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The Big Empty, Chapter 13 - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
The Big Empty, Chapter 13
Effrim and co. arrived in D8 only to find it occupied by the Capitol. After being sheltered in a makeshift synagogue under a factory by a blind teenager named Avi (and his little sister, Leah), they plan to leave with a shipment of cloth... but before they can, the rebels decide to retake the city.

Chapter Thirteen
I wake up in the small hours the day we're supposed to leave.

I've been sleeping on a pile of factory scraps up near the front of the room. Misty is off to one side and Rebecca is on the other. Duronda has planted herself near the door, where she's snoring steadily. Toole apparently wanted to sleep off the floor, as he's piled his scraps on top of a pair of benches that he's pushed together. Dolly Sosi is asleep in a rocking chair.

We're prepared to leave, and I'm not nervous about it. I'm not entirely sure what woke me up, actually. I don't even really need to use the rusty little bathroom off the hall, though I go in anyway, as much to splash metallic smelling water over my face as anything else.

I carefully ball up a length of fabric and put it along the bottom of the door before I turn on the single, unadorned ceiling bulb, since, in theory, someone could see this door from the window in the door to the alley.

I look at myself in the streaked mirror. I mostly look the same as I did when I left District Twelve. My skin's gotten a little bit tanner, which makes my eyes look weirdly bright. My hair is much longer, almost down to my shoulders. I wonder if I should take some scrap material and start tying it back. I never thought of growing my hair before. I kind of like the look of it. I've been rolling up the sleeves of my shirts, too, because my arms are actually starting to look substantial, and I like that, too.

Still no chin hair, though. Dad's not very hairy, and he told me that I don't need to expect much in the facial hair department, even when I'm full-grown. ("We're not beard people, we Everdeens," he told me philosophically once, when I asked him why he didn't grow a big beard like Uncle Chick. "We end up looking like someone put a little glue on our faces and walked us past some floating hair." A few months later, Thirteen had made Uncle Chick shave his beard off anyway, so that the soldiers would all look alike, so I guess it didn't matter.)

I can still tell I'm thirteen, but looking in the mirror, I can see someone else starting to peek around the edges of my face, and he looks like he might be an okay guy.

I've just turned on the water to get a proper wash before we leave when, out of nowhere, there's a deafening boom.

The building shakes, and the light goes out, leaving me in utter darkness as the world around me begins to jitter and bounce. I can't keep my feet, and the only thing that keeps me from falling down entirely is that the room isn't big enough for it. I'm just thrown into the back wall. Other than me, there's nothing in the bathroom to fall, but outside, I hear a shout as books tumble down from shelves and something falls over and shatters.

I don't try to get to my feet. I don't know what's going on, but I do know that, whatever it is, I don't want to be locked in a bathroom, and walking seems iffy.

I don't even really need to crawl. The room is barely bigger than my body when I'm on all fours. I grope forward with my hand until I find the wadded up cloth, and I pull it aside. Furious shadows play under the door.


I touch the door, but it's not hot at all.

Carefully, I open it.

There is fire, but it's on the far side of the alley. A building is burning brightly enough to illumine the hallway here. More thumping sounds punctuate the eerie pre-dawn light, and I finally understand: We're being bombed.

And since the Capitol is in control, it means that the rebellion is bombing us.

Of course, it's targeting Capitol interests, but here in Eight, the factories and housing and government buildings are so close to one another that it hardly matters.

Another blast shakes the world, and I'm thrown into the opposite wall. I'm feeling my way back around the corner, where none of the firelight can reach, when suddenly, I'm thrown into a small figure.

Hands skitter over my face, then Misty says, "Effrim! I woke up and you were gone!"

"I'm okay," I tell her. "There's bombing. Fires outside."

She nods -- I can feel the motion in the wisps of her hair against my face -- then says, "Things are crashing."


"We have to get out. We have to get out of the factory before a bomb lands on us."

"We don't know where we're going."

"Well, away from falling death would be a good start."

"Rebecca!" someone yells from the stairway that goes up to the factory floor. "Rebecca!"

"Here!" she calls back.

I grab hold of Misty and steer us all back to the room where we've been staying. I can't see anything in here until Dolly raises up her wristband and puts up the holo again, casting the room in a shadowy gray glow. Avi lurches in with the next thump outside, Leah in his wake.

"Rebellion's here," he says, unnecessarily. "Come on. Time to get out. Leah's going with you."

"I am not!"

"Yes, you are, and I don't have time to argue."

We grab our bags quickly -- we packed last night -- and Misty and I lead the way to the door outside.

"Are there soldiers out there?" Leah asks. "And fires?"

