I stop trying to go around the crowd and just dive in, pushing people apart until I get to the front. There is a bloody figure on the ground, tied to a post. It's a scene I saw so often after my Games that at first, I have the crazy idea that it's Elmer Parton or even Glen Everdeen, but it clears quickly enough. All I can tell from here is that it is a boy or a very young man, skinny and black-haired.
In front of him is Katniss Everdeen, her face covered with blood that's gushing from a wound around her eye. A stranger in a crisp new white uniform is raising the whip for another strike.
My instinct is to run into crowd and start bashing people's heads together. I'm angry at the stranger, but I'm even angrier at the crowd from Twelve, all of them just sitting there, watching, doing nothing. All of them except Katniss.
But it won't do any good to go on a rampage. Even victors aren't allowed to do that.
Instead, I bite down on the violent rage and just push through the last few people. I shout, "Hold it!"
The stranger looks over. I come into the square, stepping over an unconscious peacekeeper. I think it's Darius, and if it is, we're in even more trouble than it seems. It means they're purging their own ranks. But I can't worry about that, either. The point is to get Katniss out of here.
This close, I can see that the boy on the post is Gale Hawthorne. Of course. There's a turkey nailed up over him, and I know it could as easily have been Katniss herself on the post being whipped for poaching, since the new man obviously doesn't recognize her and she never plays the victor card. I'm not sure she knows how to play it.
I go to her and pull her up, out of the way of the whip. I look at the wound on her bloody, confused face, and I want to kill someone. Snow, preferably, but I'd settle for the man with the whip.
I can't do it. I do the only thing I can. I channel my inner Gamemaker and say, "Oh, excellent. She's got a photo shoot next week modeling wedding dresses. What am I supposed to tell her stylist?"
The stranger, who I can now see is wearing the Head Peacekeeper's insignia, looks confused, which is a good start. He at least recognizes me, which is one of the few benefits of being on television every year for the last quarter of a century. He looks at Katniss again, some flicker of recognition in his eyes, then straightens up defensively. "She interrupted the punishment of a confessed criminal."
This is clearly true, and perfect justification under the law (however ridiculous) for him to whip her. The only thing I can do is keep him off balance with the special treatment victors are traditionally accorded by anyone other than Snow himself. I decide to go even bigger. "I don't care if she blew up the blasted Justice Building! Look at her cheek! Think that will be camera ready in a week?"
The stranger hesitates, and I know what he's thinking. He's thinking thoughts about authority figures who interfere with the Games. He's thinking of people like Seneca Crane. I am banking on him being smart enough to think that ruining a Games-related photo shoot will ruin his career at the outset.
Unfortunately, this one seems to be a true believer. "That's not my problem," he says.
I don't hesitate. I've never played my fame (or the kids' fame) for anything other than money before, but at the moment, it's the only card in my hand. "No? Well, it's about to be, my friend. The first call I make when I get home is to the Capitol. Find out who authorized you to mess up my victor's pretty little face."
This is clearly a serious threat, even though I doubt I'll actually make the call. I don't want to owe favors to anyone in the Capitol just now. But the man doesn't know that. He looks at Gale and at Katniss, then pouts petulantly. That's when I know I've won, at least this round. "He was poaching," he says. "What business is it of hers, anyway?"
"He's her cousin," Peeta says, appearing from nowhere on Katniss's other side. We're only steps from the bakery, and I can see a bit of flour on his hands, so I assume he was helping Danny out and heard the commotion. The three of us are now between Gale and the whip. "And she's my fiancée," he finishes. "So if you want to get to him, expect to go through both of us."
This tips it over the edge. Not only is the new man interfering with a photo shoot, but he's taking on the darlings of the Capitol audience, the beloved star-crossed lovers of District Twelve. If he interferes with Peeta's protection of Katniss, and thinks that it will get out in any way (which I have more or less assured him that it will), there'll be hell to pay. Peeta understands the narrative he created. He understands the power of it, and he's thrown all of it between Gale Hawthorne and the whip.
