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Challenges 5 - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Challenges 5
I'm temporarily skipping the one about what happens when Finnick loses his parents, since it deals with what is essentially a terror bombing. I will get to it, but I wasn't up to writing it just now.

Something with Effrim as an older man. for beceh

I have no idea where Duronda got the wherewithal to stuff a whole big attic full of junk, but here it is. There are decorations for the seasons, and old cookware, and most of the original furniture from the house, which she's replaced a few times over the years. She tried to give it away, but of course, the Capitol said that what she didn't buy was Capitol property, and they'd dispose of it… only they never got around to it, so Duronda's house has two full sets of furniture in it, and most of the first set is up here.

It's cramped, but it's still easier writing up here than in my son Haywood's house. He does his best, but he's got a six year old, and there are only two rooms, meaning that, when I'm not coughing hard enough to frighten him, I'm sharing space with Glen. On my good days, that means we can sing together. I don't have nearly the voice I had before the cough came on me, but it's still pretty good. Glen's got himself a fine little voice, too, and we've made a game of singing back and forth with some mockingjays that have nested in the tree outside.

But it's a tiny room, and it hasn't got a good space for writing things down -- let alone storing them -- at least for a full-grown man, and there are things I want to commit to paper before I hack my lungs out in a couple of years, like so many others have, and join Misty in whatever there is after all of this is over.

I won't mind that part. I've only been about half of myself since the pneumonia took her six years ago.

I sigh. It's a good day for my lungs, and the deep breath doesn't start them off hacking. I remember when fifty wasn't old. It was an age like a lot of ages. There might even be talk of retiring.

These days, making it to fifty is an accomplishment. Between the war killing off a good number of the young parents at the time, the harsh life under Thirteen, and of course, above all, the Capitol retaliation, District Twelve's average ages have been skewing lower. Fifty isn't a foot death's door, unless you've breathed in too much coal dust, like a lot of us have. But it's sure in sight of that door, and you can feel the wind pushing you in that direction. People only ten years older than I am, if they're still alive, are completely white-haired, skinny, missing teeth. I'll probably still have my teeth when the cough takes me. There's that, at least. That, and a good head of hair.

I take my compensations where I can get them.

And I do try not to lose my temper or be crabby. I don't always succeed. When the Capitol held its Quarter Quell eleven years ago, and my neighbors hooted with glee when they grabbed kids out of the two richest merchant families to throw to the Capitol wolves -- kids who were most likely my cousins on Mama's side, though I don't talk about that and no one else remembers -- I entirely lost my head, and started yelling at them in the square about what they'd let the Games turn them into. It didn't exactly win friends among the miners, and the merchants didn't care what any of us had to say at that point, given that there were celebratory bonfires made up partly of board and signs from their shops. My boy Haywood had been friends with Herk Donner up to that point, but after the Quarter Quell, Haywood wasn't allowed to set foot in the store unless he was buying something, and we've never exactly been able to afford fine stationery.

I hear the creak of the attic stairs, and look over my shoulder at Duronda. She's carrying around Sheba's little baby like it's the newborn emperor of the universe. She and Sheba never did manage better than a cold cordiality once Sheba grew up enough to understand things, but Duronda dotes on the baby.

"See, Rabbie?" she coos. "Your uncle Effrim's here! Probably stewing in his own morbid thoughts, like always."

"I'm not morbid," I tell her. "You're the one who's always been morbid."

"Please. Tell me you weren't sitting here contemplating what a pretty corpse you'll have."

I roll my eyes. "I got a few years left. This thing takes its time. I'm not picking out the burial suit yet. I just want to get a few things done."

"This isn't more of our little adventure, is it?"

Duronda pretends to be embarrassed by the story I wrote about our trip west, which now resides on handwritten pages in one of these trunks, but I've stumbled over it in her bedroom a few times. I think she takes it out and re-reads it pretty often at night.

"I already told that one," I tell her. "Do you think there's something I missed?"

Her face gets serious. "This isn't about the Games. My Games."

It's an order, not a request, but I ignore her. "It's about us watching them, anyway. It's about you pushing Misty out of the way when the choosers came around."

"I didn't do that. I just happened to be in their sightline."

"Horseshit," I say, and she grins at the old raider talk. "You knew they were coming in her direction, and you practically tackled her. She knew it. I knew it. Even if no one else ever did."

