Part #3 of Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins
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 "--be ever 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
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.
The scream begins in my lower back and works its way up through my body only to jam in my throat. I am Avox mute, choking on my grief. Even if I could release the muscles in my neck, let the sound tear into space, would anyone notice it? The room's in an uproar. Questions and demands ring out as they try to decipher Peeta's words. "And you...in Thirteen...dead by morning!" Yet no one is asking about the messenger whose blood has been replaced by static.
A voice calls the others to attention. "Shut up!" Every pair of eyes falls on Haymitch. "It's not some big mystery! The boy's telling us we're about to be attacked. Here. In Thirteen."
"How would he have that information?"
"Why should we trust him?"
"How do you know?"
Haymitch gives a growl of frustration. "They're beating him bloody while we speak. What more do you need? Katniss, help me out here!"
I have to give myself a shake to free my words. "Haymitch's right. I don't know where Peeta got the information. Or if it's true. But he believes it is. And they're--" I can't say aloud what Snow's doing to him.
"You don't know him," Haymitch says to Coin. "We do. Get your people ready."
The president doesn't seem alarmed, only somewhat perplexed, by this turn in events. She mulls over the words, tapping one finger lightly on the rim of the control board in front of her. When she speaks, she addresses Haymitch in an even voice. "Of course, we have prepared for such a scenario. Although we have decades of support for the assumption that further direct attacks on Thirteen would be counterproductive to the Capitol's cause. Nuclear missiles would release radiation into the atmosphere, with incalculable environmental results. Even routine bombing could badly damage our military compound, which we know they hope to regain. And, of course, they invite a counterstrike. It is conceivable that, given our current alliance with the rebels, those would be viewed as acceptable risks."
"You think so?" says Haymitch. It's a shade too sincere, but the subtleties of irony are often wasted in 13.
"I do. At any rate, we're overdue for a Level Five security drill," says Coin. "Let's proceed with the lockdown." She begins to type rapidly on her keyboard, authorizing her decision. The moment she raises her head, it begins.
There have been two low-level drills since I arrived in 13. I don't remember much about the first. I was in intensive care in the hospital and I think the patients were exempted, as the complications of removing us for a practice drill outweighed the benefits. I was vaguely aware of a mechanical voice instructing people to congregate in yellow zones. During the second, a Level Two drill meant for minor crises--such as a temporary quarantine while citizens were tested for contagion during a flu outbreak--we were supposed to return to our living quarters. I stayed behind a pipe in the laundry room, ignored the pulsating beeps coming over the audio system, and watched a spider construct a web. Neither experience has prepared me for the wordless, eardrum-piercing, fear-inducing sirens that now permeate 13. There would be no disregarding this sound, which seems designed to throw the whole population into a frenzy. But this is 13 and that doesn't happen.
Boggs guides Finnick and me out of Command, along the hall to a doorway, and onto a wide stairway. Streams of people are converging to form a river that flows only downward. No one shrieks or tries to push ahead. Even the children don't resist. We descend, flight after flight, speechless, because no word could be heard above this sound. I look for my mother and Prim, but it's impossible to see anyone but those immediately around me. They're both working in the hospital tonight, though, so there's no way they can miss the drill.
My ears pop and my eyes feel heavy. We are coal-mine deep. The only plus is that the farther we retreat into the earth, the less shrill the sirens become. It's as if they were meant to physically drive us away from the surface, which I suppose they are. Groups of people begin to peel off into marked doorways and still Boggs directs me downward, until finally the stairs end at the edge of an enormous cavern. I start to walk straight in and Boggs stops me, shows me that I must wave my schedule in front of a scanner so that I'm accounted for. No doubt the information's going to some computer somewhere to make sure no one's gone astray.
The place seems unable to decide if it's natural or man-made. Certain areas of the walls are stone, while steel beams and concrete heavily reinforce others. Sleeping bunks are hewn right into the rock walls. There's a kitchen, bathrooms, a first-aid station. This place was designed for an extended stay.