Of course, there'll be hell to pay for us as well. Every time we play the audience card, Snow will find it more irksome and treasonous. Peeta and Katniss are both playing to his most devoted subjects, after all, and they're winning. But that's a worry for later. Right now, the beating has to end.
One of the other Peacekeepers I've seen around the Hob comes up with a stunning lie about District Twelve protocols for punishing hunters. She does it so crisply and convincingly that I wonder if she's been taking lessons from Peeta. It works, and the new Head releases Gale and warns Katniss that if he's caught poaching again, he'll be shot.
Shooting would be new. After my Games, our new Peacekeeper, Lucretia Beckett, preferred hangings. Or electrocutions.
Beckett actually came on the same train that brought me home. I guess I should be glad we got six months before Snow decided to put pressure on Katniss. Beckett cracked down immediately. She was responsible for Digger's death, and several hangings, and time in the stocks and the pillory. Kay Undersee has her to thank for the heavy monkey on her back -- all the time she spent on the pillory, often weighted down, did permanent nerve damage, which is why even now she spends most of her time medicated.
It was under Beckett that we started singing "The Hanging Tree" again. I have no idea how old the song is. It was popular during the Dark Days, when the Capitol hanged thirteen rebel leaders, one from each district. It became popular again when Beckett built her gallows. Before the mockingjay, wearing jewelry made from string was the sign we used to recognize each other. It was partly because of the song, and partly because of my district token from Digger. Beckett made regulations about the jewelry and put people in the stocks for wearing it, but it never seemed to stop anyone.
Our rebellion -- such as it was -- never got beyond petty pranks and name calling, but that didn't stop Beckett from treating it as high treason. She had a great affinity for whippings, though of course, she would always accept a "private apology" from boys she found good looking. Cray was her protégé. I believe he's taken a few apologies himself, though not as frequently as he simply bribes young girls with food.
I have a feeling the new man isn't the sort to take "private apologies," though. I think he's more likely to just shoot.
Most of the crowd dissipates before we can get any help with Gale -- scared little mice -- leaving only Peeta and me, along with two of Gale's co-workers, to carry him back on a board we manage to scrounge from an old woman selling clothes from a stall. She makes Katniss promise not to say where she got even that help. I want to hate her, but the best I can do is contempt. Katniss sends a girl to go get Gale's mother.
Katniss's eye is swelling shut, and I tell her to put snow on it as we carry the board back to the Victors' Village, back to Ruth, and the whole thing is coming full circle again. We didn't have to take people all the way out to the Village back when Beckett was in charge. Back then, Ruth Everdeen was Ruth Keyton, and she was at the apothecary shop. She set up in the back yard, and in the summer, we all took turns with fans, keeping the flies off the victims' skin. Glen Everdeen took three whippings during those terrible months, and I'm guessing that's when he fell in love with her. Danny took a brutal whipping himself, for defending Mir, of all things. I sat in Ruth's basement while he was in and out of consciousness, and I memorized every stripe she put on him. If I ever find out where she ended up, I still plan to pay her back for every one of them, before I kill her for Digger. He was the only real friend I had left at that point.
Most of the punishment fell on the Seam, though. By the time it had been going on a few months, someone had clued Beckett in that her life would be easier if it all fell on the Seam, while she appeared to give the merchants "easy" punishments. They'd turn on each other.
They lived down to her expectations.
By the time we're halfway to Victors' Village, it's snowing, and most of the story has come out. Our new Head is Romulus Thread. He showed up today. Gale tried to sell him a turkey (which Cray would have bought without even thinking about it). Darius, who spent most of his free time at the Hob and was practically a local, got in the way, and got a whip-butt to the head for his trouble. I agree with Gale's colleagues that I don't see a bright future for him. If he's lucky, he'll die tonight.
When we get to Ruth, all I have to say is "New Head," and she understands everything she needs to. She sets about treating Gale, ordering Prim to bring her supplies and snow. I start to tell Katniss that she doesn't need to worry, that her mother has always taken care of whipping victims, but she's not processing much, so I don't elaborate. I send Gale's friends home with some money, because I know damned well that the next step is going to be closing the mines. Everyone hates the mines, but closures mean starvation. They take the money.