"Building across the way is on fire," I say. "No soldiers."

"Good," Avi says. "There's no one in that building; it got bombed a year ago. We can take the alley and go up to the train yard. The truck should be ready to go. Skip the woods and just take the whole truck. Maybe someone can use the cloth, or you could sell it." He starts to lead us across toward the burning building, but swerves to the right and ducks into a dark, smoky alley instead. He has his hand thrust out in front of him, but he knows this area and moves us all through it quickly. Leah, muttering beside Duronda, sometimes has to check landmarks, but Avi never falters. "Blast north as fast as you can," he says. "The bombers are engaged on the other side of the city, and I think you can get a good distance before anyone notices you leaving. Then swing west toward Five. Leah, you've seen the maps."

"I'm not going," she says. "I'm staying to fight."

"Yeah, well, we're going to need you," Toole tells her. "So re-think that position."

She doesn't have the breath to argue. We're moving too fast. But when I glance over at her, I see in the set of her chin that she has no intention of being shoved through the gates of District Eight.

We go zig-zagging through the maze of the city streets, and I lose track entirely of where we've been. I find everything about this place confusing. It's one identical alley after another, one garbage pit on top of the next. But Avi doesn't hesitate.

I hear a great rumbling in the building beside the alley we're running through. A chunk of concrete falls and shatters, and I look up to see cracks creeping up the length of the wall.

"It's coming down!" I shout.

Avi stops and listens. "You're right. This one's empty, too. Structurally unsound. But let's get out of here."

He starts moving quickly through the alley, shoving me out, then Misty and Leah, then Duronda and Toole. We run pell-mell out into another empty square.

Avi is reaching through to yank at Rebecca's arm when there is a squeal of metal. A set of rickety stairs that ran up the side of the building tears free and comes roaring down into the alley.

Rebecca screams.

I can't see much through the dust and smoke billowing out of the alley, but it was a cry of pain. I run forward. Toole and Duronda both rush in beside me. Avi and Leah are already there, pushing aside the debris.

Rebecca's leg is trapped under the twisted metal. Beyond it…

I close my eyes. Dolly Sosi is lying under the bulk of the metal, her body bent in ways it could never turn on its own. There is a jagged spike going through her neck.

"Dolly!" Toole yells. "Aw, Dolly, come on!"

But she doesn't come on. She just stares blankly into the fiery sky.

I don't know how long we stand there, witnessing the sudden death, before Avi says, "I need help here!"

I'm dimly aware that Rebecca is still screaming, and I turn to her. Her right leg is bent badly to one side, and her left is pinned.

Avi, feeling for the lines of the fallen stairs, has pulled away some of the wreckage. Duronda is pulling at more of it, while Leah is trying to keep Toole from going in after Dolly. Misty runs in to help her.

I go to Rebecca and get behind one of the bigger pieces of the stairs, tapping Avi's shoulder and putting his hand on it from the other side. We give it a heave, and I can see her left leg now, twisted at the knee.

"Get out of here!" she says. "I can't go."

I think of her hesitantly telling me that she and Dad were seeing each other, and have a fairly absurd image of finding him and saying, "Sorry, but I left your girlfriend pinned in a burning alley." I know he understands war, and I know he'd forgive me. I also know I'm not going to give him anything to forgive me for.

Rebecca is not a terribly large woman, and I've gotten stronger over the last several weeks. I bend down and scoop her up. She screams again, then goes silent as she faints from the pain in her legs.

She is too heavy for me, and I sway, but then I feel Duronda's hands on my shoulders, pushing me upright.

"I'll help," she says.

We arrange Rebecca so that she's between us, each of us pulling one of her arms over our shoulders, and we drag her away from the alley. We may be permanently injuring her legs, beyond what anyone will be able to repair, but better to live with twisted legs than to die.

I see Misty and Leah persuading Toole to come, and Avi feels his way to the end of the building. "The gate, Leah!" he shouts.

She comes forward, peers through the smoke, and says, "Dead ahead, no wreckage, no soldiers, but we better go." She looks at Toole, and something passes between them. I don't know what, and my mind is too occupied with keeping Rebecca from falling to the ground to care.

Avi sets out ahead again, running his hand along a wall, and we follow. For the next few minutes, all I can think of is how much my shoulders hurt, how I know that Duronda and I can't do this, how I'm sure we'll lose Rebecca, and how sudden it all is.

Then we're at the gate.

