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The Big Empty: Chapter Five - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
The Big Empty: Chapter Five
As the kids are making their way toward a new road, they come across the ruins of a town, where they spot a camp of out-district raiders. Outsmarting themselves a little bit, they decide to spy it out, and maybe steal some ammunition, since the raiders carry the same kind of gun Effrim has. Unfortunately, the get caught. Effrim is pistol-whipped, and goes unconscious.

Chapter Five
I dream about my father.

It's the week before he and Aunt Daisy shipped out, and we're in Aunt Daisy's house. We've been here for three months, since Uncle Chick shipped out. There've been a few "temper tantrums," as Daddy calls them, out at the resort -- nothing like the riots that would eventually burn it to the ground, along with several other merchant businesses, but enough to bother him -- and he thought I'd be safer in town. He and Aunt Daisy also reckoned that they could help each other out with us kids.

They're in the back yard, and they don't know that I'm playing in my "fort" under the platform porch. I have a horrible headache for some reason, but I can't think why.

I hear the door slam open, and Daddy's footfalls knock dirt down between the slats. He doesn’t lose his temper often, and I'm already scared.

"Calm down, Dale," Aunt Daisy says.

"The hell I'll calm down. Community Home!" Something goes flying over the edge of the porch. "We're building it up brick by brick, to 'help the poor.' Maybe get someplace where they can live that's not an illegal squat at the slag heap. It's an orphanage, Daisy. We built it so they can send us away from our kids."

"You knew it was coming. You knew we'd need to fight. You agreed to fight."

"I didn't agree to leave my boy in the care of strangers. I reckoned they'd leave either you or Chick here, or that he could stay with Colum, or Colum's wife. Whoever didn't go. It's not right to send away whole families! They have a plan here. I don't know what it is, but I don't like what I see of it."

"You're being paranoid." Aunt Daisy's softer footfalls cross over to just above me. "It can't last long if everyone's fighting. With the whole country ranged against them, the Capitol will fall in a few months."

"More than a third of the country's population is in the Capitol," Daddy says. "And they fight like cats. You know it."

"Pampered, spoiled housecats, maybe."

"Don't you go into this thinking that way."

"They leaned on District Two to do their fighting for them."

"Leaned, yes. Depended, no." The floorboards creak, and Daddy's feet dangle down over the edge of the porch as he sits. "If they were dependent on Two, they'd have fallen when Two left. The Capitol's like a man who was using a cane to convince people he couldn't walk. So we lured him into a dark alley and took the cane -- and found out he could walk and fight just fine, and just wanted a good excuse to start hitting us. We've been taking a beating. That's why they're calling in more soldiers." He snorts. "I mean, haven't you noticed how often they say that the Capitol can't last more than another couple of months? They say it… oh, I don't know. Every couple of months, on an estimate. It's always the next campaign that's going to be a sure thing."

I try to move, to let them know I'm here, but I can't. Bright light pierces my eyes, then I fall into the shadows again, and it's earlier, and we're at the lake. I've fallen down from the roof of the tool shed, and I'm crying. My mother can't come anymore. She's gone. But Daddy is out there somewhere, and I know he'll come to me, and he does, and…

The first thing I'm aware of as I start to wake up is the cool cloth on my face. I think I have fallen from a high place, and someone has taken a handful of leaves and soaked them in the lake, brought it over to cool me down. It can't really be Daddy. Daddy has been gone for a long time. Maybe it's Peet. Maybe he's got some herbs in the leaves, and he's treating a cut.

But I don't smell any herbs.

There's something stronger, more jarring, filling up my head. It's a high stink. I blink and I see someplace dingy and dirty. There's another boy here.

My eyes open.

I'm in a tent in the raiders' camp.

The boy I saw earlier, the one tending the horses, is sitting beside me, holding a cloth to my cheek and also holding something under my nose that I can't see. "What…?" I say.

"Smelling salts," he says. "They wanted you up and about. You've been out for forty minutes. I think mostly to make sure they didn't kill you." He looks at me for a while, then says, "I'm Spicer. Spicer James."

"Effrim Everdeen."

