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HG: The End of the World, Chapter Seven - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
HG: The End of the World, Chapter Seven
Haymitch has just been reaped for the Quell.


Chapter Seven
They march us into the Justice Building and put all of us in different rooms. There will be an hour to say goodbyes -- we'll get three twenty minute visits. I'm sure Mom and Lacklen will be one, and Digger will be another (I hope she won't come at the same time). I don't know who the third will be. Maybe I'll just be sitting around staring out a window while the others say goodbye to people.

The Peacekeepers escorting us are grumbling because no one thought to arrange for extra rooms before the reaping. The girls are given the usual two, or what the Peacekeepers say are the usual two. I've never actually had to say goodbye to a tribute before. Maysilee goes into a rich looking room with velvet curtains, and Gilla is given the smoking lounge. Beech and I are taken upstairs, where the Peacekeepers hunt for unlocked doors. The building is old and dank, and it's cold after weeks of rain, even though it's reasonably warm outside. They finally put Beech into what looks like someone's private study, and, bizarrely, stick me in the middle of the formal dining room, the place where fancy out-of-district visitors are wined and dined. It's certainly not a place I ever expected to be. Judging by the cobwebs on the upturned chairs, not many other people have been here lately, either.

A maid runs in and puts down a plate of bread, then lights a fire to take the damp chill out of the room. She turns and gives me a commiserating smile, then leaves, closing the door behind her. I wander around, looking out the windows, and take a piece of the bread to nibble on, even though I'm pretty sure it's going to come back up.

The strange thing is, I'm afraid, but not in any way I recognize. I've been afraid before. It usually makes me queasy and jumpy, and gives me a headache. Right now, I just feel cold, like I've been packed in ice. The lines of the room, even the draped cobwebs, seem too sharp, too harsh on my eyes. I swear I can actually hear the footsteps of the spider scurrying along the ceiling.

The door bursts open five minutes after it's shut, and Digger runs in. She throws her arms around me and kisses me. "Haymitch! No, now what?"

I pull away from her as gently as I can. I seem to be seeing every hair on her head, recording it carefully. Time seems to be moving in tiny, photographic flashes. The pale gray of her eyes. A couple of eyelashes that are crossed over each other. The way her hair curls under where it falls at her shoulders. Her voice seems to echo. "We figure it out," I say. "Is Mom on the way?"

She nods. "She and Lacklen are coming last. I think she wanted to get the very last second with you. She told me to run ahead so we didn't miss any time." She closes the distance between us again, puts her hands on my face. She's crying. "I wish I hadn't taken the tea. I wish --"

I shake my head. "Digger, that wouldn't be a good idea, even if --"

"I'd have something!"

I want to tell her that it's a terrible thought, but she's crying and miserable, and I just hold her instead.

She calms down finally and pulls away, wiping her face brutally. "I thought I'd go. I never thought they'd take you. Not really, not deep down."

"I didn't think so, either."

She presses her hands against her face and takes two huge, gulping breaths. She lowers her hands to her waist and pulls on the thin drawstring around the waist of her dress. It comes free, leaving the dress hanging loose around her, clinging to the sharp bones of her hips. The shadows it makes seem very clear. She presses the string into my hand. "Take this with you," she says. "They let you have one thing. Take it. It's indigo. Glad they made me wear it."

I take it. "The thread," I say. "Like in the story."

"I'm no princess."

"Well, I'm not a prince, so that works." I fold the string carefully and put it in my pocket. I'll have find some way to wear it in the arena. "Digger, will you stay with Mom until… until the end?"

"Of course I will. I love your mom."

"And when Lacklen goes to the Home, will you make sure he's okay?"

"You come home, and you can make sure of it yourself."

"I'm going to try, but if I don't, I need to know."

"I'll take care of him," she says, looking away. "What am I going to do?"

I put my hand on her shoulder and wait for her to look up. "I have to say something to you. I don't want to. But I want you to hear it. So that if you're sitting there sometime next year thinking what I want, you know it."

"Haymitch --"

"If you have a chance at a good life, you jump at it. I don't want you wasting one second worrying about whether I'd be okay with it. I'm telling you right now. You be happy. If you meet someone, you go off, and be happy. Do you hear me?"

