When I get home from school, my mother's waiting in the kitchen. "Good day?" she says.
I shrug, my hands frozen on the buttons of my coat. The kitchen is all quiet and empty, and that's strange -- usually my father would be starting supper by now. Usually Del would be playing on the kitchen floor. "It was okay," I say, slowly.
My mother nods. "Well. Don't take off your coat. You'll be staying at Greasy Sae's tonight. Del's already there waiting on you."
I frown. All of a sudden, it feels like I can't quite get a breath. "I don't want to," I say.
My mother opens her mouth to answer me, but there's a big thump from upstairs before she can. She presses her lips together, blows out a breath through her nose. "I know," she says. "And I'm sorry. But I'm not asking." There's another thump then, the sound of my father's voice, muffled and angry. My mother puts her hands on my shoulders, turns me around and steers me toward the door. "I'll come see you later on. When he settles down a bit. Go on, now."
I still don't want to. But I go.
Greasy Sae lives down in the middle of town, back toward the school. I go down the hill in that direction. It's cold outside. There's snow on the path and snow piled up along people's fences, snow under my boots, crunch crunch crunch. Last time my father turned crazy I was just a little kid, maybe Del's age. Del himself was just a baby. I remember sleeping in Greasy Sae's front room, the clock that went tick-tock tick-tock through the night. Scratchy blankets and weird shadows on the wall. My father had the idea that I was trying to put poison in his stew, and that was why we had to spend the night away. Not your fault, my mother told me that time. We were walking quickly through the town with Del wrapped up in my mother's arms. It was coming on dark, then like now. I remember looking up at her in the dim, thinking maybe she wasn't as smart as I always figured she was. Thinking, obviously.
Obviously it's not my fault. Not Del's fault, either. And yet it's me and Del that have to go and spend the night at Greasy Sae's. I stoop and grab a hunk of snow out of the snowbank next to me, chuck it at the dim fluffed-up shape of a crow in the tree overhead, making it launch itself into the air with a squawk. "Not your fault," I tell the crow. It doesn't pay me any attention.
At the bottom of the hill, I duck around the market and take the alley. I don't want to run into anyone I know from school and have to answer questions. The alley is quieter. Lots of long shadows. If you kept walking this way without turning, you'd get right to the area they used to call the Seam, where the woods are all overgrown on the fence and the broken down houses are all empty. Thinking about that makes me shiver. I know better than to believe in ghosts and whatnot, but walking alone in the dusk like this, listening to the wind whining in the big old trees, I believe in them anyway. A bit.
The house I'm coming up on now has a big yard, which the people use for keeping chickens. During the day, when I pass this place on my way to school, it's a racket, all that clucking and carrying on. But chickens are stupid -- when it starts to get dark they go right to sleep, usually. So that's my first clue that something's strange: tonight, the chickens are loud inside the wooden shed the people built to house them, even before I'm close enough for it to have been me that caused the stir.
I slow my steps, try to walk quietly like my mother showed me, each step sliding into the next. I stick to the shadows near the fence on the other side of the alley now, breathe through my mouth to make less noise, keep my eyes trained on the shed, on the shadows near it. At first nothing moves. Then something does. Another shadow, darker than the ones around it. I hear metal on metal, the thud of something heavy hitting the frozen ground. I think about scary things, ghosts come haunting from the mass grave at the edge of town, the one the adults don't want us to know about. Or a mutt maybe, come out hungry from the forest. But then the shadow swears under its breath, low and muffled, but still plenty loud enough to hear, and I know it's only Haymitch.