"I know. Your friend Misty said it."

"Where are the girls?"

"They're all right for now. The raiders mostly keep the girls pretty cleaned up. But" -- he looks over his shoulder -- "they better get out of here before the caravan gets near the Capitol. There's a man out there that Trajan does business with."

I start to ask what kind of business, but I don't need to. We're going to have to escape. "They're all right now, though?"

Spicer nods. "There are two women in the camp. They're getting them cleaned up smart." I try to sit up, but he holds me down gently. "Hey, you watch out. I don't think they broke anything in your head. I felt it where they hit you, and nothing was soft and you didn't cry out, and you weren't bleeding. But you're going to have a big bruise on your cheek. And you did faint -- at least I think you just fainted -- so it must have hurt pretty bad."

"It did."

"Here, let me check your eyes. See if you got any blood in them." He reaches down and pulls up a bright flashlight. Before I have a chance to prepare myself, he shines it straight at me. It stays there for a second, then he says, "Pupils are the same, and I don't see any blood."

"What are you, a doctor?"

"No. But sometimes horses kick people, and my mama taught me how to check if someone's hurt really bad."

"Horses… you're from District Ten?"

"Yeah. There was a battle. My parents…"

"Oh. I'm sorry."

"It was three years ago. I…" He trails off. "They found me in the barn. The raiders. They like to go to battle sites to see if there's anything to take off the dead. I usually go with them now. They'll probably have you doing that, too."

"I'm not doing anything but getting my friends out of here."

"Don't say that too loud." He looks over his shoulder again. "They'll be watching for it, you know. It's not like anyone likes getting caught. Be careful. Verus will beat you silly for it. Trust me, I know. He seems better than Trajan at first, but when he gets mad…"

I take it under advisement. "Can I see my friends?"

He nods vaguely. "Yeah. You're no threat. They're getting prettied up, but they'll still have chores on the way, plus we all stay in the guest tent."

"How long do we have?"

"I guess… we're staying here tonight, then we'll start moving south. The horses aren't great in the mountains -- better than being on foot, but not great. We'll keep going south and west until the land starts to open up. Then we'll get to the river. I think there's another two or three campsites like this on the way there. Sometimes, we pitch tents on the open road. Once we get on the open plains, we'll move fast."

I don't care how fast they'll move on the plains, because I plan to be out of here with Misty and Duronda before we hit the river. Spicer, too, if he wants to come.

A few of the raiders move closer to the tent, so we can't very well talk about it. I want to go find the girls, but Spicer says to stay down a little longer. I'm not really steady enough to work, but if I go out there, they'll put me on chores. Instead, I ask neutral questions, and he answers them innocuously.

The raiders are always on the move. They have semi-permanent campsites out in a lot of ruins, but they don't stay in them for more than a few nights at a time. There are other groups of raiders who also use the sites, and Spicer has seen them fight with each other. Some of them, like Trajan, are from the Capitol, men who escaped barely ahead of the law. I don't have the impression that they were wanted for political crimes, though Spicer either doesn't know or doesn't tell. My guess would be things like burglary and assault. I hope it isn't murder, but I guess I can't rule it out. Others among them are from the Districts, some actual political escapees, most just men with itchy feet. ("We got a lot of those in Ten," Spicer says. "We're always wanting to ride just a little further. But Ten's pretty big. You can go a long way without leaving.") Some are probably criminals like the Capitol escapees, too, but Spicer doesn't know for sure. They all say they're getting away from legal oppression.

"No one's born in the out-districts?"

"No one who lasts long." He shakes his head. "Sometimes, they bring in women. I've heard of them running off to the Districts if they get pregnant. Escaping into Panem. Think on that a while."

"And there aren't any women out here… like the men are? I mean, because they want to be?"

He shrugs. "Here and there. There's one group that's all women. They're armed to the teeth, and they believe in shooting first. Trajan usually steers us clear of them. And there are some who just ran away for an adventure. That's the two we've got right now. I guess they get treated a little better than the outsiders."