Gale's mother arrives. She doesn't acknowledge me, but some part of me that will always be ten years old recoils from the possibility that she will start tormenting me. I realize this is foolish, that the last thing she cares about is whether or not I'm acting properly poor. She takes her son's hand and presses it to her face. The cruelly pretty girl she was is buried now under years of hard work and hardship, softened by motherhood and strengthened by trials. She probably doesn't even remember who she was when we were kids. I should probably try to forget.
I watch Ruth work for a while, but mostly I'm keeping my eyes on Katniss, who's becoming increasingly agitated, even beyond what I'd normally expect for a situation like this. It finally comes to a head when Ruth decides to let Gale sleep off some of the pain rather than using her more expensive remedies. Katniss starts screaming and calling her terrible names -- it's the same sort of thing she did when the doctors were operating on Peeta after the Games -- and Ruth just orders Peeta and me to carry her out of the room. Peeta must recognize it as well (for some reason, he has watched those shots obsessively), but whatever he feels about it, he keeps to himself.
We carry her to a small guest bedroom and hold her down on the bed while she thrashes and screams to get loose. I'm guessing that this will be keeping anyone listening in on the bugs busy, so I whisper, "Is something going on, Peeta? I mean, besides this. This is a little extreme."
He nods. "I don't know what it has to do with anything, but there's an uprising in Eight. She saw something about it on the mayor's television. I think she was talking to Gale about it... before. I was just talking to her. She wants us all to run."
Katniss's screams are quieting, so I don't risk addressing this. I hadn't anticipated her finding out about Eight on her own. At least she didn't decide to start a riot herself. Not that us running away would be much better. If she took her mother and Prim, and Peeta, and the Hawthornes, Snow would undoubtedly retaliate against everyone left. He'd most likely start with me this time, and she'd feel duty bound to care.
By the time Ruth breaks herself away from Gale, Katniss has relaxed enough for Peeta to hold her by himself. I'm not even sure he's really restraining her at this point so much as calming her down. I fill Ruth in on what happened in the square.
She looks unsurprised. "So it's starting again?" she asks.
I agree. She starts listing things we'll need to start gathering when the snow recedes. She wants to raid my alcohol supply for disinfectants, and I'll probably let her if it gets that desperate and I have any left.
"I wonder why," she says. "We haven't done anything."
I'm personally sure that it's about District Eight and their riots, but I can't think of anything to tell Ruth that wouldn't reveal a lot more than she should know. I'm spared having to come up with a lie by a sharp knock at the door that panics Katniss.
Well, it panics all of us. I guess we're all imagining Peacekeepers coming to take us away.
Instead, it's young Madge Undersee with a box of morphling vials, probably worth more than a row of houses in the Seam. Kay uses it for her more debilitating pain, and Madge claims she's sent it of her own free will to help Gale. I am skeptical of this after years of knowing morphling addicts, especially since I doubt Kay even knows Gale. Katniss says that Madge knows him, that they bring her strawberries, and I make an offhand comment about how much Madge must like strawberries (trading morphling for fruit is like trading diamonds for a sip of dirty water). Katniss somehow manages to take it as a personal insult. I'm still trying to work that out when Ruth sends Peeta and me home.
When we get to my house, Peeta stops by my path. "He's going to be okay, right?"
"Yeah. He took a beating, but Ruth Everdeen's brought people back from worse. You've come back from worse yourself."
He nods, then shakes his head helplessly. "It's one thing to know something in your head," he says. "It's something else to see it with your eyes."
"What are you talking about?"
He doesn't answer, but looks at me like I'm either crazy or blind. Then he looks back toward the Everdeens' house. "Her life would be easier if I dropped out of it." He turns and heads off toward his place without saying goodnight.
I go inside, not wanting to acknowledge this. Peeta knows better than to actually drop out of Katniss's life. But I guess we both got a real view of how important this other boy is to her tonight. It's something that I never thought about before, and don't really want to think about now. Things are complicated enough without worrying about teenage love dramas, and it's not like any of them are looking for my advice on the subject. They'll have to figure it out on their own.
