While President Snow takes his sweet time appearing at the Capitol's annual Victory Banquet, fiftieth Hunger Games winner Haymitch Abernathy stands underneath the vaulted ceilings of the President's mansion, feeling hollow and antsy.
The cold, white marble everywhere exudes a majestic purity that to Haymitch feels like a sick joke. Underneath a glittering electric chandelier made of real gold and diamonds, he poses for photographs with sponsors and well-connected fans, while his escort, Lucilla Braithwaite, hovers only one or two steps away, making small talk. She seems to know half the people here, either personally or because they're apparently Capitol celebrities. She's dressed for this unprecedented occasion – a victor from District Twelve – in a long, violet strapless evening gown and a wig of bright canary yellow that Haymitch finds slightly unhinging.
While he is the center of attention here, Haymitch couldn't feel more alone right now, or more exhausted. But these sponsors and fans will be around next year, when he is a mentor instead of a tribute, and so the pressure to be witty and gracious, and above all cocksure – the image he projected for the Games – is daunting. It's not unlike being in the arena again, except here, everyone around him is a Career. It makes him snappish at the least expected moments.
He hopes it passes for the roguish charm. Or something.
As the throng of party guests wanting his attention finally thins out for a while, a wisp of a girl appears before him, as if from out of nowhere, flanked by a Peacekeeper tastefully dressed as much as possible not to look like a Peacekeeper. The guard formally introduces her to Haymitch as President Snow's only daughter.
“I was quite impressed with you in the arena, Haymitch,” Cordelia Snow announces, her childish voice parroting the Capitol poise and absurd accent that has been trained into her all her life, but her ungainly arms thrust out at him in an inexperienced, girlish way, revealing her true age. “You were so brave.”
She is holding a single perfect red rose between her fingers.
“It's from my father's special greenhouse, here in the mansion,” she almost squeaks, and Haymitch quickly catches on that this is a besotted love offering. “I'm only thirteen, so I know we couldn't yet, but would you marry me, Haymitch, when I'm old enough?”
The mix of girlish innocence and clumsy forwardness elicits soft, indulgent chuckles from the sponsors still lingering nearby. Even her Peacekeeper cracks a grin. But all Haymitch can think about as he looks her over is that she's just barely old enough to have faced him in the arena. She could have been one of the faces that have been haunting him ever since he awoke in a hospital a week ago, with a large seam of stitches running across his abdomen.
Except she wasn't, and she never will be, he remembers with a surge of jealous anger. But losing his temper at President Snow's daughter seems even to Haymitch like an unwise idea. His eyes flicker towards Lucilla for guidance on this awkward bit of etiquette. She just shoots him a nervous smile.
He stands there stalling for time by taking the rose the girl has offered him, pretending to examine it. It's almost garish in its perfection, like everything in the Capitol. He wracks his brain for a suitable answer as he bends his head down a little to smell the thing. But one sniff and he jolts back, his heart beginning to race, his entire body rebelling in self-preservation against the aroma that is too reminiscent of the poisonous flowers of his arena. The voices around him – the hyperbolic gasps of excitement and their high-pitched peals of laughter – suddenly sound like the chittering of those bright pink, green and yellow birds that were everywhere in his Games, the ones that killed Maysilee.
He takes a deep breath in and out, to regain control.
“Well, if you watched me with Caesar Flickerman, then you must know that I already have a girl back home,” he finally replies. “I'm afraid I couldn't live with myself if I broke my promise to her.”
He tries to produce an overdone, flirtatious regret that they cannot possibly be a couple, the way he knows Lucilla would do it. The thought of Alsey possibly witnessing this conversation on television makes him slightly ill, and so he's not ready for the girl's startling response:
“Well, my father could execute her.”
Her reply comes almost without pause, without forethought, like it's the most sensible solution in the world. Unlike his, the girl's words contain no irony whatsoever. Lucilla coughs a little, the only evidence that this turn in the conversation is out of the realm of the normal, even for Capitol society, and that it certainly won't be making it onto the television recaps. “Haymitch, have you tried the canapés yet?” she interrupts.
But child or no, President Snow's daughter or no, Haymitch feels the snappishness bubbling up inside him, and he ignores Lucilla's attempt at intervention.