The tent flap comes up, and a skinny man with pocks on his face comes in. He's dressed like Trajan and Spicer, though he's accented the look with a large, puffy silk hat that looks like it came from one of the sillier Capitol fashion magazines, and he's wearing polished shoes with lit-up buckles on them. Despite this, I don't have the impression that he's a lightweight. This could be because Spicer goes completely pale. It could also be because the man has a belt in his hand, looped securely around into his fist, trailing behind him like a sinister tail. This isn't a whip like the Teachers use, but its purpose is pretty clear. There's a boy in the Home with me who once said whippings reminded him of home, where he'd "get the belt" if he annoyed his mother when she was in a bad mood.

The man glances at me. "Looks like he's up and around. Go back to work, Spicer. Trajan wants you polish the tack."

"Yes, Verus."

Spicer doesn't hesitate. He doesn't even say goodbye, or that he'll see me later. He just gets up and goes.

Verus comes closer to the cot I'm lying on. "Sit up, then, or is your head still spinning?"

I try to sit up. My head doesn't spin, though it does hurt. I steady myself.

Verus examines me through narrowed eyes. "Stand, then."

I push myself to my feet. It's not easy, and I do sway, but I catch myself.

"Looks like it's nothing permanent," Verus says. "Trajan's a damned idiot."

I don't say anything. Verus has a Capitol name, but not a Capitol accent. I try to remember which other districts use Capitol names. District Two. Maybe District Six. I guess it doesn't matter.

"I'd have just as soon killed you. Your girlfriends say you can hunt, but with that eye swollen up, I'm guessing your aim's going to be off."

This hadn't occurred to me yet, but it could be true. On the other hand, I don't notice any difference in vision, at least not yet, except where the swelling is. I'll have to test it for sure later. "I'll figure it out."

"Well, you can help pack up the camp tomorrow or the next day, like everyone else. No slacking, if you want to get fed." He frowns. "I asked what idiot brought a banjo on the road. The littler girl said it was yours. Actually, she kind of screamed it, telling me not to burn it."

"Did you burn it?"

"No. Do you play it good?"


"And sing?"

"A little bit."

"Then that's what you're doing tonight. We could all do with a good laugh. You think up on some funny songs you know. Meanwhile, you might as well help Cooky get dinner."

"What if I can't think of any funny songs?"

"Then I can't think of one reason not to use that banjo for firewood."

I know it's the last thing in the world that should matter. But I think of Pappy Angus saying, Don't you forget that it's your resource, and for the first time since we got into the camp, I feel ashamed. They took everything without us even having a chance to hold on or fight. I won't let them burn Daddy's banjo. It may be a stupid thing to worry about, but when I leave this place, it's coming with me as surely as the girls are.

Verus pulls me outside. Getting here must have taken longer than I thought, because it's late afternoon. He drags me to a campfire, where an ill-tempered man who's just called "Cooky" is smoking something foul-smelling and butchering a deer. I tell him I can help with that -- I've done it before -- but I'm not allowed a knife. He sets me to fire-tending. They have a big iron grill over the flames, and as he cuts venison steaks, he tosses them onto it. I'm to watch and make sure nothing gets burned.

There's a kind of order to the way they eat, and no one has to ask about it. People come up one at a time, inspect what's on the grill, and choose a piece by pointing at it. I don't know why they don't come in groups, or why they barely talk. There's plenty of talk going on around the other campfire, where they're sitting on logs to eat. I guess that's just the way they do it.

Trajan gets the first steak. Others come in what's obviously a pecking order. I don't know why. There's enough of the deer for the whole camp to get good cuts. Cooky hasn't even finished when Spicer comes up, and he's pretty near the bottom of the pile.

At the very bottom, though they're cleaned up and polished to a shine, are other people they've captured, including Duronda and Misty. They've been given plates, but no silverware.

Duronda comes up to me first. Someone has flattened her hair to a perfect straight curtain, and painted up her face. She's also wearing a mish-mash of Capitol clothes, including a shirt that's so tight she's practically bursting out of it.

"Look too close, I'll black your other eye," she mutters.

"Not looking," I lie.

She leans in to whisper, "If they try to take us out of this camp, shoot us, okay?"

