In the stunned reaction that follows, I’m aware of one sound. Snow’s laughter. An awful gurgling cackle accompanied by an eruption of foamy blood when the coughing begins. I see him bend forward, spewing out his life, until the guards block him from my sight.
As the gray uniforms begin to converge on me, I think of what my brief future as the assassin of Panem’s new president holds. The interrogation, probable torture, certain public execution. Having, yet again, to say my final goodbyes to the handful of people who still maintain a hold on my heart. The prospect of facing my mother, who will now be entirely alone in the world, decides it.
«Good night,» I whisper to the bow in my hand and feel it go still. I raise my left arm and twist my neck down to rip off the pill on my sleeve. Instead my teeth sink into flesh. I yank my head back in confusion to find myself looking into Peeta’s eyes, only now they hold my gaze. Blood runs from the teeth marks on the hand he clamped over my nightlock. «Let me go!» I snarl at him, trying to wrest my arm from his grasp.
«I can’t,» he says. As they pull me away from him, I feel the pocket ripped from my sleeve, see the deep violet pill fall to the ground, watch Cinna’s last gift get crunched under a guard’s boot. I transform into a wild animal, kicking, clawing, biting, doing whatever I can to free myself from this web of hands as the crowd pushes in. The guards lift me up above the fray, where I continue to thrash as I’m conveyed over the crush of people. I start screaming for Gale. I can’t find him in the throng, but he will know what I want. A good clean shot to end it all. Only there’s no arrow, no bullet. Is it possible he can’t see me? No. Above us, on the giant screens placed around the City Circle, everyone can watch the whole thing being played out. He sees, he knows, but he doesn’t follow through. Just as I didn’t when he was captured. Sorry excuses for hunters and friends. Both of us.
I’m on my own.
In the mansion, they handcuff and blindfold me. I’m half dragged, half carried down long passages, up and down elevators, and deposited on a carpeted floor. The cuffs are removed and a door slams closed behind me. When I push the blindfold up, I find I’m in my old room at the Training Center. The one where I lived during those last precious days before my first Hunger Games and the Quarter Quell. The bed’s stripped to the mattress, the closet gapes open, showing the emptiness inside, but I’d know this room anywhere.
It’s a struggle to get to my feet and peel off my Mockingjay suit. I’m badly bruised and might have a broken finger or two, but it’s my skin that’s paid most dearly for my struggle with the guards. The new pink stuff has shredded like tissue paper and blood seeps through the laboratory-grown cells. No medics show up, though, and as I’m too far gone to care, I crawl up onto the mattress, expecting to bleed to death.
No such luck. By evening, the blood clots, leaving me stiff and sore and sticky but alive. I limp into the shower and program in the gentlest cycle I can remember, free of any soaps and hair products, and squat under the warm spray, elbows on my knees, head in my hands.
My name is Katniss Everdeen. Why am I not dead? I should be dead. It would be best for everyone if I were dead….
When I step out on the mat, the hot air bakes my damaged skin dry. There’s nothing clean to put on. Not even a towel to wrap around me. Back in the room, I find the Mockingjay suit has disappeared. In its place is a paper robe. A meal has been sent up from the mysterious kitchen with a container of my medications for dessert. I go ahead and eat the food, take the pills, rub the salve on my skin. I need to focus now on the manner of my suicide.
I curl back up on the bloodstained mattress, not cold but feeling so naked with just the paper to cover my tender flesh. Jumping to my death’s not an option—the window glass must be a foot thick. I can make an excellent noose, but there’s nothing to hang myself from. It’s possible I could hoard my pills and then knock myself off with a lethal dose, except that I’m sure I’m being watched round the clock. For all I know, I’m on live television at this very moment while commentators try to analyze what could possibly have motivated me to kill Coin. The surveillance makes almost any suicide attempt impossible. Taking my life is the Capitol’s privilege. Again.
What I can do is give up. I resolve to lie on the bed without eating, drinking, or taking my medications. I could do it, too. Just die. If it weren’t for the morphling withdrawal. Not bit by bit like in the hospital in 13, but cold turkey. I must have been on a fairly large dose because when the craving for it hits, accompanied by tremors, and shooting pains, and unbearable cold, my resolve’s crushed like an eggshell. I’m on my knees, raking the carpet with my fingernails to find those precious pills I flung away in a stronger moment. I revise my suicide plan to slow death by morphling. I will become a yellow-skinned bag of bones, with enormous eyes. I’m a couple of days into the plan, making good progress, when something unexpected happens.