"I want to be happy with you."

"I do, too, and if I come back, we'll make a go of it. Bet we could make it work, too. But you know there's only one coming back. It's pretty likely to not be me."

"You're smarter than any of them."

"And I'll use that for all it's worth. I promise. But you need to promise me what I asked for. That you'll move on and be happy if I don't come back."

She pulls away and crosses her arms over her chest. "Fine, yes. I'll just forget all about you."

"I didn't say that. Maybe -- maybe you could have a boy baby someday and name him after me or something. I'd like that, I think."

She stares at the floor and says, "Yeah. Sure. I'll do that. I will."

"Will you make the promise I asked you for?"

She sighs, then goes to the table where the bread bowl is. She takes a piece of it and goes to the fireplace. "Come here," she says.

I don't pretend not to know what she's doing. I crouch down beside her. "This is nuts, Digger. We're too young. They won't recognize it."

"I'll recognize it." She holds the bread out toward the fire with her hand. It's not the proper way to do it. We don't have tongs or anything.

I take the bread back.

Break it in half.

Give half back to her and hold out mine to the fire.

We don't say anything as the bread gets as toasted as it can, this far from the fire, held only in our hands. After a while, she pulls her piece back and hands it to me. I hand mine to her.

She nods solemnly. "Now, I'll promise. As long as you know… I'm never going to forget you."

"I know," I whisper, and kiss her.

The door opens and Peacekeepers come in to tell her that our time is over. They lead her away.

"I love you!" she calls.

The door closes between us.

I don't eat the toast. I wrap it up in the string she gave me, and put it in my pocket. I'm not sure I can really process what just happened. My mind is somewhere else entirely. I want to turn it over again in my head, try to understand it, but I don't have time. There are more goodbyes to say.

I know Mom wants to come in the last visitor slot, so I'm surprised when the door opens again almost right away. I'm even more surprised that it's Danny.

"Hey," he says.

"Hey."

"I hope you don't mind. Your mom said --"

"I know, she's coming last. Digger told me." I raise my eyebrows. "What do you do -- wait around every year to see if someone needs a visitor?"

"Someone should," he says. "But no. I just… we've been friends a long time. I can't help thinking that we got you into this. Me and Ruth and Kaydi and Maysilee…"

I shake my head. "Maybe Maysilee is in it because of that, but I think I just got the bad luck of the draw. I doubt the Capitol cares one way or another if I'm dead or alive."

"I imagine they'll care by the time you're done with them."

"Yeah. Maybe."

He takes a deep breath. "I just wanted to tell you -- after the train leaves, I'll hunt up Everdeen like he said, and we'll get your mom back home, so Lacklen doesn’t have to worry about it."

"Thanks."

"And Ruth will make sure she's got everything she needs, as far as medicine. At least everything she needs that we can get for her." He bites his lip. "Ruth was going to come, but she's kind of broken about Maysilee. She's like another sister, you know? But she'll help take care of your mom. She promises."

"That's nice of her." I look out the window. "Danny, you know my journal?" I raise my eyebrows, and I hope he's smart enough figure out that we're being watched and I can't exactly say that the notes from our meetings are in it. He nods. "Why don't you take it? It's wrapped up in plastic in the front closet."

"I… thank you."

"And if you ever find out what that crazy girl was talking about that time" -- I hope he remembers talking about the nukes and District Thirteen -- "then you write the answer in the journal, and it'll be like you're telling me. And I kind of want to know."

He forces a smile. "I knew your curiosity would get the better of you." He nods. "Well, I'll get that, then. And, um… I'll leave alone to get ready for your mom."

He backs toward the door, looking unsure. Danny's usually good with words, but when things are bad, they have a tendency to dry up on him. "I…" He turns to open the door.

"Danny?" I call.

He turns.

I try to think of what I want to say. That I'm glad he came to see me off. That it meant something to have one person around who treated me like a human being instead of a curiosity in class. That he's a decent guy, but he really needs to re-think who he trusts sometimes. That he needs to be careful carrying Mom's chair, because there's a crack in the branch Lacklen and I attached.

I say, "Goodbye."

He nods. His voice is very low when he says, "Goodbye, Haymitch." He turns and lets himself out.

