“ he says, waving me over to a computer screen.
This is what they’ve been doing. Taking the fundamental ideas behind Gale’s traps and adapting them into weapons against humans. Bombs mostly. It’s less about the mechanics of the traps than the psychology behind them. Booby-trapping an area that provides something essential to survival. A water or food supply. Frightening prey so that a large number flee into a greater destruction. Endangering off-spring in order to draw in the actual desired target, the parent. Luring the victim into what appears to be a safe haven—where death awaits it. At some point, Gale and Beetee left the wilderness behind and focused on more human impulses. Like compassion. A bomb explodes. Time is allowed for people to rush to the aid of the wounded. Then a second, more powerful bomb kills them as well.
„That seems to be crossing some kind of line,“ I say. „So anything goes?“ They both stare at me—Beetee with doubt, Gale with hostility. „I guess there isn’t a rule book for what might be unacceptable to do to another human being.“
„Sure there is. Beetee and I have been following the same rule book President Snow used when he hijacked Peeta,“ says Gale.
Cruel, but to the point. I leave without further comment. I feel if I don’t get outside immediately, I’ll just go ballistic, but I’m still in Special Defense when I’m waylaid by Haymitch. „Come on,“ he says. „We need you back up at the hospital.“
„What for?“ I ask.
„They’re going to try something on Peeta,“ he answers. „Send in the most innocuous person from Twelve they can come up with. Find someone Peeta might share childhood memories with, but nothing too close to you. They’re screening people now.“
I know this will be a difficult task, since anyone Peeta shares childhood memories with would most likely be from town, and almost none of those people escaped the flames. But when we reach the hospital room that has been turned into a work space for Peeta’s recovery team, there she sits chatting with Plutarch. Delly Cartwright. As always, she gives me a smile that suggests I’m her best friend in the world. She gives this smile to everyone. „Katniss!“ she calls out.
„Hey, Delly,“ I say. I’d heard she and her younger brother had survived. Her parents, who ran the shoe shop in town, weren’t as lucky. She looks older, wearing the drab 13 clothes that flatter no one, with her long yellow hair in a practical braid instead of curls. Delly’s a bit thinner than I remember, but she was one of the few kids in District 12 with a couple of pounds to spare. The diet here, the stress, the grief of losing her parents have all, no doubt, contributed. „How are you doing?“ I ask.
„Oh, it’s been a lot of changes all at once.“ Her eyes fill with tears. „But everyone’s really nice here in Thirteen, don’t you think?“
Delly means it. She genuinely likes people. All people, not just a select few she’s spent years making up her mind about.
„They’ve made an effort to make us feel welcome,“ I say. I think that’s a fair statement without going overboard. „Are you the one they’ve picked to see Peeta?“
„I guess so. Poor Peeta. Pooryou . I’ll never understand the Capitol,“ she says.
„Better not to, maybe,“ I tell her.
„Delly’s known Peeta for a long time,“ says Plutarch.
„Oh, yes!“ Delly’s face brightens. „We played together from when we were little. I used to tell people he was my brother.“
„What do you think?“ Haymitch asks me. „Anything that might trigger memories of you?“
„We were all in the same class. But we never overlapped much,“ I say.
„Katniss was always so amazing, I never dreamed she would notice me,“ says Delly. „The way she could hunt and go in the Hob and everything. Everyone admired her so.“
Haymitch and I both have to take a hard look at her face to double-check if she’s joking. To hear Delly describe it, I had next to no friends because I intimidated people by being so exceptional. Not true. I had next to no friends because I wasn’t friendly. Leave it to Delly to spin me into something wonderful.