It's a tall monstrosity, wound through with barbs and electrical jolts. I wonder if we're going to have to short it out, but Avi comes through again. He draws a card out of his pocket and runs it through the lock. The gate swings open and we go through it. I can see trains and tracks in the distance, but here, standing sentry, is a large vehicle covered with yellow-greenish canvas. I've seen trucks before, but never anything this big.

"Go up to the cab," Avi instructs us. "Everyone should be able to fit. There's a cot in the back to put Rebecca on. You're going to --"

"I'm staying," Toole says.

"There's no one else who can drive," Leah points out.

"You know how to drive. You're not worrying about traffic rules. You'll be the only ones out there, so you're just pointing it and steering."

"I'm not going unless you keep our deal," Leah says.

"We'll get to that."

"Deal?" Avi asks. "What deal?"

"Get Rebecca in the cab," Toole says, and he leads Duronda and me forward, taking us to the dirt-colored front of the truck, which by itself is as big as some trucks I've seen. It's a high step, but he scrambles up ahead of us and pulls Rebecca in himself, laying her out on the cot at the back. There are straps there for steadying a rider, and he ties them over her.

When we get out, Leah and Avi are in a shouting match.

"…go where you're damned well told!" Avi yells. "I'm your guardian, you do what I say!"

"What good do you think you're going to do here? You go! I can fight better than you."

"You're twelve. I can fight here. This isn't going to end with a bombing."

"No, it's not, and you can't fight street to street, Avi! I don't care how good you are at feeling your way around. You can't aim a gun and know who it's really pointed at!"

"You don't tell me what to do, I --"

His voice is suddenly cut off, and he slumps to the ground. Behind him, Toole is lowering his hands from a punch he delivered.

He looks at Leah. "I'll get him in the truck, but you better keep your deal. You're the driver."

"You should come, too."

"I'm a soldier," he says. "You're a civilian. So is he, whether he likes it or not. So are they." He looks at Misty and Duronda and me. "Now get out of here."

Toole picks up Avi and takes him to the truck, putting him on the floor beside the cot.

"You keep him still when the truck gets going," he tells me. "Get in."

I climb up beside Avi, while Leah gets into the driver's seat. She's not a big girl, and she looks ridiculous, but she pulls the seat up as far as it will go and straps herself in. Misty gets in beside her to watch the process and learn it. Duronda straps herself into a seat, and I crouch on the floor, holding Avi still.

Toole jumps down and slams the door behind him. He goes to the window beside Leah and says, "Now!"

With a squeal of machinery, the truck comes to life. There's a horrible series of bumps as we drive across a series of train tracks, and then I'm thrown backward when she guns the speed. Avi slides across at me.

I look for anything to tie us to, and come up flat.

I just hold on to the wall with one hand and flatten my upper body over Avi to keep him secure.

The ride doesn't smooth out. There are no roads out here. It's impractical to keep them up. The trucks they use for this kind of transit are made to go across flatlands, to put up with the constant bouncing, but I doubt it's supposed to be done at this speed.

We thump along for an hour without slowing down, and Leah might have gone on with it indefinitely, but Avi starts coming around. He jerks back with a start and puts his hands on the floor.

"Stop!" he yells. "You stop this truck!"

"Not a chance," Leah shouts back, not looking away from the path she's creating. "I lost Mom and Pop. You're not going anywhere."

"What use am I out here? I know my way around Eight."

"You're as much use as the rest of us," I tell him.

"Yeah, right. I'm sure you'll be taking me hunting any time now."

"Well, it's too late to turn back," Duronda snaps. "So shut up and put up."

Avi fumes and backs up against the cot. He feels Rebecca's hand and slides a little further away. "Is there someplace to strap in?" he asks.

He and I both find seats with belts on them. I think his fury is over, but when I try to talk to him, he turns away, grinding his teeth and staring into his own darkness.

Leah keeps up the pace. The sun heats up the cab of the truck, and by noon, I'm sweating badly.

An hour later, it starts to rain, and Leah is forced to slow down, and finally to stop.

"How's the fuel?" Misty asks.

"It's solar," Leah says. "It's not like anyone who ships this way can stop and fuel up. It's got to be solar."

"It could be wind," Misty offers casually, as if we haven't just spent several hours at top speed, getting away from a battle. "That would be cool. The battery charges from the car's own momentum."

Leah looks at her like she's crazy, but I smile. It's so normal. In the middle of everything, Misty's mentally building better machines. It's kind of a relief.

"Do we want to camp in the truck?" Duronda asks.

"It's better than a tent," I say. "Does everyone still have a bedroll?"

"I wasn't planning to come," Avi says morosely. "I didn't exactly pack."

"We have a truck full of fabric," Misty says. "Let's get some to be a blanket for Rebecca, and then bedrolls and anything else we need."