“Listen, sweetheart...” he begins, his attention back on the girl, his tone shifting in a direction he knows will lead nowhere good. But before he can say more, Lucilla has suddenly been afflicted with a much louder, more intrusive cough that startles both teenagers into looking her way. She takes the advantage and wraps a possessive arm around the crook of Haymitch's elbow.
“I'm very sorry, Miss Snow.” Her words are all deference, but there's a steel underneath that he has learned in the past three weeks not to contradict. “Haymitch hasn't yet met Artemis Cantebury, and I can see from here that he has a rare free moment. I really do need to steal this young man away for a few minutes.”
It's enough to bring him to his senses. The girl's eyes narrow into an outraged glare at Lucilla that says she's not used to being thwarted like this, but when it does happen, she's used to making someone pay. For a panicky instant, Haymitch imagines her ordering the Peacekeepers to cart Lucilla off to her own execution; she looks like she might block them from leaving at the very least. But thankfully, Cordelia Snow's personal Peacekeeper steps in, just as the girl is on the verge of speech.
“I'm afraid I've just received word from your father's attendants, Miss Snow.” He touches an invisible earpiece. “He's about to come downstairs. You really should be in line to receive him.”
She sighs loudly, but is forced to concede. “I hope you enjoy the rose,” she tells Haymitch with a perfectly awful Capitol smile, and he can no longer manufacture one back for her. But he does manage to nod and bring the sickly sweet thing back up to his nose and hold it there, as if appreciating it. As soon as Lucilla turns his body in the opposite direction, he lets his hand fall to his side and exhales in relief, glad to have it as far away from himself as possible.
“Thanks,” he murmurs at Lucilla as they walk off.
“Don't lose that thing.” Lucilla cocks her head and whispers in his ear, as if she's telling him about a trifling bit of gossip. “In fact, you'd better wear it on your lapel. I'll see what I can do about finding a pin here once I leave you to chat with Cantebury.”
“I don't want to wear it,” Haymitch mutters. “It smells bad, and that girl is twisted.”
Already facing forward again, Lucilla pulls him along more aggressively, murmuring so just Haymitch can hear: “You'll wear it with a smile,” she orders. “Snow absolutely dotes on his daughter; it wouldn't do to insult her. He gives her nearly anything she wants.”
“What, including me?” he retorts.
“Don't be ludicrous,” she murmurs back, her tone commanding him: “and keep your voice down. You're a victor, but you're not untouchable, you know.”
She stops near the group of Gamemakers Haymitch remembers watching him during Training Week and positions herself before him, using the pretense of adjusting his tie. “And you needn't worry about little Miss Snow.”
“She just offered to have my girl executed!” But he keeps his voice down like she's ordered.
Lucilla rolls her eyes. “She's thirteen. And I'm sure she had a crush on last year's victor too. Now, you're attractive and charming in a certain … determined way for someone coming from such a backward district. But you're hardly Snow's idea of son-in-law material, so I really wouldn't worry about it. Still, there's absolutely no point in doing anything to call negative attention to yourself, is there?”
She's right, and it's annoying, so Haymitch is reduced to twisting the rose's stem back and forth in twitchy anger as Lucilla more or less shoves him in front of the Head Gamesmaker, Artemis Cantebury, a man who looks to be in his forties – which probably means he's in his fifties, Haymitch thinks. The man is tall and thin with a beard that's dyed a brilliant aqua color.
“Artemis!” she exclaims in that overdone way everyone at this party seems to have. “I must congratulate you on an unparalleled arena this year! You have clearly outdone yourself!”
Haymitch watches the two of them lean in to kiss each other on both cheeks. “Thank you, Lucilla. You're looking well.” His voice is just slightly thick with drink as he pulls back and visibly observes Haymitch standing there. “It's the young man of the hour!” he booms.
Lucilla beams. “Artemis,” she says formally, “I'm so pleased and proud to present to you your newest victor, Haymitch Abernathy of District Twelve.”
Cantebury takes Haymitch's hand and gives it a squeeze, saying, “Pleased to meet you, Haymitch. Very creative win.”
But before Haymitch can thank him, the recorded fanfare of the President begins blaring out of invisible speakers in the ceiling and Cantebury goes silent, his gaze flying off Haymitch as he moves closer towards the marble staircase at the far end of the ballroom. President Snow, the tall, thin man with paper-white hair whose slight appearance nevertheless commands the gazes of the entire room, appears at the top of the wide, majestic staircase, which is adorned on either side with several thick bushes in pots. Each contains the same kind of roses Haymitch is holding in his hand.