She shrugs, giving up the pretense. "Fine. It would never work now that they have those glass balls with everyone's name. I hate those things. I know Glass cheats them somehow, but I never have been able to figure out how he does it. And this best not be about my Games, Effrim."

I look down at the two notebooks I've already filled. It's impossible to get them in town, but Duronda orders them by the hundred for me. "People don't remember it," I say. "Not just your Games, but how it all started. Glen was going on the other day about how the Games have always been there, like they came down from some big mountain back when people were just coming from the swamps. I had to tell him what it meant that it's only been thirty-six years. That it wasn't always just a big circus where the clowns happened to die every year. I told him about the treaty. He's heard it every year, but it makes no sense to a little thing like him. He just said, 'Why'd they sign a fool thing like that, Grampa?'"

"What did you tell him?"

"That it was that or everyone would get burned up."


"Well, I didn't think very long on it. I just told the truth. Poor boy cried for two hours, thinking about having firebombs pointed at us. I should have said it more careful. But what is there to say? That we came in sixteen votes shy of district suicide when we voted on the treaty? I don't think he'd find that much more comforting."

Duronda looks down at the baby and gives me a reproachful glare. I doubt Rabbie can understand a word we say at four months, but I hold up my hand in surrender. I've raised a son and helped with a grandson, and I know the desire to throw up all the useless shields there are. She never could protect Sheba, because Sheba wouldn't take it (and given where we all suspect Sheba came from, I've wondered on a few occasions just how hard Duronda really tried), but Rabbie's her second chance. Everyone else thinks she's doing Sheba a great favor, watching the baby for free during the mining day, but I know she feels like she's getting away with stealing him part time.

I reach out and take him, gently touching my nose to his head. "Don't you mind Uncle Effrim," I say. "I get a little mad at the world, but that's nothing for you to worry about." I set him down in the little crib beside my desk, and he starts sucking his thumb. He's a good, well-behaved baby.

Duronda picks up the first of my notebooks and reads a page or two. "You're being more matter-of-fact here than before."

"Misty prettied up the first one a bit. It was a present for you, not just telling the story."

She nods, reads a little more, then puts the notebook down thoughtfully. "We shouldn't have signed the treaty."

"It wouldn't have made a big difference, except that there'd be eleven chariots going down the parade route instead of twelve. And we wouldn't have a chance to recover after everything."

"Recover," she snorts. "Right."

"You and Misty and me, we're the weird ones. Two kids out of three people. Most of the families have a lot of kids. We're edging up to the old population levels. Sooner or later…"

I don't finish, because it's obvious to both of us, and probably to the whoever listens to the bugs in the house: Sooner or later, the population will hit that critical mass again, where the injustices will start to outweigh the need to survive as a community. Sooner or later, we'll be at war again. I don't know what the Capitol was thinking. You can't just step on people's necks forever. You can't tell them over and over again how the war was their fault, how the world was just about destroyed because they were greedy, and not have them notice that you're telling them that from a safe, rich world that views them as disposable barbarians. Sooner or later, one of those people whose neck is bent under the yoke will throw it off and, likely as not, start beating you senseless with it. It would have made more sense for them to say, Okay. The war is over. You did bad things. We did bad things. Now, can we all roll up our sleeves and get the country going again?

Wishful thinking. Even if the head of the government and the leaders of the rebels had been willing to do that, there was too much blood under the bridge for it to hold. The nuts on one side or the other would have started screaming for vengeance before we'd even had a chance to catch our breath, and we'd end up right back where we started.

Duronda goes to the front of the attic and sits down in the window seat. It's a wide window, and there's room for both of us, if we don't mind being cozy, which, for the last couple of years, hasn't been a problem. We both felt guilty at first, but it was too tiring.

I sit at the other end, and she slips her arms around my waist. It's never going to be anything but a late-life comfort for us, but that's better than nothing.

"I should hire a Capitol doctor to come out here and look at you. Maybe they could do something."

"Maybe for me. But for half a dozen others? There are people younger than I am with this. Alder Abernathy died before we were forty, and now his son's got it worse than I do. Wouldn't be right to fix me up unless they plan to fix everyone up."

"I don't care about everyone. And old Pappy'd practically die of embarrassment at Alder's boy being the only one carrying the name."

"So he deserves to die and leave a pair of orphans because he's a drunk?"

"No," she says grudgingly. "No, and Pappy wouldn't be ashamed of him any, either, as I understand things. Pappy always loved his family, even if they drank a bit. He was a better person than I am. But if I were to pick one person, it wouldn't be him." She sighs. "Not that they'd let me bring a doctor out here, anyway. I asked."