I don't come out from my hiding place, though, because nobody tells you anything if you're a kid and I want to know what old Haymitch is doing rummaging around behind the Goddens' chicken shed in the dark. He isn't trying to break into the shed far as I can see. He seems to be more interested in the junk they've got piled up behind it. He shoves aside an old oven rack and a broken gas canister, something big and square-shaped that looks like it might be part of a heater, then spends a long time looking at the thing he finds underneath all the other stuff, hunched over in the dark, before he finally stands up again with the whatever-it-is cradled in his arms. He shoves the stack of other stuff with his foot and it topples over with a muffled clatter, covering up the spot where the thing he's holding used to be, raising a whole new racket of alarm from the stupid chickens. We both freeze, then, waiting for somebody from the Goddens' house to come out to investigate the noise, but nobody does. Eventually Haymitch shakes his head, shifts his grip on the thing he's stealing and starts back up the alley toward his own house. I'm not done being curious, so I step deeper into the shadows and hold my breath til he crunches past, then wait a while longer to give him a head start before I follow him. Sae'll be wondering where I got to, but I don't care. The thought of her stuffy, steamy place doesn't exactly appeal. I want to cut down the amount of time I have to spend there anyway.
Haymitch is nowhere to be seen by the time I get to his back gate, but the only light shining out from the house is coming from the cellar. I steal across the yard and crouch next to one of the cellar windows, my heart thumping. I have no idea why -- old Haymitch is a lot of things, but he's never been scary, always been too drunk and sad and lonely for that. Except, he doesn't look drunk as he comes down the cellar stairs with the thing he stole from Goddens. He looks distracted and sharp, like he's thinking hard about something. He looks like he has a plan. I shiver and think: if he looks up, he'll see me for sure. But he doesn't.
The thing he stole is an old television set; I can see the screen now, its flat surface punched right through by something or other, unusable. Haymitch carries it to the workbench he's got set up down there, in the corner where we keep the potato bin at my house. The bench is messy, like everything else at Haymitch's house. There are dirty plates and cups all mingled up with parts of clocks and bunches of wires and what looks like the remains of at least three other television sets, their screens hanging down away from their backing, leaving their busted-up insides exposed. Haymitch shoves a bunch of stuff aside to make room, then plops the television down and disappears, out of my line of sight. I shift in the cold, thinking maybe he's gone for good, maybe part of his crazy is collecting old junk like this and leaving it in his basement. But then he comes back into view again, minus his coat and gloves, and he starts prying the screen off this set, too. It takes a while. He swears a lot. I watch anyway, chewing on a piece of my scarf.
Haymitch seems to know what he's looking for once the screen is pryed up. I can't quite see what it is, but it's small, something small and breakable he has to unwind from the rest of the junk inside the television set. He holds that up so he can squint at it in the light coming from the bulb hanging down from the low ceiling overhead, then shrugs and shuffles over to another table, this one mostly out of my view. I scoot over to another window, but by the time I get there, he's left already. I have time to see that this table is a whole lot neater, just a board by itself in the middle, a couple of shiny round things attached to it somehow, a big coil of wires. Then the light shuts off and I can't see anything anymore.
I crouch in the snow a while longer, hoping maybe Haymitch'll come back. But then I hear the television in the front room switch on I know he's done for the night.
Greasy Sae is in the kitchen when I finally get to her house, stringy gray hair falling out of a bun at the back of her head, bony feet bare on her worn wooden floor. She has a pot of something on the stove, steaming up the kitchen windows, making everything smell like cabbage. Del is at the kitchen table, drawing on his slate. He looks up when he hears me come in, but he doesn't say anything.
I kick off my boots and come over to steal a piece of carrot from Sae's chopping board. She shakes her spoon at me, but I can tell she doesn't mean it. "That's for the soup," she says.
I shove the carrot in my mouth and grab another. Sae squints one eye, screws her mouth up like she's not sure about me. But when I grin at her, she grins back. I cram the other carrot into my mouth and head to the table so I can lean over Del's slate and see what he's drawing.
"It's a train," he murmurs, without looking up at me. He has long straight lines for the track, shaky circles where the wheels should be. He draws the box that'll make up the engine, now. I crunch the carrot chunks and watch him do it. "It looks nice," I say eventually. "It looks like it's going somewhere."