I go to my newly repaired phone and pick it up. Dial Effie's number in the Capitol. It's not particularly late there, especially by their standards, and I know she'll be up and about.
She answers. "Haymitch! What a nice surprise. Cinna's here. I'll put him on speaker. We were just talking about wedding dresses for Katniss!"
"Dresses? Plural?" I shake my head. "I thought she was just modeling them."
"Well, when Snow announced that we'd have the wedding here, everyone wanted to be in it. They're going to have a contest for what kind of dress she should wear. Cinna's got beautiful sketches." She presses a button and I hear the speaker come on. "Here he is! Cinna, tell Haymitch about your dresses."
There's a pause, and I can almost see Cinna trying to formulate messages. Finally, he says, "I have about twenty different sketches. We'll have some trouble with the fabric for some of them. Industrial accidents in Eight." He pauses, then says, "But the trains are running from there again. Some of the factories are out, though, so I'm not sure when I can actually make the dresses."
I rub my head. Eight's already been subdued if the trains are running, but factories are shut down? What's happening there? But there's no way for Cinna to tell me more. I consider trying to get Romulus Thread in trouble, then realize that all it will do is focus attention on Gale's lawbreaking. I say, "Maybe it's just as well. Katniss had a little accident."
"An accident?" Effie repeats. "Oh, my! Is she all right?"
"She's fine, but she has a cut on her face. It's pretty deep."
Effie makes horrified noises about scars and Cinna tells me to pass on his good wishes for her recovery. I hang up and grab a bottle of white liquor without thinking much about it.
The snow is coming down harder outside and the wind is wailing. We're working up to a good old-fashioned blizzard. Here in the Victors' Village, that's rarely a problem. It'll take a while to dig us out, but there's heat and food, and I can sleep under a thick quilt. Down in the Seam, people will be shivering and starving. They might even envy the miners who at least get to go somewhere sheltered. Mom got stuck in the mines during a blizzard once when I was ten and Lacklen was eight. I remember feeding us snow and pretending it was ice cream. I had our storybooks, and I wrapped us up in all of our clothes and our parents' clothes, and read them to Lacklen until someone finally came to check on us. By then, we were both starving and had raging colds.
Ruthie Keyton from school and her father helped us.
I drink more. Time starts jumbling up in my head, folding over on itself. I am in another blizzard, this one with Digger, keeping each other warm as teenagers have always done during the snow. I am sitting with Ruth while she treats Danny in the basement, and then while she treats Gale in her kitchen. I wonder if she has been dismissing Peeta as I have been dismissing Gale. After all, for her, it is the poor boy from the Seam who deserves a girl's heart. Most of her friends from town didn't even come to her wedding.
Ironically, the only one who did was Danny, whose heart she'd broken into so many little pieces. He was engaged then and waiting to become a father for the first time -- not unrelated life events -- but Mirrem didn't come with him. I'm fairly sure she wasn't invited. The two girls had hated one another quite independently of Dannel, and I have always suspected that going to Mirrem was his way of trying to break Ruth's heart as thoroughly as she'd broken his. If it was, he didn't succeed. She was too brilliantly happy back then.
My head spins, images blurring into each other like the furious snow outside the window. Ruth. Dannel. Glen. Mirrem. Digger. Hazelle. Lacklen. Lucretia Beckett. The whips, the stocks. The fence. Katniss. Gale. Peeta. Romulus Thread. Madge. Morphling.
I don't know when the random memories become unformed dreams, but when I open my eyes, it's morning. Peeta has been here without waking me up. He's left me bread, which may as well be a note, and lit a fire in the fireplace. I think he's also cleaned up some of the litter, which I've told him not to do (I hate it when they act like I can't take care of myself), but I guess it makes sense to remove potential kindling if he's leaving a fire attended only by a sleeping drunk.
For the life of me, I can't figure out why Peeta feels a need to take care of me. I basically left him to sink or swim on his own in the arena, and he knows it. Still, bread. Every day. My fire is lit. I think he even threw a blanket over me, though at some point since he left, I tossed it away. It's lying crumpled on the floor beside the couch.