I begin to sing. At the window, in the shower, in my sleep. Hour after hour of ballads, love songs, mountain airs. All the songs my father taught me before he died, for certainly there has been very little music in my life since. What’s amazing is how clearly I remember them. The tunes, the lyrics. My voice, at first rough and breaking on the high notes, warms up into something splendid. A voice that would make the mockingjays fall silent and then tumble over themselves to join in. Days pass, weeks. I watch the snows fall on the ledge outside my window. And in all that time, mine is the only voice I hear.
What are they doing, anyway? What’s the holdup out there? How difficult can it be to arrange the execution of one murderous girl? I continue with my own annihilation. My body’s thinner than it’s ever been and my battle against hunger is so fierce that sometimes the animal part of me gives in to the temptation of buttered bread or roasted meat. But still, I’m winning. For a few days I feel quite unwell and think I may finally be traveling out of this life, when I realize my morphling tablets are shrinking. They are trying to slowly wean me off the stuff. But why? Surely a drugged Mockingjay will be easier to dispose of in front of a crowd. And then a terrible thought hits me: What if they’re not going to kill me? What if they have more plans for me? A new way to remake, train, and use me?
I won’t do it. If I can’t kill myself in this room, I will take the first opportunity outside of it to finish the job. They can fatten me up. They can give me a full body polish, dress me up, and make me beautiful again. They can design dream weapons that come to life in my hands, but they will never again brainwash me into the necessity of using them. I no longer feel any allegiance to these monsters called human beings, despise being one myself. I think that Peeta was onto something about us destroying one another and letting some decent species take over. Because something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences. You can spin it any way you like. Snow thought the Hunger Games were an efficient means of control. Coin thought the parachutes would expedite the war. But in the end, who does it benefit? No one. The truth is, it benefits no one to live in a world where these things happen.
After two days of my lying on my mattress with no attempt to eat, drink, or even take a morphling tablet, the door to my room opens. Someone crosses around the bed into my field of vision. Haymitch. «Your trial’s over,» he says. «Come on. We’re going home.»
Home? What’s he talking about? My home’s gone. And even if it were possible to go to this imaginary place, I am too weak to move. Strangers appear. Rehydrate and feed me. Bathe and clothe me. One lifts me like a rag doll and carries me up to the roof, onto a hovercraft, and fastens me into a seat. Haymitch and Plutarch sit across from me. In a few moments, we’re airborne.
I’ve never seen Plutarch in such a good mood. He’s positively glowing. «You must have a million questions!» When I don’t respond, he answers them anyway.
After I shot Coin, there was pandemonium. When the ruckus died down, they discovered Snow’s body, still tethered to the post. Opinions differ on whether he choked to death while laughing or was crushed by the crowd. No one really cares. An emergency election was thrown together and Paylor was voted in as president. Plutarch was appointed secretary of communications, which means he sets the programming for the airwaves. The first big televised event was my trial, in which he was also a star witness. In my defense, of course. Although most of the credit for my exoneration must be given to Dr. Aurelius, who apparently earned his naps by presenting me as a hopeless, shell-shocked lunatic. One condition for my release is that I’ll continue under his care, although it will have to be by phone because he’d never live in a forsaken place like 12, and I’m confined there until further notice. The truth is, no one quite knows what to do with me now that the war’s over, although if another one should spring up, Plutarch’s sure they could find a role for me. Then Plutarch has a good laugh. It never seems to bother him when no one else appreciates his jokes.
«Are you preparing for another war, Plutarch?» I ask.
«Oh, not now. Now we’re in that sweet period where everyone agrees that our recent horrors should never be repeated,» he says. «But collective thinking is usually short-lived. We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction. Although who knows? Maybe this will be it, Katniss.»
«What?» I ask.
«The time it sticks. Maybe we are witnessing the evolution of the human race. Think about that.» And then he asks me if I’d like to perform on a new singing program he’s launching in a few weeks. Something upbeat would be good. He’ll send the crew to my house.