Del nods, blond head bent over the slate. "Yep," he says. Without looking at me, he reaches up for another piece of chalk, a darker one than the one he'd had before. He starts coloring in the sky. "Dad said the president put a camera in my eye," he adds. "He said I'm a mutt. For spying."
I swallow the rest of my carrot, swallow again. Then I reach out to mess up Del's yellow hair. "Well, Dad's a nutter," I say. Del's too little for real explanations and I don't feel like giving one, anyway.
Del just nods again. His chalk scritches across the slate's rough surface, coating it with blue dust. His small fingers are coated, too, all the colors smudging together against his pale skin.
Sae clears her throat. "Your mother was wondering where you got to," she says.
I unwind my scarf, shrug out of my coat. I find I don't want to tell anybody else about Haymitch's mysterious project. "Just playing," I say.
Sae stirs the soup three, four, five times. She isn't looking at me, but I can tell she's waiting for me to say something more. I don't.
"Well," she says, finally. "Go on and wash those hands of yours. Supper's nearly ready."
The next day my father's no better, so me and Del have to go back to Sae's. I spend the evening spying on old Haymitch in his cellar. He has a tool that melts metal and he uses it to stick a number of small things together on his board: tubes and coils and colored wire, round dials from one of his busted televisions. Sometimes he stops and pages through a book he has, squinting at the pictures and muttering to himself. I can't decide if I think he's crazy.
On the third night, he closes the book soon after I start watching and disappears. I think maybe he has a new piece of junk he's taking apart, so I half stand and creep toward the other window, one hand braced on the side of Haymitch's house, bent low to keep from being noticed. My boots sink into the snow piled against the house and I have to think about pulling them loose without making much noise and so I don't notice Haymitch until I actually run straight into him. I stagger back and stare up at him, my mouth hanging open, my heart thumping. He snorts, watching me. "Well, come on," he says, after a moment. "If you're going to be hanging around spying on me, you might as well make yourself useful." Then he turns and stomps back through the snow toward his door.
I take a breath and then another. My heart's still beating too fast, but I'm curious, too. I close my mouth and wrinkle my nose, thinking about it. Then I follow Haymitch back into his house.
It stinks in there, which is not surprising considering how much of a mess it is. I stamp the snow off my boots and climb down the cellar stairs. Haymitch is bent over the table with the thing he's building again. He doesn't look up when he hears me come in, just says "all right, come on," impatiently, like there's nothing strange about this situation at all. I tug my mitts off and unwind my scarf, crossing the cellar to stand next to Haymitch at the table. Up close, the thing he's building makes no more sense than it did from outside -- a row of tiny metal pieces in a wooden box, a long coil of colored wire with the ends melted onto the backs of the old television dials. I look up at Haymitch doubtfully. He snorts again, looking down at me. His eyes are pale and clear and kind.
"See that little red wire?" he says, jerking his chin toward the thing on the table. "The one that's coming out the middle of the coil?"
I look for it. It's hard to see amongst the rest, but I find it after a while. "I see it," I say.
"My fingers are too fat to get it threaded right," Haymitch tells me. "It needs to go on this dial here, down into that fourth notch. You see?"
I nod again. It's inside the wooden box, under a bunch of other fastenings. I can see why Haymitch can't reach it -- his hands are big and gnarled, scarred and stiff. But mine aren't. I take the red wire and thread it like he told me. Like what's in the diagram in the book.
Haymitch grunts, pleased. "Look," he says, and he's holding his melting tool in his hand when I do. "This is a soldering iron. Don't touch this end of it -- it's hot. You use it to melt one thing onto another. Try it on these scraps."
I take it. It's warm and heavier than I thought. I melt the wire scraps together, clumsily, globbing too much of the metal goop onto the joint, then burn my finger when I touch the fastening too soon.
Haymitch isn't exactly sympathetic. "Well, that was dumb," he says.