I take one of the upturned chairs down from the table and sit by the fire. It already seems some other life when Digger and I knelt here, even though the toast is still warm and crumbling in my pocket. Everything seems to be a different life. The suits laid out on Mom's bed. Her promise to teach me to sew. The woods by the lake and the smell of Digger's skin. I can't remember it. I'm sure I'd recognize it, but if I try to bring it to mind, it's gone.

I stare at the flames for a long time, watching the way they change their shapes as they climb. They move like water, flowing upward instead of down, breaking into drops and sparks that race each other up into the darkness. I feel like I can see colors I've never seen before, hear the tiny sounds of the wood breaking up inside.

I wonder if it's like this for the others. If suddenly everything seems too clear, too vivid to be lost.

Some cold part my brain says that they don't -- and that this is an advantage. That my fear is manifesting itself as awareness instead of paralysis.

That I can use this to win.

I shake it off. Probably everyone has this experience. And they probably all think it will help them win, and that gets them killed the second they step off their platforms, sure they're seeing things that no one else is, that they have almost magical powers of perception. I can't afford fantasies right now. I can't afford anything right now.

Some amount of time later -- it could be five minutes, it could be five days -- I hear footsteps on the far side of the door.

The latch clicks open. My mother and brother come in. Mom is not crying. She's gathered herself up, found the same steel she had when Daddy died. I can tell she was crying earlier, but now, she is square-shouldered and stern. I take my cue from her and stand up straight.

Lacklen is wide-eyed and shaking, and I get up to get chairs for them both. We get Mom settled, then Lacklen sits down.

"They can't make you go," Lacklen says.

"They can," I say. "And they will. You're going be okay, though." I look at Mom. "Danny Mellark is going get you home."

She shakes her head. "I'll talk to him and thank him. But Sae invited us to stay at the Community Home until… until the Games are over. I think I can make the walk, though I'd be obliged if he brings my chair." She takes a deep, painful sounding breath, then reaches out and grabs both of my hands. "Haymitch, for a year and half you've been telling me to live, no matter what the odds say. Now it's my turn. You live. Do you hear me? You live. You come home. I need you to live."

"If I will, will you?"

"I'll try. You have my word."

I nod. "Then you have mine."

She presses my hands to her face. Her skin is hot and dry, and I think she's running a fever. I kneel down in front of her, and put my head on her knee, the way I used to when I was small. She combs my hair with her bony fingers. I feel Lacklen get down beside me, and I throw my arm around him. The world is a warm, safe place for one last moment.

It ends.

Mom puts her finger under my chin to get me to look up. "Those other children will have trained with weapons. They'll have skills you don't have. But there are things you know that they don't."

"Yeah. Sure."

"You say that like you don't believe me."

"I believe you, Mom."

"You know how to think. You know better than to throw things away -- and I don't just mean things. Haymitch, whatever comes into your mind comes into it for a reason. Don't throw it away. You're trying to tell yourself something you can use. Pay attention. Use whatever your mind gives you."

"Okay."

"Daddy and I didn't fight for you to take your fancy classes just to be decorative."

"Right. I'm sure a good story will be a lot of use in the arena."

"A lot of stories have good answers in them." She stops talking, and I can tell she's fighting not to cough. I don't interrupt her. After a minute, she says, "And it's not just that. You're in a story now. What kind is going to be?"

I have a feeling it's not going to be the kind with a happy ending, but I don't say it.

"Odysseus," Lacklen says. "Remember. He makes it home."

"Right. Odysseus."

"You could do worse." Lacklen tries to smile, but it comes out all wrong. "You didn't find the way out of my trap with the dressers. You have to break out of things. Don't let anyone pin you down. Don't let--"

He starts to hyperventilate, and I get up to put my arms around him and hold on as tight as I can. "You need to be tough," I tell him. "I'm going to be, too. But I'll especially need your help if any reporters come here. Can you be tough with them? Act like you're sure I'll be home any minute?"

"I -- "

"Come on, I'd do it for you."

He nods. "I can do it."

"So no tears. No shaking. This is just the way things are. Like when people in school get on your case about wearing Mom's boots. You just shrug it off. No matter what you see."

"Are you going to kill people?"