The multitude of thick, red flowers in such close proximity to each other makes Haymitch think of two symmetrical waves of blood spilling on either side of Snow, flowing alongside him as he descends the staircase. For a terrible moment, the fanfare around them morphs in Haymitch's ears into the trumpets of the Games, and he has to stop himself from looking up into the sky for announcements of newly-dead tributes.
“Every year I see him, I never get over the fact of how small he is,” Lucilla breathes, watching Snow with a touch of awe in her voice. “And he's so brave to let himself go gray like that too.”
He knows he should leave it alone, but somehow he can't. “So brave that he sends children into the arena each year to kill each other for his entertainment,” he snipes under his breath.
Lucilla's eyes widen and her breathless excitement immediately collapses into an ugly scowl. She places a firm hand on his shoulder and squeezes hard, capturing his gaze and refusing to let it go.
“Do you want to be the first victor in history to be arrested for treason?” she hisses at him. “Because that's exactly the sort of thing a remark like that leads to.”
He just gapes at her, all the sarcasm falling away as he becomes aware of the streak of buried panic suddenly in her voice.
“And if you don't care about yourself,” she goes in for the kill, “then at least think of how every single one of your actions reflect upon me.” She stares him down until chastened, he nods in spooked acquiescence and Lucilla turns them both to watch Snow, who has arrived at the bottom of the stairs. The President of Panem showers the crowd with a benevolent smile, then take his daughter's hand as he is enveloped into the mass of people with the regal air of a monarch.
“So!” Artemis Cantebury returns once the moment is over, his booming voice preceding him even as the smatterings of crowd chatter have crescendoed back up to normal levels. There is an amused twinkle in his eye. “I finally get to actually talk to the clever Haymitch Abernathy, the tribute who beat my game!”
“Oh yes!” Lucilla exclaims with what Haymitch realizes a second later is an exhalation of relief. “He's awfully clever, isn't he? To have won the Games without the benefit of a mentor to guide him on strategy! I could help him with the interviews and his overall image, but I must admit I wasn't much use once it came time for the arena.”
She neglects to mention that Haymitch didn't have a mentor because the one that he and Maysilee were supposed to have killed himself the night before Reaping Day.
“That's not what I heard, Lucilla,” Cantebury chuckles. “I heard you were quite the force to be reckoned with amongst the sponsors. But yes, he was quite the topic of discussion in Gamesmakers' HQ. He kept us scrambling.” He gives Haymitch an indulgent wink. “Very clever boy.”
Haymitch nearly jumps at the feel of a hand falling like dead weight onto the back of his shoulder. He turns to find himself face to face with President Snow. “Most clever.”
The man's smile is gracious, but it does not reach his eyes – which unlike Cantebury's, show no spark of indulgence. “And you know what clever boys get,” he says in a low, rumbling voice.
Haymitch just stares at him, their faces too close together for his comfort. No, I don't know, he wants to say. What do they get? But something won't let him get the words out, and then the moment's gone anyway. A tall woman wearing pink wings and speaking in elongated Capitol vowels like Lucilla has already grabbed Snow's attention, and just like that, he's gone.
Once again, Haymitch is reminded of just how much he can't wait to get home. At least back home, people behave like people, he thinks, and the expectations are clear.
Sixteen-year-old Haymitch is not old enough to have actually experienced the return of a triumphant victor to District Twelve. But he's pretty sure it's not supposed to go like this.
Pausing to gaze out of one of the last windows on the train car before they exit, Haymitch frowns at what he sees: A crowd has gathered near the train platform to greet their arrival, as they're required to, just like when the victors come through here on their victory tours, but their stony expressions are not what he had expected. This should be a day of genuine celebration, shouldn't it? One of their own has returned from the meat grinder alive, a giant fuck you to the Capitol and the Career system the Capitol quietly let happen, ensuring that a win like Haymitch's is almost impossible. But instead, he sees dead eyes everywhere, the Peacekeepers standing behind everyone, guns at the ready, like they expect violence. The spectators definitely look like they're not here by choice.
What is going on?