"I don't have my gun anymore. Or my bow."

"They're in the big tent with the rest of us."

"The rest?"

"Misty, me, a couple of other kids. And a woman who doesn't talk. They call it the guest tent, like we're all free to come and go as we please. That's where they keep people. With guards. You'll be there, too."

"Hey!" a man shouts from the edge of the other campfire. "I think you've had enough of a jaw with your boyfriend."

"Oh, he wishes!" Duronda yells back. She points at a fairly small, fatty steak, which she'll be able to pick up with her fingers when it cools.

A boy with red hair comes up next, then a pig-tailed girl holding onto a doll. Finally, Misty comes.

Her face has also been painted, but her hair has been left in its soft curls. Her eyes look gigantic with the lashes done up, and her lips have been turned into a kind of dark pink bow. They've put her into a low-cut blue-checked dress that makes her look both younger and older than she is.

"If you want to eat last," she says, "tell that big blond woman to stop tugging at your hair."

"Are you okay?"

She nods. "They're not hurting us." She glances around quickly. "Don't you worry. I'm going to think us a way out of this."

"Be careful. Don't mess with them."

"I'm smarter than that, remember?" She taps her head, then picks a steak and heads over to the others before anyone notices that she's taken too long.

I finally eat after everyone else does (I am absurdly pleased that they applaud my campfire cooking skills), and when I finish, the sun is setting. They hand me my banjo.

For just a moment, I freeze. They're all staring at me -- unfriendly, unknown eyes. I can't think of any song, let alone a song to make them laugh.

"How 'bout 'Old Hen'?" Duronda calls.

I can't remember the lyrics. I barely remember how to play. But I start plucking the strings in that old backyard way that Daddy did it at the resort, and after a few bars, it starts to come back to me.

"My old hen's a good old hen
She lays eggs for the railroad men...

I don't think it's a really funny song, but it seems to amuse the raiders. They start clapping along, laughing at the hen that sometimes also lays taters, and has a wooden leg. They start to call out other songs. Some I know, some I don't, but the whiskey's going around pretty freely now, and they seem content to just let me play some chords in a rhythm, while they slur out something that resembles a song.

I almost catch myself having fun, then I see Misty, with her face painted up. She's singing along and clapping with everyone, but this isn't a singing party at the lake. Duronda is also clapping, but I can almost see her brain working, trying to figure out how to get some weapons into her clapping hands.

We go on until the moon is high. I've never played so long, and my fingers are sore by the end, but I don't complain. I remember the threat to throw the banjo in the fire.

Once it's over, they take it away and send me off with the small group of other kids to a tent that's pressed right up against the fallen dome. Three men keep guard at points around it. I can see our stuff at the front of a pile of other things. A big blond woman (presumably the one that Misty annoyed) is sitting in a chair beside it, a gun on her lap while she sews scraps together.

They seem not to take any care to keep us apart, and I see why quickly enough. Placed around the tent, at the center of any area where we might pick to sleep, is a jabberjay in a cage. Jabberjays are only useful to the Capitol if they're free to fly home and report on rebel strategies, but I somehow doubt that the raiders care about the war. They'll just want to hear what we're planning.

I see Spicer across the tent, but he's already turned his back to everyone else and curled up in a ball to go to sleep. He clearly doesn't want to talk any more. I'd rather talk to Duronda and Misty, anyway. The lighting from the lanterns in here is dim, and it's hard to see them, but I finally spot them.

Duronda has taken out a bedroll, and she's staring resentfully at the nearest bird. The big woman, who gruffly introduces herself as Corabel, barks, "Don't you mess that hair up too bad, girl."

"Who's supposed to see me here?"

"Don't ask me, I'm just the help. But you keep yourself up."

When her back is turned, Duronda makes a face.

I sit down beside her.

"I ought to fatten up and scar my face," she mutters.

Misty is wandering aimlessly -- or trying to look like she is; it's sometimes hard to tell -- but finally joins us. She unrolls a blanket and leans toward the bird cage. "Here, pretty birdy. Misty's got something sweet for you!" She drops a piece of leftover venison into the cage. The bird eats it gratefully. I expect that he'll drop dead from something she's put in it, but he doesn't. He just pecks at the bars and looks for more. "Damned bird's hungry," he says in Cooky's voice. "Never did plan to end up a zookeeper."