"If I'm coming back, I'll probably have to."

"And if you do," Mom says, "then it's because of the Games. It's not because of you."

"We'll see how far I can get without doing it. I won't go hunting anyone. That seems like a good way to get killed, anyway."

"See?" Mom finds a smile somewhere. "You're doing it. You're thinking your way through it. You can do this."

She starts to cough now, and her carefully maintained composure breaks. She hunches over in the chair, her hands clasped behind her neck, coughing and weeping.

I wrap my arms around her. "It's okay, Mom. It's okay. You said it -- I can think through it. I can do it. I'll come back. I will come back. You just be here when I do. You have to be here, okay? I'll come back, and there'll be money, and… and I'll find someone in the Capitol who knows how to fix your lungs…"

She gropes for my hand, and I give it to her. She kisses it. "Don't distract yourself worrying about me. I'll have people taking care of me. Good people." She stops and coughs, and a spot of blood flies up onto my shirt. "I'm sorry, they can clean that on the train, I'm sure, it's just cotton…"

"They're not cleaning anything." I kiss her head. "I don't want to leave you, Mom."

"I know. And I don't want you to leave. That's why the do this to us every year. Because neither of us has a choice."

"Digger will be with you. She promised to stay with you."

"I know."

I don't know what to say. The clock says we still have ten minutes -- too long to fill with these pointless promises. Not long enough to do anything that needs to be done, or figure out how to say all of the things that there aren't words for.

I sit down at her feet again, holding her hand, my other arm around my little brother. "Tell me about when you and Dad were going to run away. What would it have been like?"

And so I spend the last ten minutes with my family, listening to my mother spin her last story -- about how my dad was so clever, and they were so young and strong, and they wanted to escape to a new, empty world outside, where we would live in the sunshine and read and be happy. We would run in the meadows, where there were butterflies and flowers by the thousands in the summertime. There would always be enough to eat, and somehow, we would bring our friends out with us.

It's a pretty story, a childish daydream that I want to believe in. I can't quite do it, but I imagine it for Mom, imagine her healthy and happy, with Dad still whole and sober at her side. Somewhere, beyond the edge of the world, in a myth garden like Eden or the Elysian Fields from the books I've read. I ask her questions so I have it in my head completely.

The maid who lit the fire opens the door and whispers, "Two minutes, Mrs. Abernathy." She ducks back out.

"Two minutes," Mom says. "How can we say anything in two minutes?"

"Maybe we don't need to."

Whether we need to or not, we don't say anything. The three of us just hold on to each other tightly until the Peacekeepers come. Mom has pulled herself together again, and Lacklen is doing his best to be as tough as he promised to be.

She stops at the door and turns to me. "Live, Haymitch."

I nod. "You, too."

With that, the Peacekeepers tug both of them away and slam the door.

I'm not alone for long. Pelagia Pepper appears a few minutes later, smiling brightly. The others are already in tow, not smiling at all. Maysilee has lost her angry glare, and now just looks distant. Beech and Gilla are holding onto each other and crying.

"It's time to go!" Pelagia announces. That strange sense of seeing too much comes again. I feel like I'm the only one who can see the sweat on her lip, or hear the slight warble in her voice. I guess when the little kids are crying, it's a little harder to pretend you're taking them on a great adventure.

She leads us outside to a waiting car. In other years, I've always thought it was stupid that they took people to the train depot in a car, but now I understand. I don't think I'd have the strength to walk through the solemn crowd that's gathered, as always, along the route. I don't see my family or Digger, I guess the families must be taken away somewhere, so the cameras don't catch them mourning.

When we reach the station, there are cameras everywhere. I'm glad Ruth pulled up the plants on the grave, because the cameras are perched quite high enough to see between the trees. I see Maysilee looking in that direction, too,

Gilla has stopped crying, and Beech is getting a handle on it as well, which is good, since criers will end up being ridiculed on the talk show circuit tonight. Not Caesar Flickerman, who finds something nice to say about all the tributes, but he's not the only person who'll be talking about the Games. Gossip shows, late night comics, anyone with a stage and a camera. Last year, the boy from Nine cried, and two days into the training period, someone had already come out with a mocking doll that spewed gushers of water out of its eyes. It was marketed right up until he died in tenth place. Comics continued to use it in sketches, and it was a standing joke that District Nine was about to flood.