No one seems very enthusiastic about this, but eventually, Duronda steps up. "I'm bored out of my skull," she says. "There's nothing better to do. Come on, Avi."

"Why me?" he asks morosely.

"Well, I can't very well complete a task without someone to tell me all the ways I'm doing it wrong, now can I?"

I guess he's bored, too, because he goes with her without much more wheedling on her part.

I check on Rebecca, who's semi-conscious but doesn't seem to have had much of a change in her situation, then go up to sit with Misty and Leah. Misty is in the driver's seat.

"…so the tires are good for pretty serious shocks," Leah is saying. "But there can be big and sudden dips, even when we're out in the real flatlands. Do you remember the gears?"

Misty puts her hand on a stick shift and mimes moving it around. "On open flatland… on hills… in the rain…"

Leah nods. "Good. You can spell me, and we won't have to stop as much."

"I could learn," I offer. "Duronda, too, probably."

She looks up, noticing me for the first time. "I guess," she says. "But I think two drivers are probably enough to spell each other. We'll have to stop at night. It's hard to see and we don't dare use the lights. Also, there's not much powering it."

"Where are we, anyway?" I ask. "Avi said you knew the map?"

"I like maps," she says. "I've read a lot of them. We should be in the lakes country now. I saw a big one a while back, and there are more ahead. They look like someone splattered water on map. If we follow along on a northwest slant, we can swing west by tomorrow afternoon. Then we just tear across the plains. There'll be one big river to cross, and a few little ones -- "

"How are we crossing a river?" I ask.

"The truck's amphibious," Leah says, as if it's the most obvious thing in the world. "We splash into the water, cross the river, then come out on land."

"Why don't they use these instead of trains?" Misty asks.

Leah shrugs. "Most of Panem isn't very amenable to them. Forests are bad for anything on wheels. They're okay in the deserts, and they get used around Three and the Capitol, maybe Four, but they don't climb mountains very well, so they don't get used in Two. We may have to ditch it before we get to Five. I couldn't tell on the map what the terrain was like."

"What about…?" I look back at Rebecca.

"I don't know. We'll keep the truck as long as we can. Then… I don't know. Maybe Avi will be able to think of something. He's pretty smart about figuring out problems."

"So's Misty," I point out.

"I’m already thinking about it," Misty says. "But I wouldn't argue with help."

Duronda and Avi come back a few minutes later, laden down with heavy clothes. There are even pillows, fancy little ones with embroidery and fussy little edges. I shake my head, wondering why, of all things, this is what the Capitol was demanding.

I don't argue, though. We use a lot of the pillows to make Rebecca more comfortable. Avi decides to splint her legs before they're permanently twisted. He moves the bones by touch, which causes her enough pain that she wakes up screaming.

She's feverish and out of it, but she does manage to convey that she wants him to go on, so we spend two hours stopped in the rain while we get her bones set. Duronda finds sticks outside, and Avi wraps them in a fancy red silk. Rebecca mumbles something in which I catch "best dressed invalid" (or "bedest ahvid," as it actually sounds), then faints again.

Leah lets Misty drive for a few hours after the rain stops, and I see that we're passing around miles of lakes. I wonder if it would be easier to splash into them and avoid the mud, but no one else suggests it, so I guess there's something wrong with the idea.

We stop to camp at the edge of something that's between a river and a creek, just one of the little ones Leah mentioned. We've been driving since dawn, and we're all sore and irritated. I'm finding it hard to believe that I was getting through a battle this morning. At the moment, I'd believe it if someone said that the six of us are the only people in the world.

"What's the name?" Avi asks.

Leah just shrugs. "If it ever had one, we don't know it now."

"But wasn't it on the map?"

"No. Maybe the Capitol named it something, but the maps we had were from Thirteen. They call it something like River 3 Southwest Current."

"Things should have names," Avi says. "It's not right not to have a name."

"Fine, it's the River Avi," Leah says.

"That's not its real name."

"If no one else is calling it anything, why wouldn't it be?"

This is a topic for a little while, mostly because we are bored and lonely and trying not to talk about the war or Rebecca's legs or Sosi's broken body. We don't come to any conclusion.

Rebecca awakens in the night, moaning in pain. We don't have anything to give her. No one has medicine. She says we should shoot her and leave her. I tell her that we won't. Finally, she asks me to sing. I don't know why that helps her, but she does stop moaning and she's shaking a little less by the end. She's also completely delirious. She calls me Dale and tells me that my singing always cures her.