We land briefly in District 3 to drop off Plutarch. He’s meeting with Beetee to update the technology on the broadcast system. His parting words to me are «Don’t be a stranger.»
When we’re back among the clouds, I look at Haymitch. «So why are you going back to Twelve?»
«They can’t seem to find a place for me in the Capitol either,» he says.
At first, I don’t question this. But doubts begin to creep in. Haymitch hasn’t assassinated anyone. He could go anywhere. If he’s coming back to 12, it’s because he’s been ordered to. «You have to look after me, don’t you? As my mentor?» He shrugs. Then I realize what it means. «My mother’s not coming back.»
«No,» he says. He pulls an envelope from his jacket pocket and hands it to me. I examine the delicate, perfectly formed writing. «She’s helping to start up a hospital in District Four. She wants you to call as soon as we get in.» My finger traces the graceful swoop of the letters. «You know why she can’t come back.» Yes, I know why. Because between my father and Prim and the ashes, the place is too painful to bear. But apparently not for me. «Do you want to know who else won’t be there?»
«No,» I say. «I want to be surprised.»
Like a good mentor, Haymitch makes me eat a sandwich and then pretends he believes I’m asleep for the rest of the trip. He busies himself going through every compartment on the hovercraft, finding the liquor, and stowing it in his bag. It’s night when we land on the green of the Victor’s Village. Half of the houses have lights in the windows, including Haymitch’s and mine. Not Peeta’s. Someone has built a fire in my kitchen. I sit in the rocker before it, clutching my mother’s letter.
«Well, see you tomorrow,» says Haymitch.
As the clinking of his bag of liquor bottles fades away, I whisper, «I doubt it.»
I am unable to move from the chair. The rest of the house looms cold and empty and dark. I pull an old shawl over my body and watch the flames. I guess I sleep, because the next thing I know, it’s morning and Greasy Sae’s banging around at the stove. She makes me eggs and toast and sits there until I’ve eaten it all. We don’t talk much. Her little granddaughter, the one who lives in her own world, takes a bright blue ball of yarn from my mother’s knitting basket. Greasy Sae tells her to put it back, but I say she can have it. No one in this house can knit anymore. After breakfast, Greasy Sae does the dishes and leaves, but she comes back up at dinnertime to make me eat again. I don’t know if she’s just being neighborly or if she’s on the government’s payroll, but she shows up twice every day. She cooks, I consume. I try to figure out my next move. There’s no obstacle now to taking my life. But I seem to be waiting for something.
Sometimes the phone rings and rings and rings, but I don’t pick it up. Haymitch never visits. Maybe he changed his mind and left, although I suspect he’s just drunk. No one comes but Greasy Sae and her granddaughter. After months of solitary confinement, they seem like a crowd.
«Spring’s in the air today. You ought to get out,» she says. «Go hunting.»
I haven’t left the house. I haven’t even left the kitchen except to go to the small bathroom a few steps off of it. I’m in the same clothes I left the Capitol in. What I do is sit by the fire. Stare at the unopened letters piling up on the mantel. «I don’t have a bow.»
«Check down the hall,» she says.
After she leaves, I consider a trip down the hall. Rule it out. But after several hours, I go anyway, walking in silent sock feet, so as not to awaken the ghosts. In the study, where I had my tea with President Snow, I find a box with my father’s hunting jacket, our plant book, my parents’ wedding photo, the spile Haymitch sent in, and the locket Peeta gave me in the clock arena. The two bows and a sheath of arrows Gale rescued on the night of the firebombing lie on the desk. I put on the hunting jacket and leave the rest of the stuff untouched. I fall asleep on the sofa in the formal living room. A terrible nightmare follows, where I’m lying at the bottom of a deep grave, and every dead person I know by name comes by and throws a shovel full of ashes on me. It’s quite a long dream, considering the list of people, and the deeper I’m buried, the harder it is to breathe. I try to call out, begging them to stop, but the ashes fill my mouth and nose and I can’t make any sound. Still the shovel scrapes on and on and on….