I glare up at him, my singed finger in my mouth. He smiles, shakes his head. His face looks strange, like maybe he doesn't smile that often. "Try it again."
The second attempt is a lot better than the first one. It's like gluing something, like gluing the stupid stars we make out of wooden sticks at school when we're small, the ones we hang in the windows on Victory Day. This time I resist temptation and yank my finger back before it touches the cooling metal. Haymitch snorts. "She learns," he says, sarcastically.
I scowl at him. He just smiles that same crooked smile, jerks his chin at some more scrap wire. "Try it again."
By the fourth day, I've decided me and Haymitch are building a bomb. I can't say for sure, but that's what it seems like. Why else would it be such a secret? Why else would he be sneaking around town after the sun sets, looking in people's junk heaps for parts? It has to either be a bomb or a secret mind control device, like what our teacher Mundy says the old President used to use when the government was bad. I guess it might be something harmless, too, but I can't think of what. And I can't ask him one way or the other because asking is like losing when you're working with Haymitch. You have to just know or shut up and figure it out.
If it does turn out to be a bomb, I figure I'll be the only one who can warn people that Haymitch has gone evil. So I don't let on that I'm suspicious.
At school, I do tell my friend Ulsie that I might know of someone who is plotting against the government. She doesn't believe me. "You're just a kid," she says. "No one would tell you anything." Our grade is at the back of the classroom planting geraniums in wooden troughs. Ulsie has dirt under her nose where she swiped at it with one hand, plus her hair is sticking up at the back. She's from the Childhome, where they grow babies in testubes and no kid has a mother or a father at all, let alone a mother or a father who are famous heroes from the war, so I think it's a little much that Ulsie is talking to me like this. I don't tell her that, though, on account of I have manners.
"You have dirt on your face," I say, instead.
Her eyes widen and she lifts the edge of her white shirt to wipe at the spot I pointed at. "Is it gone?" she asks, and I nod even though it isn't.
After school, I go back to my house. We aren't supposed to yet, but I want to tell my mother about Ulsie being rude. My mother isn't at home, though. No one is except my father, and my father won't answer the door.
On the sixth day, my mother says my father is better and me and Del can sleep in our own house again. I'm glad not to be eating Sae's soup anymore but I'm still mad at my father. He makes potato pie the first night we're home again, because potato pie is my favourite thing to eat. He scoops me mine with a shamed look on his face, watching me til I take a bite. "Good?" he says.
I shrug and put a hand over my mouth. "Hot," I tell him. But then his mouth dips at the corners, just a little, and I have to nod. "Good, too."
He smiles at me, wide and relieved, the exact same smile Del wears when he's happy. They look a lot alike; I'm darker, like my mother.
I eat as much of the pie as I can stand because I know my father wants me to, and then I spend the whole rest of the evening face down on the sofa in the front room, full up, regretting it.
The next night, Haymitch asks where was I and I tell him about my dad being not crazy anymore and the resulting potato pie. He listens with a look I've never seen before on his face. When I'm finished, he's still just standing there, staring at the wall above my head, lost in thought. I bend over the invention again, tightening the small screw we're using to pin the green coil to the housing. "Do you think we need two of these?" I ask.
Haymitch takes a breath, scratches at his chin. "I think you might be right," he says. He fishes in the tin cup where he keeps all the stray screws and pins and finds me one. I push it into the wood inside the housing, twisting until I figure it'll stay and then finishing up with the small screwdriver. I'm an expert at this kind of thing now; it goes quickly.
"Does your dad go crazy often?" Haymitch asks, once the screw is mostly done.
I shrug, feeling myself go tense. It isn't something I usually would talk about, but me and Haymitch are collaborators, so. "Not since I was little," I say.
Haymitch nods. He scratches his chin again, fingernails scraping in the stubble there: scritch scritch. Moves his hand up so it covers his mouth and blows out a long breath. "Well," he says. "That's certainly good to know."