I do not understand the boy at all.
I pick up the phone and call him.
"I don't think my phone's rung this much since I got it," he says. "Katniss called, too. She says she wants to talk to both of us after the storm blows out." He sighs heavily. "I'm guessing she'll want Gale, too."
I wonder if she's worked out that running away will end up with serious retaliation, or if she just wants help planning it. She might even be planning to run it by me. I hope so. I need a chance to acquaint her with certain facts of life. "How long is the storm supposed to last?" I ask Peeta.
"Television says a few days. You feeling all right?"
"You were passed out pretty good earlier."
"I'm fine. I was just sleeping."
"Without your knife?"
I look around. My knife is upstairs in my bedroom. I wasn't planning on sleeping down here. "I don't always have it," I lie. "By the way, thanks for the bread."
"Just promise you'll eat it. And maybe some kind of fruit or vegetable. Soup would be good."
"I don't need you to tell me what to eat."
Peeta sighs again. "Yeah. Right, sorry."
I remember that he's not feeling very good today, and I remember why. "Hey," I say, "it's not a big deal. I'll grab some soup. I have some in a can."
I feel like I ought to tell him he can talk to me about Katniss or Gale -- whichever of them is bothering him more -- but the idea of dealing with it makes me tired, and I can think of about three dozen people off the top of my head who would be able to give him better advice. So I tell him that he needs to make sure he eats something, too, then I hang up.
What the hell? Nothing's happening in the snow. It doesn't matter whether or not I'm drunk.
By early afternoon, I'm pretty far gone. The past keeps circling back at me in hazy, half-asleep dreams. Hazelle Hawthorne -- now Hazelle Purdy again, with her flashing eyes and the high ponytail that swishes dismissively when she turns her nose up -- makes an appearance, doing an imitation of me pretending to be Peeta's mentor, putting on airs like I could ever think I had anything to teach him. She laughs at me when I say I understand Katniss.
It's after dark when I keep my promise to Peeta and eat the bread and some soup from my cupboard. Half of it spills onto the carpet, and I leave it alone. The can almost makes it to the pile of trash around my kitchen garbage can, but rolls off and ends up under the sink. It seems like as good a place for it as any other.
I read. I finish Huckleberry Finn, right up through the silly sequence where he re-unites with Tom Sawyer and they come up with a plan for a free man to escape from jail. It always feels a little surreal, after everything Huck and Jim have gone through up to that point, but Finnick says it must be nice for Huck to be a kid for a while again. He thinks that's why Jim went along with it.
I pick up the next one around dawn. It's a Catastrophe-era novel about South America, where the Amazon is overflowing in the north and a hemorrhagic fever is decimating Argentina. The hero is a spy who stole the antidote from the country that released the fever (since no one has ever figured that out, the author is vague) and is trying desperately to navigate her way to a city called Buenos Aires. The reader knows that it drowned when the Rio de la Plata was swelled with rising ocean water, but the main character doesn't know it. I can't figure out why she doesn't know it. It makes no sense. I keep reading anyway. And drinking.
I am awake on the second day of the storm when Peeta braves the wind to bring me baked goods. He makes lunch and sits there until he has watched me eat an entire sandwich and drink a glass of water. I tell him he's a pain in my ass. He doesn't argue. He's also brought me a painting he did of me in the rotunda in District Eleven with Katniss looking up at me. I hang it up in the living room after he leaves, then take it down. I'm not sure why.
I try to cut down on the drinking, watering down the white liquor. It keeps off the shakes, but not the headaches and nausea. I go back to full strength by evening. I forget to eat dinner.
The third day, I almost don't recognize what's different, because it's something lacking -- the wind has stopped howling. The world outside my window is painfully bright and weirdly featureless. I am back at the golden mean -- numb enough to function, not fuzzy-headed. I am relieved. I wonder how long it will be before the line moves on me again.
I call Ruth to check on Gale, who is responding to treatment. Katniss's cut has stopped swelling and her eye isn't damaged.
We've made it through the storm for now.