The next day, we splash into the narrow river. We have to coast downstream a little bit, since there's not room to get momentum going, but we come up on the other side just fine. We stop and refill the water canteen. There are purifying tablets in the truck; I guess the driver was expected to forage water from the land.

We keep going until noon, then rest long enough to stretch our legs.

I get out of the truck, and for the first time, I really see the world. It's different being outside. In the truck, there's a roof over our heads, and we're contained in the little metal box.

Outside, nothing is contained. I heard the word "flatlands," and I didn't pay attention to it. The land is beyond flat. We are on an ocean of grass, with nothing in any direction for miles. The overcast sky is vast and terrifying, and for a moment, I feel like I’m actually in danger of drowning in air. It's a uniform, unmitigated gray-blue, hanging over an unbroken see of gray-green, and I am trapped here between them, pinned like the giant Atlas in the old stories Pappy Angus sometimes tells. I can feel the weight of the sky like a physical thing, bearing down on my shoulders, and I am utterly spooked.

I go back into the truck.

Rebecca is feeling a little better this morning, though she's obviously still in pain.

"Effrim," she says through cracked lips. "Effrim, do you know where you're going?"

"I'm… I'm seeing my father. In Three."

She breathes harshly, drawing in a few gasps, but I can see that her lips are actually trying to twitch into a smile. "I mean, right now. We didn't stop at the Lakes Depot."

"I don't know."

"Before I slip under again. There's a wind farm. Outside Five, before the mountains start. It's aban…" She fades out for a minute, but manages to come back enough to say, "Stop at the windmills. They're quiet now. No one… there's… radio…"

Then she's out for the count.

I take the rifle outside. It doesn't help with the fear -- what would I shoot? -- but I do manage to bring down a brace of rabbits for supper tonight.

We keep moving.

As the sun begins to set, Misty, who is driving, pulls us toward something that glints in the dying rays of the sun. As we get closer, I see that it is a half-buried piece of art. Only part of it has enough metal to glint; the rest is rust. Spikes protrude from the ground, and on them, welded to them, are images of birds. I see other glints and wonder if there is more art out here, but it's too late to find out. We clear a circle of grass and put out rocks to make a fire pit, then roast the rabbits and eat.

I tell everyone what Rebecca said about the wind farm, though I have no idea what a wind farm is. Duronda, surprisingly, has heard of windmills. "From Pappy," she says. "He told me a story once about a guy who thought windmills were dragons. I didn't know what they were. He showed me a picture in his dictionary. I guess we could see them for a ways out here."

No one argues.

We sleep in the truck again, and awaken to the thunder of thousands of hooves, as a herd of some kind of animal passes just to the north. I have never seen so many animals together. They're huge and black, and I can smell them even at a bit of a distance. It doesn't occur to me to hunt one. For one thing, there would be more meat than we could eat or store, which would mean it would be a wasted kill. For another, those things look like they could kill me pretty easily.

So we just let them pass.

The dust is still settling when we get moving again.
4 comments or Leave a comment
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 13th, 2016 09:42 am (UTC) (Link)
So do you have the comparative lack of hair being Seam thing or just Everdeens?

Okay, it goes without saying that frivolity's okay. But at a certain point, there's also this little thing called priorities. Though now I'm having this image of forward command centers for Capitol forces being furnished with gaudy throw pillows.

I bet if Thirteen had its way, they'd call the Mississippi "Primary Southbound River 1).
Is this one the Des Moines?

Interesting idea that the sky in the Great Plains region feels daunting. Maybe because I grew up at the cusp of it but I never had that feeling.
Despite everything, there's something heartening about seeing bison reclaim the land.

-- FFR
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 13th, 2016 02:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think the Capitol just wanted to force D8 back to work. Maybe they didn't have a lot of military textile needs? But yes. It seems like a really strange priority. Then again, the Capitol.

The lack of hairiness, I think, is just a random family thing, and may not be all that long-lasting (Katniss seems to rather enjoy having body hair, and I'd guess the relative amount of secondary body hair would be the same in males and females). But since I didn't want to deal with Effrim shaving, I figured he's a little younger, and if he was prone to having less hair anyway, I wouldn't need to worry about it. ;p

The particular river they crossed was the Buffalo River in North Dakota.

I'm from the east, and I was totally gobsmacked by the Great Plains. Like... whoa. Next time I go home, I kind of want to take a train, just to appreciate them a little bit.

Bison making a comeback would probably happen if the human population disappeared!
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 13th, 2016 09:52 am (UTC) (Link)
Don Quixote survived! <3 Abernathy Family Dictionary.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 13th, 2016 02:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
Don Quixote is forever! :D
4 comments or Leave a comment