The day after that is a bad day because Ulsie and me decide to build a fort outside school and I try to explain the way you would have to do the roof in order to keep it from caving in and Ulsie doesn't believe I know what I'm talking about which leads to a fight which leads to me punching her.
"We can't have children punching other children," Mundy tells my mother. They made my mother come and get me; Ulsie's already gone home with a kindly looking fat man from the Childhome.
My mother nods. "I'm sure it won't happen again," she says, and she tightens her grip on my wrist a little, gives it a tug. "Will it?" she asks.
I shake my head. "Nope," I say.
We walk home through the afternoon and it's too quiet and too bright for me to be out of school. Strange, bad day. "Are you okay?" my mother asks me when we're starting up the hill.
I look up at her, cautious, but she doesn't seem angry. "Yes," I say.
She nods. "It's. Listen. I know things have been hard."
I nod again, my eyes still on her. I'm not sure what we're talking about.
"I would. I want you to know that I'd fix it if I could," my mother says. Her eyes are dark in her narrow face, sad and fixed on me.
I blink. She seems to be waiting for a response. "Okay," I say, and she nods.
We stop at the market and get some canned fish and rice and then when we come out, Haymitch is there. My mother nods to him and starts to move past him, but he turns on his heel and falls in step with us. "You should have told me he'd relapsed," he says.
My mother stops walking. Her hands close into fists at her sides. I wonder if she might punch Haymitch like I did to Ulsie. I think about grabbing my mother's arm, telling her she's going to wish she hadn't in about five more seconds, so stop first, think about it. My mother doesn't hit Haymitch, though; she forces her hands to relax, stands a little straighter. "How?" she asks.
Haymitch nods toward me. "Been helping me with a project this past week."
My mother looks at me, then back up at Haymitch. "Well," she says. "It's none of your damn business."
Haymitch presses his lips together. "Of course not," he says. "You're managing just fine on your own." He raises his shaggy eyebrows, widens his eyes a little.
My mother's mouth tightens. She looks down, looks away.
"And here I thought you came back to me because you missed me," Haymitch says, and there's another kind of smile on his face, now. It says he's joking and it also says he's not.
My mother gives a short laugh, like she can't help it. She shakes her head. "Well, it's over with, now," she says. "No use talking about it anymore." She lifts her eyes up and meets Haymitch's. Both of them look very serious.
Haymitch swallows. "Until next time," he says finally.
My mother shrugs, lowering her eyes again. She nods.
When I go up to Haymitch's later that evening, I find him in the back yard in the dark, his breath puffing out in a cloud around his head, staring up at the sky. He doesn't turn around when I come through the gate, but I know he knows I'm there. "I put up the antenna," he says, proving it. He nods at his house and I see the new copper wire tacked to the siding, the tall metal skeleton of something on the roof.
"Okay, good," I say, even though I had no idea that we needed an antenna.
Haymitch ducks his head, laughing a little, then comes closer to me and puts his hand on my shoulder. "Come on down the cellar," he says. "I think it might actually work now. Wanted to wait for you before I tried it."
He goes back in the house and I follow him, grinning all the way down the stairs.
In the cellar, Haymitch pulls the string to turn on the light. The bulb sways back and forth overhead, casting uneven shadows on the concrete walls, showing me that Haymitch did a lot of work without me this afternoon. I see that the invention has speakers attached to it now, and he must have found the missing dial and figured out how to put on the backing. It looks like a finished thing, now. It looks like a radio.
I look at Haymitch. "It's like the ones at the train station," he says. "But it's shortwave. Longer range. We could hear people broadcasting from anywhere in the world with this."
I blink. "You think there are people other places in the world?"
Haymitch is leaning over the table so he can reach the end of the copper wire dangling down from the window. He fixes it to the receptor sticking out of the housing. At first, nothing happens. Then we hear a faint crackling hiss coming from the speakers and Haymitch takes a breath, lifts his eyebrows. "Well," he says. "Guess we'll see."