White signs with letters or numbers are placed at intervals around the cavern. As Boggs tells Finnick and me to report to the area that matches our assigned quarters--in my case E for Compartment E--Plutarch strolls up. "Ah, here you are," he says. Recent events have had little effect on Plutarch's mood. He still has a happy glow from Beetee's success on the Airtime Assault. Eyes on the forest, not on the trees. Not on Peeta's punishment or 13's imminent blasting. "Katniss, obviously this is a bad moment for you, what with Peeta's setback, but you need to be aware that others will be watching you."
"What?" I say. I can't believe he actually just downgraded Peeta's dire circumstances to a setback.
"The other people in the bunker, they'll be taking their cue on how to react from you. If you're calm and brave, others will try to be as well. If you panic, it could spread like wildfire," explains Plutarch. I just stare at him. "Fire is catching, so to speak," he continues, as if I'm being slow on the uptake.
"Why don't I just pretend I'm on camera, Plutarch?" I say.
"Yes! Perfect. One is always much braver with an audience," he says. "Look at the courage Peeta just displayed!"
It's all I can do not to slap him.
"I've got to get back to Coin before lockdown. You keep up the good work!" he says, and then heads off.
I cross to the big letter E posted on the wall. Our space consists of a twelve-by-twelve-foot square of stone floor delineated by painted lines. Carved into the wall are two bunks--one of us will be sleeping on the floor--and a ground-level cube space for storage. A piece of white paper, coated in clear plastic, reads BUNKER PROTOCOL. I stare fixedly at the little black specks on the sheet. For a while, they're obscured by the residual blood droplets that I can't seem to wipe from my vision. Slowly, the words come into focus. The first section is entitled "On Arrival."
1. Make sure all members of your Compartment are accounted for.
My mother and Prim haven't arrived, but I was one of the first people to reach the bunker. Both of them are probably helping to relocate hospital patients.
2. Go to the Supply Station and secure one pack for each member of your Compartment. Ready your Living Area. Return pack(s).
I scan the cavern until I locate the Supply Station, a deep room set off by a counter. People wait behind it, but there's not a lot of activity there yet. I walk over, give our compartment letter, and request three packs. A man checks a sheet, pulls the specified packs from shelving, and swings them up onto the counter. After sliding one on my back and getting a grip on the other two with my hands, I turn to find a group rapidly forming behind me.
Back at our space, I open one of the packs to find a thin mattress, bedding, two sets of gray clothing, a toothbrush, a comb, and a flashlight. On examining the contents of the other packs, I find the only discernible difference is that they contain both gray and white outfits. The latter will be for my mother and Prim, in case they have medical duties. After I make up the beds, store the clothes, and return the backpacks, I've got nothing to do but observe the last rule.
3. Await further instructions.
I sit cross-legged on the floor to await. A steady flow of people begins to fill the room, claiming spaces, collecting supplies. It won't take long until the place is full up. I wonder if my mother and Prim are going to stay the night at wherever the hospital patients have been taken. But, no, I don't think so. They were on the list here. I'm starting to get anxious, when my mother appears. I look behind her into a sea of strangers. "Where's Prim?" I ask.
"Isn't she here?" she replies. "She was supposed to come straight down from the hospital. She left ten minutes before I did. Where is she? Where could she have gone?"
I squeeze my lids shut tight for a moment, to track her as I would prey on a hunt. See her react to the sirens, rush to help the patients, nod as they gesture for her to descend to the bunker, and then hesitate with her on the stairs. Torn for a moment. But why?
My eyes fly open. "The cat! She went back for him!"
"Oh, no," my mother says. We both know I'm right. We're pushing against the incoming tide, trying to get out of the bunker. Up ahead, I can see them preparing to shut the thick metal doors. Slowly rotating the metal wheels on either side inward. Somehow I know that once they have been sealed, nothing in the world will convince the soldiers to open them. Perhaps it will even be beyond their control. I'm indiscriminately shoving people aside as I shout for them to wait. The space between the doors shrinks to a yard, a foot; there are only a few inches left when I jam my hand through the crack.