Could his victory in the arena have inspired some kind of mini-rebellion at home, he wonders? Have the citizens of District Twelve been fighting back against the Peacekeepers since his victory? It seems inconceivable, but a crackdown would explain the behavior of both the Peacekeepers and the people in this crowd. Still, who would want to jeopardize the extra food rations Haymitch's victory would be bringing here soon? It doesn't make sense.
And anyway, rebellion is not what he's reading in the sullen faces of the crowd. The people here look more like they're attending a funeral.
“You'd think they'd be a bit more animated to have you back,” Lucilla remarks uneasily, straightening her wig in one of the windows before stepping toward the door.
“Well, I wasn't the most popular person here before I left,” he half-explains. Perhaps he shouldn't have expected that to change.
Lucilla shakes her head, careful to not let the wig move too much. “But you're a victor!” she cries in disbelief, then peers out the window again at the crowd, clearly thinking them a conundrum.
“Please don't take offense at this, Haymitch.” Her face in the window reflecting back in dark shadow looks disgusted. “I have really enjoyed you being my tribute this year. But in all honesty, I'll be glad once I get a district with a little more … spirit.”
Haymitch resists the urge to mention how she used to complain that he'd drive her to an early grave, or how it's hard to have spirit when you're starving. Instead, he contents himself with a roll of his eyes, because well, it doesn't do any good to talk to Lucilla about these things, and as annoying as she often is, she did step in and learn in a hurry how to get him sponsors when the man who would have normally done that for him, Swagger March, had offed himself the night before the Reaping.
Haymitch still seethes to think about the man and how full of shit he was. Every year, when he brought their tributes home, he’d give a little speech about how he’d tried to bring one of them home alive, and how next year was going to be different. Next year, always next year. And yet, after all those empty promises, it had only taken a vain, ambitious Capitol woman to close the deal. What an incompetent ass that man had been.
Lucilla, to her credit, had been the one who had taken a look at her tributes - double the amount than usual, even - and told them it wasn’t fair of their mentor to leave them in the lurch like that.
“Swagger may have given up, but I wasn’t raised to be a quitter,” she’d told them with such a ridiculous sense of her own gravitas that Haymitch hadn’t taken it seriously at first. “I won’t let you down.”
But indeed, she had gotten him through it. She was the one who had encouraged him to reshape his anger at being abandoned, at his typical horrible luck at being picked for the Games, at life in general, into a devil-may-care sarcasm and a roguish confidence that would unsettle other players and charm sponsors. She was right: The sponsors had eaten it up. As much as he hates to admit it, she probably saved his life.
Much like she had in Snow's mansion, Lucilla now grabs the crook of his elbow and pulls him out onto the threshold so the people of District Twelve can see them standing on the steps to the train car. The determination in her stance belies all the damning evidence before her.
“Ladies and gentlemen of District Twelve!” she announces in a loud, formal voice. “I give you your victor of the fiftieth Hunger Games – Haymitch Abernathy!”
Silence. Awful silence. There isn't even the usual polite patter of applause that District Twelve reserves for the Victory Tour appearances. There's nothing but silent stares.
Haymitch has always been kind of an outcast in his own community, thanks to his father's reputation and his own tendency to not to hold his tongue around stupid adults; but mostly people just leave him alone, very alone. He has rarely provoked this kind of passive-aggressive anger.
“They should have at least put up a welcome banner or something,” Lucilla admonishes with a whisper. “It's a good thing the cameras don't come for this part.”
Killer, a voice hisses loudly from somewhere in the middle of the crowd, causing Lucilla to jerk her head toward the sound. Her eyes search the crowd accusingly.
Whoever it was, Haymitch knows they only dared because it would be impossible to identify the source. But the taunt leaves him confused. Of course he's a killer, but they all knew that, knew that was what they were sending him to become. And it's not like he had to kill anyone from his district. So why should they care? What are they angry about?
It doesn't make sense.
Lucilla guides him down the train's metal steps and onto the platform. Harlan Whitehead, Head Peacekeeper for District Twelve, an aging bull of a man whose body is slowly turning to fat at about the same pace as his hair is turning gray, walks up to greet them in silence. Behind him is his sergeant, whose name Haymitch can't remember anymore, because everyone secretly refers to him as “Crates” for his tendency to pilfer from the crates of tesserae deliveries.