I wake with a start. Pale morning light comes around the edges of the shutters. The scraping of the shovel continues. Still half in the nightmare, I run down the hall, out the front door, and around the side of the house, because now I’m pretty sure I can scream at the dead. When I see him, I pull up short. His face is flushed from digging up the ground under the windows. In a wheelbarrow are five scraggly bushes.
«You’re back,» I say.
«Dr. Aurelius wouldn’t let me leave the Capitol until yesterday,» Peeta says. «By the way, he said to tell you he can’t keep pretending he’s treating you forever. You have to pick up the phone.»
He looks well. Thin and covered with burn scars like me, but his eyes have lost that clouded, tortured look. He’s frowning slightly, though, as he takes me in. I make a halfhearted effort to push my hair out of my eyes and realize it’s matted into clumps. I feel defensive. «What are you doing?»
«I went to the woods this morning and dug these up. For her,» he says. «I thought we could plant them along the side of the house.»
I look at the bushes, the clods of dirt hanging from their roots, and catch my breath as the wordrose registers. I’m about to yell vicious things at Peeta when the full name comes to me. Not plain rose but evening primrose. The flower my sister was named for. I give Peeta a nod of assent and hurry back into the house, locking the door behind me. But the evil thing is inside, not out. Trembling with weakness and anxiety, I run up the stairs. My foot catches on the last step and I crash onto the floor. I force myself to rise and enter my room. The smell’s very faint but still laces the air. It’s there. The white rose among the dried flowers in the vase. Shriveled and fragile, but holding on to that unnatural perfection cultivated in Snow’s greenhouse. I grab the vase, stumble down to the kitchen, and throw its contents into the embers. As the flowers flare up, a burst of blue flame envelops the rose and devours it. Fire beats roses again. I smash the vase on the floor for good measure.
Back upstairs, I throw open the bedroom windows to clear out the rest of Snow’s stench. But it still lingers, on my clothes and in my pores. I strip, and flakes of skin the size of playing cards cling to the garments. Avoiding the mirror, I step into the shower and scrub the roses from my hair, my body, my mouth. Bright pink and tingling, I find something clean to wear. It takes half an hour to comb out my hair. Greasy Sae unlocks the front door. While she makes breakfast, I feed the clothes I had shed to the fire. At her suggestion, I pare off my nails with a knife.
Over the eggs, I ask her, «Where did Gale go?»
«District Two. Got some fancy job there. I see him now and again on the television,» she says.
I dig around inside myself, trying to register anger, hatred, longing. I find only relief.
«I’m going hunting today,» I say.
«Well, I wouldn’t mind some fresh game at that,» she answers.
I arm myself with a bow and arrows and head out, intending to exit 12 through the Meadow. Near the square are teams of masked and gloved people with horse-drawn carts. Sifting through what lay under the snow this winter. Gathering remains. A cart’s parked in front of the mayor’s house. I recognize Thom, Gale’s old crewmate, pausing a moment to wipe the sweat from his face with a rag. I remember seeing him in 13, but he must have come back. His greeting gives me the courage to ask, «Did they find anyone in there?»
«Whole family. And the two people who worked for them,» Thom tells me.
Madge. Quiet and kind and brave. The girl who gave me the pin that gave me a name. I swallow hard. Wonder if she’ll be joining the cast of my nightmares tonight. Shoveling the ashes into my mouth. «I thought maybe, since he was the mayor…»
«I don’t think being the mayor of Twelve put the odds in his favor,» says Thom.
I nod and keep moving, careful not to look in the back of the cart. All through the town and the Seam, it’s the same. The reaping of the dead. As I near the ruins of my old house, the road becomes thick with carts. The Meadow’s gone, or at least dramatically altered. A deep pit has been dug, and they’re lining it with bones, a mass grave for my people. I skirt around the hole and enter the woods at my usual place. It doesn’t matter, though. The fence isn’t charged anymore and has been propped up with long branches to keep out the predators. But old habits die hard. I think about going to the lake, but I’m so weak that I barely make it to my meeting place with Gale. I sit on the rock where Cressida filmed us, but it’s too wide without his body beside me. Several times I close my eyes and count to ten, thinking that when I open them, he will have materialized without a sound as he so often did. I have to remind myself that Gale’s in 2 with a fancy job, probably kissing another pair of lips.