"You should have asked me first."

"I'd rather you didn't die, if that's quite all right with you."

I consider pushing the subject, but I don't do it. Duronda's lonely, and that's where it's coming from. I'm an old friend. "We've got years," I tell her. "Five, maybe even six before it gets bad."

It's a wildly hopeful estimate, and I guess we both know it, but there are years to be had, one way or another.

"Yeah. Years," she says, then leans her head back against the glass. Beyond her, the green of Victors' Village stretches down toward the woods. From this high up, I can't see most of the other houses, and we could be back before the treaty, on Pappy Angus's land. We're next door to the house that was built where his house once stood, but it's close enough. I feel like, if we could just walk out this window and glide down into the forest, we'd be young again, down by the waterfall, where Misty will be waiting with Dad's old banjo.

But it's not time to go yet.

We sit together for the rest of the afternoon, and don't talk much until Sheba comes to pick up the baby after work.

Something about President Paylor, and the challenges she faces rebuilding Panem. Maybe a bit with her backstory, and how she's dedicated to not repeating past mistakes. for princesselwen

My gun holster hangs on the office wall, beside a picture of me from the newspapers, holding back a rebel and a Capitol civilian who were trying to rain blows down on each other. It looks like it must have been caused by some great and weighty issue, but it actually started over nothing but personal insults. The Capitol man had called the rebel (and by implications, all of us from the districts) a filthy traitor, and the rebel had responded by making a nasty judgment about the sex lives of Capitol citizens. The Capitol man offered the opinion that prudes in the districts probably needed instructional films to figure out anything more complex than fornicating with their sisters. The rebel advanced the proposition that Capitol perverts ought to have their testicles removed, if such glands could actually be found.

The high matters of political philosophy.

At any other time, it would have ended with a brawl, but in those days when Coin executing everyone she could get her grubby little hands on, everyone was on edge. Both men had crowds with them, and weapons were starting to come out. We hadn't even cleared the carnage in City Center, and already, we were on our way to what might have been a bloody battle.

I jumped in. I don't know what I intended to do if they'd been really determined to fight, but they weren't, and seeing a smallish woman in the shadows of their fists seemed to do the trick, at least that day. I said something, but I doubt it was important, as no one (including me) remembers what it was. I guess if they hadn't knocked it off, I'd have had to start shooting, but I can't think how that would have been useful.

Underneath that picture and the gun holster, I insisted on putting up a bigger picture: My first kindergarten class. The official state picture, the one that would be used if any of them were reaped. Kersey Green is in the front row of students, smiling around a missing tooth. They played it during her Games, though I don't think anyone ever thought to look at the teacher standing behind the class. I look at her every day when I come in, though. It was before I was a soldier or a politician, and the difference between that pretty woman with the big smile and the big bow in her black hair and the grim-faced old hag I see too often in the mirror -- let alone the newspaper picture -- is stark.

I go to the class picture and look at my old self. Be more like that one today, I tell myself. Be who you really are, not who the war made you.

Of course, being president doesn't give me a lot of opportunities to play the tambourine and dance maniacally around the room followed by giggling five-year-olds, but I always hold out hope. When I've stressed myself to the breaking point on something, I ask Effie Abernathy to send me on an orphanage visit, so I can read stories and feel like Baize Paylor again, instead of Madame President.

I can't pretend that I didn't want the job, or don't like it. It's almost addictive to make decisions that actually have far reaching impact on the world. I'm glad they put a legal limit on the number of terms a president can serve, because both times the elections have happened, I've found myself frighteningly determined to win, because I've convinced myself that the country can't function without me.

I did run for my third term, and I won it as easily as the others, but I've already decided, here at its first day, what my goal is: To make absolutely and utterly sure that I am superfluous. And that the next president will also be superfluous.

Oh, someone needs to do the job, of course, but it will just be a job. I want people to come and go from this office without the whole country getting the jitters. The first time someone ran against me, a wild-eyed woman from District Four accused the man running against me of treason, because if I left office, she believed the entire country would fall to ruin again. What frightened me most was that I got piles of letters agreeing with her, and assuring me that they all knew I would never abandon them, and that if worse came to worse, the opponent (who happened to become my friend later on) could be assassinated.