Crates, with his usual bored demeanor, doesn't bother with any greetings, but Haymitch is surprised at how Harlan seems to be deliberately avoiding Haymitch's gaze – surprising because the last time Haymitch saw him was moments after he had been reaped, when Harlan had escorted him into the Justice Hall and grunted out some words about how he'd look out for Haymitch's family, giving Haymitch no time to thank him or even respond before he walked out and left Haymitch to say goodbye to his mom and Jackson.
Seeing Harlan again when he never expected to, Haymitch tries defiantly to capture his gaze, to try and get some sense of why this is happening, but it's clear that the man is refusing to engage.
This is all wrong, he thinks, but the explanation is a mystery.
“Where's your family?” Lucilla whispers as they are moved through the crowd to the dais.
The unexpected tenor of this homecoming has taken Haymitch so by surprise that this question hasn't occurred to him until now. He scans the crowd of blank faces, a knot of unease forming in his stomach.
“I don't know,” he murmurs. “They should be here.” At least his mother and Jackson should be. His father showing up anywhere he's supposed to is always a fifty-fifty gamble, and him showing up sober is a hundred-percent guaranteed losing bet. Alsey should be here too. She had told him when he'd left that she was his girl and so she'd wait for him. Unlike Haymitch, she'd refused to believe that he wouldn't survive.
The guards have made way for them through the entire crowd. He and Lucilla walk up to the dais where this all started less than a month ago, and Haymitch notices that there are a mere three seats up there, one for him, one for Lucilla and one for the Mayor. It's as if they all knew very well that his parents wouldn't be making an appearance here. Haymitch hunches a little, as his sense of unease grows. But right now, there is nothing he can do. He is trapped in the official formalities of a victor's homecoming.
However, once they're up onstage, it becomes clear that Lucilla can't wait to get out of there. As the spectators continue not to clap at the usual places, anxiety begins to carve into the edges of her eternally sunny disposition. She plays the video from the Capitol that lays out to the district in Snow's smug baritone and flowery language exactly which rewards they will be reaping on account of Haymitch's victory.
“The Capitol is generous to those who bring pride and honor to the nation. Mother Panem feeds her children who love her back,” his recorded voice concludes, accompanied by images of lush green meadows and fertile wheat fields that don't exist in Twelve. After the video ends, the crowd looks distinctly unconvinced, and Haymitch can tell from the way her facial muscles twitch and her hand clenches onto the podium that even Lucilla can see it. At his Reaping, she had spent a couple of minutes happily adding off-the-cuff editorial comments about the video and about the glory of the Games in general. But now, she seems to snap this ceremony into high speed. She practically shoves the oversized ceremonial bag of money, the first monthly installment of Haymitch's lifetime winnings, into the Mayor's hands. When she gives Haymitch his speech, he notices that she has given him only two index cards to read, not the three he remembers seeing on the train.
He's glad it's short though, because the way the crowd's acting, and the absence of everyone he expected to be here is causing disturbing scenarios to unravel in his mind. The most likely one is his father going on another bender and beating up his mom too badly for her to be here. He tries to tamp down the rage this image provokes by reminding himself that he's got a new home in Victor's Village to bring his mother and brother to now, and that the second the Peacekeepers turn over the keys, he's going to take her and Jackson out of his father's house forever.
But if that's what has happened, that still doesn't explain why isn't Alsey here, does it? Is she at his house caring for his mom?
“Do you want me to bring you to your house?” Lucilla asks when the ceremony ends and the Peacekeepers are dispersing the crowds out of the square. But everything about her demeanor says she'd rather not, and Haymitch doesn't want her to see whatever has happened at his house either, so he eagerly lets her go.
“Nah. I'll be fine, Lucilla. Really,” he says. “Thanks for everything.”
Lucilla rewards him with a smile of warm gratitude he can tell is genuine, then surprises him with a quick peck on the forehead before he can duck out of it. “All right then. I'll finally meet your family when I come back in six months for the Victory Tour,” she declares. “The Peacekeepers will come to your house tomorrow to escort you to your new luxurious home.
“I do wish I could be there to see your face when you see it for the first time,” she sighs, despite her subdued mood. “But when I return to get you ready for your Victory Tour, I expect you to throw me a dinner befitting your new status, understood?”
“Sure,” he huffs, impatient for her to leave.
“You take care of yourself, clever Haymitch,” she says with a fond air. “I look forward to seeing you in six months.”