Misty smiles at him and says, "I'll bring you more tomorrow."

"You know, he's just going to tell them who's giving him treats," Duronda points out.

"No one told me there was a rule against being nice to birds." She sits down on her blanket, very close to the cage, and starts examining the lock, though we all know better than to say anything about it. "Are you feeling better, Effrim?"

"Yeah, sure."

"Can you see all right?"

I close my unswollen eye. There's a sense of the muscles straining, but the swelling in my cheek doesn't interfere unless I turn my glance down. I nod, but say, for the bird's benefit, "I'm just about blind in that eye."

"I thought they'd cracked your skull," Duronda says.

"Apparently, I fainted because it hurt. I know, real manly."

She shrugs indifferently. "You going to keep entertaining everyone at night?"

"Yeah, that's my job. Better start coming up with a list of songs, huh?"

"Well, you're good at it," Misty says. "I think everyone out there was enjoying the show." She raises her eyebrows, and I realize that she's making a plan. The plan will somehow involve my banjo-playing, the surprise that I can see, and the locks on the mockingjay cages.

I try to picture it, but I can't. And, much as I like Misty, I have a feeling that whatever we do is going to end up looking very different from whatever she's got in her head, anyway.

There's a really good chance that it could end with us getting belted -- or shot.

"Lights out!" Corabel calls. "Right now!"

With no further warning, all of the lanterns in the tent are doused. I lie down between Misty and Duronda. We all lie awake for a long time. I can hear the shallow breathing around the tent. The shadows the guards cast play across the canvas.

"Hey," Duronda says after a long time. "You tired of singing, or do you have another one in you?"


She mutters something.

"What?" I ask.

"I like your singing," she says impatiently. "That's all. Reckon it might help everyone sleep."

"That'd be good," Misty says. "The Mountain Song, maybe? Or the Meadow Song. Something nice."

I have no idea how this is supposed to work for anyone's plan. My throat is sore from the smoke, and I'm going to have to be quiet tomorrow if I'm going to sing again at night.

I think about it for a few minutes, then sing the old District Twelve lullaby.

Deep in the meadow,
Under the willow…

It's only my voice, raised just a little bit above the darkness. I see the tent flap go up, and Corabel looks in warily, but lets it go on.

Misty joins me after a few bars, then Duronda.

The others don't know the song, but somewhere in the dark, I hear a few of them crying for home.

I keep singing.
2 comments or Leave a comment
From: queen_bellatrix Date: February 20th, 2015 07:27 am (UTC) (Link)

Some Catches/Feedback

dark alley took the Think you're missing an and before took.

then says, "I'm Spicer," he says Just some word repetition, though I'm not sure which says you'll want to get rid of.:)

move closer the tent Think you're missing a to before the.

looks it came from like one Think the words may have gotten scrambled a bit here, and it should be looks like it came from?

we'replanning Just needs a space.

or do have another Think you're missing a you before have.

better than foot I'm not sure if this is a syntax thing, or if it should be better than being on foot; I'm guessing it's the former, but thought I'd mention in case I was wrong.:)

guest tent."

"How long
Think you may have an extra space or blank line before the how long, because it's putting an extra paragraph break in after the guest tent sentence.

I'm not remembering the rules around quotes within larger sentences very well at the moment, so I'm not sure: Is Pappy Angus's comment about don't forget it's your resource missing quotations, or does it earn an exemption because it's embedded in the larger framework of a sentence?