„Delly always thinks the best of everyone,“ I explain. „I don’t think Peeta could have bad memories associated with her.“ Then I remember. „Wait. In the Capitol. When I lied about recognizing the Avox girl. Peeta covered for me and said she looked like Delly.“
„I remember,“ says Haymitch. „But I don’t know. It wasn’t true. Delly wasn’t actually there. I don’t think it can compete with years of childhood memories.“
„Especially with such a pleasant companion as Delly,“ says Plutarch. „Let’s give it a shot.“
Plutarch, Haymitch, and I go to the observation room next to where Peeta’s confined. It’s crowded with ten members of his recovery team armed with pens and clipboards. The one-way glass and audio setup allow us to watch Peeta secretly. He lies on the bed, his arms strapped down. He doesn’t fight the restraints, but his hands fidget continuously. His expression seems more lucid than when he tried to strangle me, but it’s still not one that belongs to him.
When the door quietly opens, his eyes widen in alarm, then become confused. Delly crosses the room tentatively, but as she nears him she naturally breaks into a smile. „Peeta? It’s Delly. From home.“
„Delly?“ Some of the clouds seem to clear. „Delly. It’s you.“
„Yes!“ she says with obvious relief. „How do you feel?“
„Awful. Where are we? What’s happened?“ asks Peeta.
„Here we go,“ says Haymitch.
„I told her to steer clear of any mention of Katniss or the Capitol,“ says Plutarch. „Just see how much of home she could conjure up.“
„Well…we’re in District Thirteen. We live here now,“ says Delly.
„That’s what those people have been saying. But it makes no sense. Why aren’t we home?“ asks Peeta.
Delly bites her lip. „There was…an accident. I miss home badly, too. I was only just thinking about those chalk drawings we used to do on the paving stones. Yours were so wonderful. Remember when you made each one a different animal?“
„Yeah. Pigs and cats and things,“ says Peeta. „You said…about an accident?“
I can see the sheen of sweat on Delly’s forehead as she tries to work around the question. „It was bad. No one…could stay,“ she says haltingly.
„Hang in there, girl,“ says Haymitch.
„But I know you’re going to like it here, Peeta. The people have been really nice to us. There’s always food and clean clothes, and school’s much more interesting,“ says Delly.
„Why hasn’t my family come to see me?“ Peeta asks.
„They can’t.“ Delly’s tearing up again. „A lot of people didn’t get out of Twelve. So we’ll need to make a new life here. I’m sure they could use a good baker. Do you remember when your father used to let us make dough girls and boys?“
„There was a fire,“ Peeta says suddenly.
„Yes,“ she whispers.
„Twelve burned down, didn’t it? Because of her,“ says Peeta angrily. „Because of Katniss!“ He begins to pull on the restraints.
„Oh, no, Peeta. It wasn’t her fault,“ says Delly.
„Did she tell you that?“ he hisses at her.
„Get her out of there,“ says Plutarch. The door opens immediately and Delly begins to back toward it slowly.
„She didn’t have to. I was—“ Delly begins.
„Because she’s lying! She’s a liar! You can’t believe anything she says! She’s some kind of mutt the Capitol created to use against the rest of us!“ Peeta shouts.
„No, Peeta. She’s not a—“ Delly tries again.
„Don’t trust her, Delly,“ says Peeta in a frantic voice. „I did, and she tried to kill me. She killed my friends. My family. Don’t even go near her! She’s a mutt!“
A hand reaches through the doorway, pulls Delly out, and the door swings shut. But Peeta keeps yelling. „A mutt! She’s a stinking mutt!“
Not only does he hate me and want to kill me, he no longer believes I’m human. It was less painful being strangled.
Around me the recovery team members scribble like crazy, taking down every word. Haymitch and Plutarch grab my arms and propel me out of the room. They lean me up against a wall in the silent hallway. But I know Peeta continues to scream behind the door and the glass.
Prim was wrong. Peeta is irretrievable. „I can’t stay here anymore,“ I say numbly. „If you want me to be the Mockingjay, you’ll have to send me away.“
„Where do you want to go?“ asks Haymitch.
„The Capitol.“ It’s the only place I can think of where I have a job to do.
„Can’t do it,“ Plutarch says. „Not until all the districts are secure. Good news is, the fighting’s almost over in all of them but Two. It’s a tough nut to crack, though.“
That’s right. First the districts. Next the Capitol. And then I hunt down Snow.
„Fine,“ I say. „Send me to Two.“