Plutarch was hugely disappointed, of course. It had failed to enter his calculations -- or, to be fair, mine -- that the only governmental changes Panem has seen for decades, even centuries, have been marked by violent destabilization. Of course the people are jittery about it. They may know intellectually that our constitution allows for what amounts to a peaceful revolution every five years. They may realize that, despite Snow's and Coin's best efforts to convince them otherwise, the world will not end if the government changes. But in their hearts, they see the parachutes dropping out of the hovercraft, and I suspect that may always be true for people of a certain age.

So the plan for my fifth term is simple: Start to draw back, to limit what I do in office. Let them see the whole government at work, without my face hanging on every decision. Give the Council, the local governments, the liaisons, and everyone else likely to run next time a turn in front of the cameras. Let people get more comfortable with them.

It's not that I've been especially monomaniacal in my first two terms. Repairs needed to be made, and I got the machinery going on them. Treaties needed to be written up, and I made sure they were fair. And yes, riots and micro-rebellions needed to be quashed. There are places where I don't have one hundred percent approval, including District Five, where I actually needed to deploy troops to keep the peace during the last election cycle. (Both candidates were firebrands, both had maniacal followings, and I wished we'd somehow made it possible for both of them to lose, but as it happened, I was stuck with one of them on the Council. I have no idea how he's different from the other one, but District Five is bitterly split on the issue of which idiot they wanted to send to the Capitol, and which bunch of idiots they wanted running their district. Democracy has its flaws, particularly when the people appear to have lost their damned minds, but it's still the best basis. As Plutarch says, we just have to find a way to make the gears of government jam up when the would-be dictators try to push the on button.)

I'm still looking at the old kindergarten picture when the door to the inner office opens, and Effie comes out, looking at the day's schedule on her handheld. Last year, she traded in her increasingly dated-looking wigs for a series of delicious hats. Today's is a confection of powder blue netting and feathers that rises up from a flat disc into kind of floral bloom. Someday, I will dare to visit Effie's milliner, but even after a decade, I still don't feel quite daring enough to try something quite so loudly Capitol.

She almost walks into me. "Baize!" she says. "I didn't know you were in! You weren't due for another -- "

"Thirteen minutes?" I grin. "Twelve-and-a-half?"

She shakes her head at me, but smiles. Over the last ten years, I've become very comfortable with the notion of Effie handling my schedule, but I've never been great at showing up at the exact minute she expects me. I've always tended to run about a quarter of an hour early. It stopped throwing her for a loop years ago, but we still tease each other about her precision in regard to timing and my approximation of it.

"As long as I'm here," I say, "what's the run-down for today?"

"You wanted to catch up on your paperwork -- "

"'Wanted' is a generous word."

" -- so I gave you until ten-thirty for that. You'll probably want to prioritize the eyes-only material. I can go over the rest and summarize it for you if you want."

"Just write up guides to the long ones," I tell her. I dutifully go through all of my papers at night, even though most of it is tedium, but it's very helpful to know exactly which variety of tedium I'll be consuming. "Prioritize them by deadline."

"All right. Anyway, at ten-thirty, you're meeting with the governor of District Three. He wants more power lines laid out across the salt flats."

"With a shrinking population and half of their industry gone?"

"He's trying to get people back."

I sigh. I don't know how well it's going to work. District Three is physically punishing and culturally unattractive to the adventurous upcoming generation, which has its heart set on exploring the world, not making better mousetraps. Then again, they have a lot of enthusiastic supporters. Maybe the Capitol can help Three out with its power makeover, and one of the investors can help the Fourteen Forward organization get its compound built in Jamaica. "Okay. How long will I be able to talk to him?"

"I could only squeeze out half an hour. You'll need to head out for the car by Eleven if you're going to make it to One for Freedom Memorial parade."

"Even that's cutting it close. Do you think Mayor Singh would be willing to ride up there with me so we can talk in the car? There were soldiers from Three there when One toppled its Justice Building, so it's appropriate enough if he's there with me."

"I'll call him while you're doing your paperwork." She scans it. "You were supposed to meet with Gale Hawthorne when you get back, but he's in town and at loose ends. I could suggest that he meet you there."

Getting Gale in front of the cameras isn't a bad idea, either. He's a popular figure, and I know he has designs on higher office, whether he admits it or not. "Good," I say. "Call Gale. And make sure Plutarch has the other Councilors in the studio for coverage of the parade."