I'm more and more impressed with this the more I read; especially because you've got so few links with which to tie it back to cannon--no characters we know from the source material etc. etc.--and I'm just as invested in this as I was any of your other things. Watching you develop the pre-Games culture is like slowly opening one of those puzzle boxes. Especially because so much of it reinforces or foreshadows things you'll later explore within the cannon timeline--I especially loved the nod to women leaving the Out-Districts if they were pregnant. And the way you're building up the raiders is a marvel; this very brutal society that's lawless while still having enough of a structure not to be called an anarchy; watching more and more layers be peeled back is terrifying and fascinating in equal measure. Especially since you're playing so skillfully with the whole idea of people slowly forgetting about Thirteen/the dark days as the rebel generation dies off, while believing themselves well informed; all through this chapter, I was thinking of the Seventieth Games, and cursing inwardly because Duronda would've knocked some heads together and averted that disaster; I also really appreciated the whole "legal oppression" slogan. That's a very plausible way for the raiders to present themselves to someone like Blight, and without the dark days generation around, it goes a long way to explaining how he was duped.

You're fleshing Thirteen out fabulously, and making me want an AU even more where somebody puts the breaks on Plutarch and his marvelous plans. I adore Effrim's dad; what a canny, fierce man, and you're doing an excellent job laying the groundwork of both his desertion, and Effrim's possible acceptance of it, with his comments about Thirteen having a plan. And thank you for providing such a logical reason, through the whole cane analogy, for why the Capitol managed to hold together as long as it did. The further I delve into the books, I think that the Capitol must not have been as dependent on the Districts as they appeared--certainly dependent on them in the sense that a totalitarian society needs subjects, but not for everything. If they had been, it seems they would've fallen considerably sooner, and I'm very glad/relieved to see someone else reaching the same conclusion; I was beginning to think I was very much misreading the way Collins had set up the society.

I love the group dynamics as much as always, and am very much looking forward to seeing what Spicer adds if he accompanies them. Duronda continues to be made of awesome; I was very glad I had nothing at hand to make the keyboard wet when she had her line about look too close and I'll black the other eye.:d

I meant to ask last chapter: who was the man depicted in the statue? Seeing it weathered like that was one of the most haunting images for last chapter, especially with Effrim's incredible insight about how it standing for so long should make it have greater significance than it did.

Btw, I'm so glad to see Glenn's banjo, and music more generally, playing such a large role in this; that last scene was absolutely gorgeous and wrenching simultaneously.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 20th, 2015 07:43 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Some Catches/Feedback

The statue is this one, from the West Virginia State Capitol grounds (the first one they ran across was the Stonewall Jackson one). I'm trying not to get bogged down in details, but darnit, if I find something cool, I have to throw it in!

I'll grab the fixes tomorrow (I need toothpicks to prop my eyes open just now).

Duronda definitely could have knocked sense into Blight. Unfortunately, she'd probably been withdrawing a little before she died. I wonder what Mags had to say when she found out, though.

Believing Thirteen to be bombed out of existence, it probably developed a martyr's halo over the years, while the old rebellion became that poor lost cause. The fewer people left who were there, the fewer would have any visceral understanding of the situation. (If the Capitol had been half-bright -- even without assuming the level of nastiness I assume, just what we absolutely see in canon -- they'd have turned their propaganda machine to constantly showing what Thirteen was, with the subtext of, "Last time you tried to break away, look where you almost ended up." Of course, being propaganda, they'd ignore their own crimes. But from an amoral standpoint of, "The Capitol could have handled its affairs better," it would make a lot more sense.)

I took this opportunity to go listen non-ironically to some bluegrass banjo. It's maybe not my thing exactly, but it's got its charms.

I was only going to spend a chapter with the raiders, but I've spent enough time poking around the edges that I decided to sit a spell instead. :D

ETA: And yes, the Capitol couldn't get to be what it was if it hadn't been frighteningly competent at some point. A lot of the, "The Capitol can't survive without the districts!" sounded to me something like, "This company can't survive without its workers"... just before the company shrugs its shoulders and automates jobs out of existence. What it can't survive without is people who have jobs to pay for its products. The Capitol can stand militarily and probably is proficient enough at generating its own economy -- they can fish and hunt in the mountains as easily as anyone else, with a little practice, and they have the numbers to even have specialists. But culturally, they couldn't stand not having anyone to control, to feed their television shows to, to sell overpriced goods to. That's what would have killed them in the end, even if the rebels hadn't actually invaded the city.

Edited at 2015-02-20 07:51 am (UTC)
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