“Me too, Lucilla,” he replies. But he doesn't look forward to seeing her in six months, because that will mean it's time for his Victory Tour, where he'll be forced to dance for the Capitol yet again, and where people who have lost their children will be the ones forced to applaud. But he's going to end up seeing her again now, and then again and again, year after year, so he better get used to working with her. And in a weird way, the stories Lucilla tells herself about him remind him a bit of his mom, who weaves his father's violent, drunken behavior into a story about just how much he loves them, even though that makes no damn sense when you consider the facts.
The reminder of his mother gets him moving quickly on the half-mile walk from the square to his family's home. When he imagines mom in bed, unable to get up, Alsey bent over her in concern, he does the last quarter-mile or so at a frantic run.
The house is ominously dark when he arrives. No smoke coming from the chimney either. Odd. While it's still September, and not yet cold enough to warrant a fire for heat, his mother should have a cooking fire going at this time of day, especially now that they don't have to worry ever again about conserving their supply of wood.
He bursts in through the wooden front door, which empties right into the kitchen. Because of that, he's used to associating entering his house with the aromas of food cooking. In fact, right about now he should be overwhelmed by the aromas of a triumphant meal, shouldn't he?
He flies through the house now, looking for signs of life, but there's none, except for the random liquor bottle left here and there throughout and the small pile of dishes in the sink that look like they've been sitting there for days. By contrast, his and Jackson's bedroom looks as neat and tidy as the day he left it a month ago – Jackson's stuffed bear sitting jauntily atop his neatly-made bed. His own second-best shirt and trousers is carefully laid out on his bed, as if in anticipation of a celebration.
Did she finally leave the bastard? Maybe knowing that Haymitch would be given a new home in Victor's Village finally had given her the courage to leave and take Jackson. Maybe Harlan Whitehead let them into his new home early and they're already living there. He would probably do that for them, to protect them from his father, who must have already figured out that there was no way his son was going to let him move in with them.
But Jackson would never leave without his favorite toys. He notices again the knot of unease from earlier in the pit of his stomach.
He walks much more slowly now to the last room in the house he hasn't checked – his parents' bedroom. The door is a tiny sliver ajar, and Haymitch pushes it open slowly, beginning to wish that this could all be a good-natured prank, that his whole family is hiding inside, waiting to surprise him with a party in his honor. But nothing so far about his arrival today in District Twelve has suggested this.
A wave of relief washes over him at the sight of his father sprawled out on the bed, asleep. It's a feeling that quickly dissipates once he realizes that Randall Abernathy, whose dark curls sticking to his forehead are the blueprint for Haymitch's, is actually passed out drunk. No change there, Haymitch thinks.
The rest of his family is nowhere to be found. Haymitch picks up his father's heavy arm and shakes it a bit, but it's no good: he's too far gone. So he hunts around the kitchen for a pitcher and fills it with water from the house cistern, then uses all his strength to haul his father's dead weight off the bed and onto the floor. No reason his mother should have to sleep in a soaked bed.
The cold water dumped on his head finally sparks Randall to life, sputtering and cursing his way into consciousness. He is wild-eyed and ready to strike out, but Haymitch is ready for this, and keeps his distance, having learned from past experience the consequences of this little trick. When his father is finally able to focus, he makes the predictable lunge for Haymitch's feet and misses by a good distance.
“Thanks for the welcome home, Dad,” he mutters, then gets down to real business. “Where'd Ma and Jackson go?”
His father pulls himself up so that he's sitting on the floor. He doesn't even remark on the fact that he is soaked, yet Haymitch still stands ready to dodge or run if necessary. But Randall doesn't make any more moves for his son; he just stares at him in wide-eyed shock. “Do you mean they didn't tell you?” he roars, then quiets down, muttering to himself. “What the hell was the point, then?”
The knot in Haymitch's stomach twists. “Who didn't tell me? Tell me what?”
When Randall gets to his feet, he's definitely swaying. He stumbles around in place a bit until he wipes his face with the first thing he finds – an embroidered doily that his mom treasures as a heirloom that's been in her family since before the Dark Days. Watching him defile this precious piece of fabric without a second thought sends a chill down Haymitch's spine. Ma's not here anymore, he realizes.
And she left these things behind.
“Tell me what, Dad?” he demands, a tremble in his voice.