It is the old Katniss’s favorite kind of day. Early spring. The woods awakening after the long winter. But the spurt of energy that began with the primroses fades away. By the time I make it back to the fence, I’m so sick and dizzy, Thom has to give me a ride home in the dead people’s cart. Help me to the sofa in the living room, where I watch the dust motes spin in the thin shafts of afternoon light.
My head snaps around at the hiss, but it takes awhile to believe he’s real. How could he have gotten here? I take in the claw marks from some wild animal, the back paw he holds slightly above the ground, the prominent bones in his face. He’s come on foot, then, all the way from 13. Maybe they kicked him out or maybe he just couldn’t stand it there without her, so he came looking.
«It was the waste of a trip. She’s not here,» I tell him. Buttercup hisses again. «She’s not here. You can hiss all you like. You won’t find Prim.» At her name, he perks up. Raises his flattened ears. Begins to meow hopefully. «Get out!» He dodges the pillow I throw at him. «Go away! There’s nothing left for you here!» I start to shake, furious with him. «She’s not coming back! She’s never ever coming back here again!» I grab another pillow and get to my feet to improve my aim. Out of nowhere, the tears begin to pour down my cheeks. «She’s dead.» I clutch my middle to dull the pain. Sink down on my heels, rocking the pillow, crying. «She’s dead, you stupid cat. She’s dead.» A new sound, part crying, part singing, comes out of my body, giving voice to my despair. Buttercup begins to wail as well. No matter what I do, he won’t go. He circles me, just out of reach, as wave after wave of sobs racks my body, until eventually I fall unconscious. But he must understand. He must know that the unthinkable has happened and to survive will require previously unthinkable acts. Because hours later, when I come to in my bed, he’s there in the moonlight. Crouched beside me, yellow eyes alert, guarding me from the night.
In the morning, he sits stoically as I clean the cuts, but digging the thorn from his paw brings on a round of those kitten mews. We both end up crying again, only this time we comfort each other. On the strength of this, I open the letter Haymitch gave me from my mother, dial the phone number, and weep with her as well. Peeta, bearing a warm loaf of bread, shows up with Greasy Sae. She makes us breakfast and I feed all my bacon to Buttercup.
Slowly, with many lost days, I come back to life. I try to follow Dr. Aurelius’s advice, just going through the motions, amazed when one finally has meaning again. I tell him my idea about the book, and a large box of parchment sheets arrives on the next train from the Capitol.
I got the idea from our family’s plant book. The place where we recorded those things you cannot trust to memory. The page begins with the person’s picture. A photo if we can find it. If not, a sketch or painting by Peeta. Then, in my most careful handwriting, come all the details it would be a crime to forget. Lady licking Prim’s cheek. My father’s laugh. Peeta’s father with the cookies. The color of Finnick’s eyes. What Cinna could do with a length of silk. Boggs reprogramming the Holo. Rue poised on her toes, arms slightly extended, like a bird about to take flight. On and on. We seal the pages with salt water and promises to live well to make their deaths count. Haymitch finally joins us, contributing twenty-three years of tributes he was forced to mentor. Additions become smaller. An old memory that surfaces. A late primrose preserved between the pages. Strange bits of happiness, like the photo of Finnick and Annie’s newborn son.
We learn to keep busy again. Peeta bakes. I hunt. Haymitch drinks until the liquor runs out, and then raises geese until the next train arrives. Fortunately, the geese can take pretty good care of themselves. We’re not alone. A few hundred others return because, whatever has happened, this is our home. With the mines closed, they plow the ashes into the earth and plant food. Machines from the Capitol break ground for a new factory where we will make medicines. Although no one seeds it, the Meadow turns green again.
Peeta and I grow back together. There are still moments when he clutches the back of a chair and hangs on until the flashbacks are over. I wake screaming from nightmares of mutts and lost children. But his arms are there to comfort me. And eventually his lips. On the night I feel that thing again, the hunger that overtook me on the beach, I know this would have happened anyway. That what I need to survive is not Gale’s fire, kindled with rage and hatred. I have plenty of fire myself. What I need is the dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction. The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it can be good again. And only Peeta can give me that.
So after, when he whispers, «You love me. Real or not real?»
I tell him, «Real.»