"I'll try," she says, and we both roll our eyes. Plutarch knows what needs to be done, but he can't seem to shake the idea of only putting photogenic, popular war heroes on television.

"After the parade?" I prod.

"Is there anything you'll need to discuss with Gale in the office?" In other words, is our conversation classified. I shake my head. "Good," she says. "Then you can do that meeting in transit. That will give you an extra forty minutes to work on your state of the nation speech."

"That's not until next month!"

"You need the first draft ready for your spot-checkers next week."

"Fine. That only takes us to four o'clock."

"Fourteen Forward."

"I don't know what else I can do for them! They have everything they've asked for, and I don't have the budget for more."

"Enobaria Fells is very insistent. She wants you to express personal support for the District Fourteen project."

"And I want it to be their accomplishment."

Effie sighs and puts down her handheld. "Baize, I know what you're trying to do, but it's not going to work."

"And why is that?"

"Because you're the first president of Free Panem. You 're never going to be just a person doing a job. Not now. Not in history a hundred years from now."

"But I want it to become just a job."

"It will. It will, as you let the mundane things take on their own lives. But you'll never be mundane. You'll always matter."


9 comments or Leave a comment
willowlistener From: willowlistener Date: March 27th, 2016 02:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
That first one was oh so sad. You knew it had to be, but still -

I like the idea of Durounda volunteering for Misty. Misty was the one that rescued Snow, wasn't she? That would have put the bow on top for him...
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 28th, 2016 07:10 am (UTC) (Link)
I was actually planning for it to be Duronda herself who did it, but as I haven't mentally gotten to the scene yet, I'm not sure. :D
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 27th, 2016 03:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
After seeing Effrim and co adventuring across Panem as kids, it's painful seeing him nearing the end while watching Twelve flounder in the process.
The idea of people not just voting but *cheering* for the deaths of their neighbors' children is just... The lack of empathy to be able to do that isn't something I want to comprehend.
At the very least Duranda's being on point about Effrim's morbid vanity was a source for a good laugh. And I can see where Glen got his levelheadedness and open views from.

Ah, the "now what" conundrum after the fall of tyranny. Nobody wants a tyrant lording over them; however, everyone is so used to getting told what to do so long that it's not hard to see the deceptive comfort of going back to a strong autocrat to guide them. After all, this one will be better, and it's totally not like the ones coming after will be subject to leader decay.
It's said that presidency ages a person much more than usual; even with Panem's medical tech, it's not hard to see Paylor being quite salt-and-pepper by this point.

-- FFR
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 28th, 2016 07:14 am (UTC) (Link)
My faith in "We the People" is at low ebb just lately, so I don't have much problem believing in populist movements offering up members of out-groups and crowing about it. Blah.

Though I guess that was kind of the theme of the other, too, wasn't it?

One of the reasons I had Snow intent to not allow charity was that I feel like he wanted people to feel that everything flowed from the Capitol -- which would leave people with the lingering sense that any change in government might mean that they wouldn't be able to eat anymore, even if they knew, intellectually, that it wasn't the case. Outside D2, Panem might not have had full-blown Stockholm Syndrome, but I can imagine that some of the symptoms would have shown up.
princesselwen From: princesselwen Date: March 27th, 2016 10:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
I like that last one.
You see a lot of fiction about fighting to destroy a corrupt society, but not a lot about rebuilding once the fight is over. That's why I thought Paylor's story would be so interesting.
And Effie as her secretary? Good job for her.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 28th, 2016 07:16 am (UTC) (Link)
I find the rebuilding interesting, too, though I have to be careful not to get didactic (I'm not sure I succeeded at that!). The revolution is often quick and glorious. The question of whether it's going to be followed by reigns of terror or killing fields... that's a bigger and more complicated problem.
beceh From: beceh Date: March 29th, 2016 08:38 am (UTC) (Link)
They were both wonderful, thank you!
redrikki From: redrikki Date: March 29th, 2016 06:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's almost addictive to make decisions that actually have far reaching impact on the world.

The idea of Baize Paylor as George Washington is so brilliant here. I love how she's trying to phase herself out and get everyone ready for her eventual departure while acknowledging just how much she craves power. I don't know if you've seen/heard 'Hamilton' yet, but her whole story just felt like a giant reference to Washington's part in it. History has its eye on her!
dragonzair From: dragonzair Date: March 30th, 2016 06:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ah! I really like a small glimpse into the relationship (friendship???) between Effie and Blaize 😊
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