Randall flings the sopping rag away, and it lands carelessly on the floor. “She's dead,” he intones. “They're dead. Her and Jackson.” His foot kicks over a half-empty bottle of whisky on the floor by the bed, and it begins to spill its contents on the floor, but Randall swipes it back up into his hand to save it. He takes a swig, then carefully places it on the night table. Haymitch's feet have fallen out from under him, and he finds himself sitting on the bed, not sure how he got there. “Dead?” His voice is a hollow echo. This isn't possible. He's won the Hunger Games. He's a victor. Nothing can touch him now. Not even death, which he beat in the arena. Forty-seven times.
“How?” he chokes out.
“Peacekeepers came in the middle of the day, two weeks ago,” Randall continues in the same monotone. “They didn't explain nothing, just took your Ma and Jackson away. An hour later, Peacekeepers shot 'em both in the square, made everyone in town stand there and watch.”
He grabs the bottle again, takes a swig, and this time, hangs onto it, clutching it by the neck next to his hip.
“But...” is all Haymitch can manage at first. His father is drunk, but it's Haymitch who feels like the room is spinning. His brain is working at a crawl right now. All he can think about is how Jackson wanted to be a Peacekeeper himself one day, despite Haymitch constantly telling him to shut up about it, that Peacekeepers were bad people. He must have been so confused and scared when his idols had turned on him.
What could make anyone think that a housewife and her young son could deserve execution?
“But Harlan knows us!” he cries. “He liked us! Why did he do this?” He suddenly remembers how the Head Peacekeeper wouldn't look him in the eye today.
“He liked you and Jackson,” his father corrects, then adds with a long-held and paranoid bitterness. “And he was after your mother.”
This isn't really true. Harlan clearly wasn’t after Katherine Abernathy, because Capitol knew he had been out at the Abernathy home enough times over the years whenever neighbors filed noise complaints, which everyone in the Seam knew was code for, 'we're worried he's going to kill her, but we don't poke our noses in other folks' business.' And while his mom would never press charges against her husband, if Harlan had really wanted to steal her away, all he would have had to do was provoke Randall when he was in one of his drunken rages, and then 'unavoidably' shoot him while on duty. But it was obvious that Harlan only felt bad for Randall's family, and had especially liked Jackson, though had never interfered, other than to warn Randall off hitting his family, or to sometimes take him into “protective custody” overnight.
How could he have possibly gone through with executing Jackson?
“Anyway, Harlan didn't do it himself,” his father grunts. “They brought in special Peacekeepers from the Capitol. They probably didn't trust him to go through with it.”
“But I don't understand. They must have given you some reason when they took them,” Haymitch sputters, although he suspects that his brain already knows the answer and is not letting him find it. For some reason, he keeps hearing Lucilla's little sigh of relief at the Victory Banquet.
The bottle goes flying in a fury towards Haymitch, but the years of living with his father has sharpened his senses and he ducks just in time as the thing shatters against the wall behind him, and alcohol begins to flood the bed sheets.
“They didn't need to! Isn't it obvious? It was your fault, clever Haymitch.” He uses the catchphrase Lucilla got Flickerman and the other journalists repeating over and over during the Games, with a mocking, piss-poor imitation of the Capitol accent.
Haymitch's eyes narrow. “What are you talking about?”
“That stunt you pulled in the arena! You made them look stupid! What, you thought they would just let that go?”
Haymitch freezes. No, no, no. Can't be. They wouldn't. Not to a victor.. His mind rails at the simple logic his father has offered, preferring to exchange it with memories of Cantebury's joviality and the wink he gave Haymitch at the Victory Banquet. Haymitch had shown up his creation, and he hadn't been upset at all.
But the illusion falls apart the moment his brain retrieves the adjacent memory of President Snow: You know what clever boys get.
He jumps up in one wordless motion. He feels like he's suffocating.
“They got your girl too,” Randall shrugs. “Alsey, right? They shot her right next to your mother and Jackson.”
“But she didn't have anything to do with anything!” he sputters. Alsey has always been the kindest person in all of District Twelve, who would never hurt anyone, who can see the good in all people, even Haymitch.
“Doesn't matter. She was your girl, or so you two said in all those interviews. Not like you ever bothered to tell me about her.”
I never told you about her because I didn't want you ruining it, like you ruin everything, Haymitch thinks with an inward snarl.