"Open it! Let me out!" I cry.
Consternation shows on the soldiers' faces as they reverse the wheels a bit. Not enough to let me pass, but enough to avoid crushing my fingers. I take the opportunity to wedge my shoulder into the opening. "Prim!" I holler up the stairs. My mother pleads with the guards as I try to wriggle my way out. "Prim!"
Then I hear it. The faint sound of footsteps on the stairs. "We're coming!" I hear my sister call.
"Hold the door!" That was Gale.
"They're coming!" I tell the guards, and they slide the doors open about a foot. But I don't dare move--afraid they'll lock us all out--until Prim appears, her cheeks flushed with running, hauling Buttercup. I pull her inside and Gale follows, twisting an armload of baggage sideways to get it into the bunker. The doors are closed with a loud and final clank.
"What were you thinking?" I give Prim an angry shake and then hug her, squashing Buttercup between us.
Prim's explanation is already on her lips. "I couldn't leave him behind, Katniss. Not twice. You should have seen him pacing the room and howling. He'd come back to protect us."
"Okay. Okay." I take a few breaths to calm myself, step back, and lift Buttercup by the scruff of the neck. "I should've drowned you when I had the chance." His ears flatten and he raises a paw. I hiss before he gets a chance, which seems to annoy him a little, since he considers hissing his own personal sound of contempt. In retaliation, he gives a helpless kitten mew that brings my sister immediately to his defense.
"Oh, Katniss, don't tease him," she says, folding him back in her arms. "He's already so upset."
The idea that I've wounded the brute's tiny cat feelings just invites further taunting. But Prim's genuinely distressed for him. So instead, I visualize Buttercup's fur lining a pair of gloves, an image that has helped me deal with him over the years. "Okay, sorry. We're under the big E on the wall. Better get him settled in before he loses it." Prim hurries off, and I find myself face-to-face with Gale. He's holding the box of medical supplies from our kitchen in 12. Site of our last conversation, kiss, fallout, whatever. My game bag's slung across his shoulder.
"If Peeta's right, these didn't stand a chance," he says.
Peeta. Blood like raindrops on the window. Like wet mud on boots.
"Thanks for...everything." I take our stuff. "What were you doing up in our rooms?"
"Just double-checking," he says. "We're in Forty-Seven if you need me."
Practically everyone withdrew to their spaces when the doors shut, so I get to cross to our new home with at least five hundred people watching me. I try to appear extra calm to make up for my frantic crashing through the crowd. Like that's fooling anyone. So much for setting an example. Oh, who cares? They all think I'm nuts anyway. One man, who I think I knocked to the floor, catches my eye and rubs his elbow resentfully. I almost hiss at him, too.
Prim has Buttercup installed on the lower bunk, draped in a blanket so that only his face pokes out. This is how he likes to be when there's thunder, the one thing that actually frightens him. My mother puts her box carefully in the cube. I crouch, my back supported by the wall, to check what Gale managed to rescue in my hunting bag. The plant book, the hunting jacket, my parents' wedding photo, and the personal contents of my drawer. My mockingjay pin now lives with Cinna's outfit, but there's the gold locket and the silver parachute with the spile and Peeta's pearl. I knot the pearl into the corner of the parachute, bury it deep in the recesses of the bag, as if it's Peeta's life and no one can take it away as long as I guard it.
The faint sound of the sirens cuts off sharply. Coin's voice comes over the district audio system, thanking us all for an exemplary evacuation of the upper levels. She stresses that this is not a drill, as Peeta Mellark, the District 12 victor, has possibly made a televised reference to an attack on 13 tonight.
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins / Young Adult / Actions & Adventure have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on149 votes