They take video of us.. Everyone in Panem will see my mother's blood on my shirt. They will see the glint of Maysilee's pin. They'll see tiny Gilla, and big, lumbering Beech, who is doing slightly worse than the rest of us on controlling his fear.

Pelagia leads us into the train, into a compartment much more luxurious than the Justice Building we just left. She sits us down and asks if we need anything. No one can think of anything to ask for.

"Well," she says, still forcing a cheerful smile, "you be glad to know that you've been assigned a mentor from District Two -- Albinus Drake, who won the Games only six years ago. He knows the Games very well, and he'll be all yours!"

"Won't he want a District Two win?" Gilla asks.

"Of course not. He'll be your mentor."

No one seems any more reassured by this than I am. He may not actually be rooting for another district, but I doubt he'll care much about ours.

Pelagia looks down, apparently seeing that we don't really believe her. "Well… we have a long trip. We'll get you something to eat, then you should all get some sleep. You'll have a long few days ahead of you."
15 comments or Leave a comment
Comments
vesta_aurelia From: vesta_aurelia Date: August 7th, 2013 12:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
I like how you made Dannel Mellark into the kind of man who would have raised Peeta Mellark--and the echoing of him being the second visitor. It adds layers to the story.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 7th, 2013 07:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
I wanted to echo them a little bit. I think Peeta mostly got his personality and kindness from his dad, but maybe with that extra bit of needed hardness from time to time from his mom.
redrikki From: redrikki Date: August 7th, 2013 01:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
The toasting and the bit about finding happiness and naming a baby after him. You really don't pull any punches do you? Also, nice call forward or foreshadowing or whatever it's called in a prequel.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 7th, 2013 07:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't know what to call that, either.

I think in later years, Haymitch tried to downplay his relationship to himself (can't really blame him, given the nightmares he must get). But I really wanted to have it be the life he could have had.
jedinic From: jedinic Date: August 7th, 2013 04:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
Heartbreaking.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 7th, 2013 07:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thanks.
From: (Anonymous) Date: August 7th, 2013 06:01 pm (UTC) (Link)

I Haven't Been...

Commenting much so far with this story, but I have been reading, and it has been amazing and impressive, just like all your other fics.

I second the comments about Haymitch and Digger's farewells. Their toasting kind of blew my mind. It adds serious layers to what's going to happen when Haymitch gets back. Did the tea work?

As always, looking forward to seeing how this all plays out.

Sara Libby
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 7th, 2013 07:26 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: I Haven't Been...

The tea works -- whether that's fortunate or unfortunate, I don't know.
From: (Anonymous) Date: August 7th, 2013 07:34 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: I Haven't Been...

Considering what happens to Digger in the end, I'm glad that in your mind, the tea did work. Because otherwise I think Haymitch would have just run at the fence himself.

Sara Libby
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 7th, 2013 10:00 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: I Haven't Been...

Although she might have been more careful, too.
sonetka From: sonetka Date: August 7th, 2013 08:40 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: I Haven't Been...

In this context, I'd vote for fortunate, as in the best of a series of horrible options. Not to mention that considering how thin Digger is, there's every chance that there wasn't anything there for the tea to work *on*, so to speak.

Great chapter again, Fern -- I really liked the detail about how they hadn't thought about getting two extra rooms for the extra farewell visits. I can just see some petty functionary having that last-minute panic over it.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 7th, 2013 10:00 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: I Haven't Been...

That's probably true (about how skinny she is). Malnutrition is a pretty effective contraceptive.
From: (Anonymous) Date: August 9th, 2013 03:20 am (UTC) (Link)
I really want to get to know Maysilee now, I'd love to see the Reaping from her POV.
Next challenge call...?
From: (Anonymous) Date: August 9th, 2013 07:07 am (UTC) (Link)
Just brilliant. I can't wait to read more
mollywheezy From: mollywheezy Date: September 5th, 2013 06:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
OK, this chapter totally made me cry. When I was sick and thought I might die, I said the same things to my husband that Haymitch says to Digger. *hugs them both*
15 comments or Leave a comment