“All those interviews they did with her,” Randall says. “Her all starry-eyed and hopeful when you started winning, telling those journalists how you two were planning on going behind your parents' backs for a toasting if you came home alive.” When Haymitch says nothing, Randall's breath comes out in a bitter huffing sound. “It was everywhere on the damn viewscreens around here, all the damn time, the further you got. Of course they shot her.”
Pain stabs through his temple. He had only made Alsey more of a target by talking about her in his interviews, on Lucilla's guidance. The sponsors will positively eat up a tragic love story, she'd promised.
How could Alsey be gone just like that? How could his mother and Jackson be gone? He won.
Paralysis quickly gives over to boiling rage, in desperate need of a target, and he realizes that he has never felt less afraid of his father in all his life.
Before Randall can react, Haymitch is on him with the force of a Capitol train. He isn't strong enough under normal conditions to hit his father the way the man beats on Haymitch, but Randall is still in the ebbing throes of what must have been a several-days bender; he goes down easily.
Once on the floor, though, Randall regains the weight advantage and soon manages to roll the two of them over, pinning Haymitch's arms to the floor above his head. Haymitch turns away from the thick layer of fermented liquor on his breath, barely containing his gag reflex.
“What did you say?” he shouts at the useless bastard, who if the universe had any justice at all, wouldn't be alive right now. “Tell me what you said to them!”
Randall snorts, still pinning down his son's arms. “What are you talking about?”
Haymitch makes a futile struggle to break free. “Why didn't they kill you? You must have said something that convinced them not to take you too!”
“I didn't say nothing, clever boy. They just didn't want me, that's all.”
“Liar!” he screams at him, and takes the only shot he can with his arms pinned. He pushes upward as furiously as he can and manages to butt their foreheads together, hard. It hurts like hell, but it's worth the surprise on the man's face and the yelp of pain. The shock of it jerks Randall back, and it's just enough leverage to allow Haymitch to knee him in the groin. Randall lets go immediately and rolls off, caught up in a new and all-consuming world of pain.
“It's so typical of you to let them take Ma and Jackson and sweet-talk your way out of it,” he hisses, jumping to his feet in a fighting stance. “Just like you sweet-talked your way out of her leaving you every time she thought about it. Every time I almost had her convinced.”
At first, his father says nothing, too lost in his own pain, but eventually he manages, his voice hoarse with pain and anger, “Don't try to pin this on me, boy. I'm not the one around here everyone calls 'killer'. I'm not the one who messed with Snow's precious arena.” To Haymitch's shock, his father's voice chokes with what sounds like the threat of tears.
“Oh what?” Haymitch snarls at him in disgust. “You gonna cry now? Little late for that, huh? Maybe you should have felt sad when you were beating the shit out of her all the time!”
“Fuck you.” Randall's voice has already hardened again, perhaps recognizing the echo of his own stock phrases coming out of his son's mouth. “Fuck you, killer. You took my wife and the only son I care about.”
“I hate you!” Haymitch shouts, then spits on the ground next to his father's curled-up body. “I wish you were dead!”
“You'd like that, wouldn't you?” Randall retorts with a harsh laugh. “Well, you're out of luck, sweetheart. The Capitol only takes away the ones we love. Now get the fuck out of my house.”
Haymitch has to resist kicking him in the head with his new sponsor-donated steel-toed boots. At the last second, he tells himself he won't have yet another death on his hands, not even this man. So he turns around and kicks the nearest wall instead, as hard as he can. He walks towards the bedroom he shares with Jackson and begins throwing whatever random bits of his clothes and items he can find quickly into his old school satchel, bellowing, “I don't need you anymore!” into the hallway.
He exits the bedroom with the pack on his back and Jackson's stuffed bear clutched in his left hand as tight as a vise. He'll go to Alsey's parents' house until tomorrow. At least they give a fuck about him.
As he walks past the door to his parents' bedroom, Randall is still not up, but has managed to support himself upright with one palm flat on the floor, coughing.
“Don't ever think about coming back,” he threatens as Haymitch's hand is already on the front door knob.
“Just so you know,” Haymitch replies without turning around, his adrenaline fading fast, and his voice already sounding dead to his own ears, “if I ever come back here, it'll be to end you.”
With his father's labored breath still lingering in his ears, Haymitch walks out, closing the door on that relationship forever.