TO WHERE THE MOCKINGJAY FLIES
THREE FOR THE ROAD
“ It was a mistake," you said. But the cruel thing was, it felt like the mistake was mine, for trusting you.
The day I'm forced into filming the propos at President Snow's request is the day I give up hope of ever seeing Katniss Everdeen again.
It comes on the heels of three days of what I will only later come to understand as very light questioning. My time when I wasn't being pressed for information about a rebellion I knew nothing about, spent locked in a room back in the Training Center with nothing but a deck of playing cards as company, sick with worry over what had happened to Katniss.
It's no use pretending we don't know what the other one is trying to do. I don't know what kind of deal you think you've made with Haymitch, but you should know he made me promises as well.
And from those simple words, offered freely to the girl I was willing to trade my life for in two arenas, Snow manages to pervert justification for schemed treason, reminding me Katniss is also complicit and will be charged for her crimes upon capture.
Unless a cease-fire can be reached.
And so I do it. Let Portia and my prep team style my hair and dress me in clean clothes. Sit across from Caesar and denounce Katniss and the rebels. Change clothes and repeat the act three more times.
The moment I walk offstage, Portia and my prep team are arrested. And I meet Caesar Flickerman's eyes just as the peacekeepers descend, the last contact I am to have with anyone but avoxes, guards and the blunt end of clubs for the next four months.
It doesn't take long to lose track of the days. The lights are left on for what seems like a week at a time, then shut off to leave me in pitch blackness, sharp sirens that go off every half hour or so ensuring I never get much sleep.
For a while I count the passage of days by the appearance of the avox with a meager serving of bread and container of water. But once they discover the tally marks, my cell is stripped during the next interrogation and I'm beaten to the point I lose consciousness and can't quite remember what number I was on anyway.
After that, there doesn't seem to be much point in counting. My facial hair started growing back a week or two after they pulled us out of the arena, so I guess the chemicals must have worn off. Now it's my only way of guessing how much time has passed, reaching up to feel the length of my beard.
After about the second month I stop hoping someone is coming to rescue us. That is if Portia and the others are even alive. Sometimes I'm jarred awake not by blaring alarms, but by nerve-wrecking animal sounds. Only they're not animal. And they come in all nuances, from desperate pleas to the guttural shrieks one succumbs to when pain surpasses all levels of orderly thinking.
I've launched several attempts to establish contact with fellow detainees, none successful. Nobody ever replies. A theory worms itself into my mind that what I'm hearing might be only recordings of human misery. A tape locked on repeat for my hearing pleasure. The cells next door crammed to the top with jabberjays, suffocating on their own renditions of copied agony.
When I’m not driving myself crazy I fight hard against exasperation. Before long I’ll dream of the ten o’clock wave. If nobody has come so far, what are the chances I’ll ever walk out of here on my own terms?
After my third interview I was never asked for a bonus performance. It's hard to believe that, in my bedraggled state, I was convincing enough to rein in Panem from ripping itself apart. And yet the days keep passing with no rebels ever replacing the guards and avoxes performing their routines.
I hear no word, good or bad, of Katniss. For all I know she never got out of that arena. I wouldn't put it past Snow to have shown me a montage of fictive video feed, a pipe dream of Capitol tech-wizardry. Goodness knows, they've got enough footage of her to trifle with.
More often than not cold sweat lines my forehead at the implications of this. I might have sold my soul for a dead girl. And I know, as reckless as it sounds, I would do it again. Without batting an eye. I'd run the risk of plunging Panem into a replay of the Dark Days for even the faintest chance of buying Katniss acquittal.
And who knows? Perhaps it's her screams that wake me every night. We might just be acquaintances in this prison. The star-crossed lovers, separated for eternity, while Panem wrestles for freedom in a bizarre battle-royale.
The task of upholding even the faintest semblance of hope in a place that makes the Hunger Games seem like harmless pastime is a deteriorating effort. Where there was once macabre excitement at the turn of the key in the lock, I now simply go through the motions of taking responsibility for the charges against the hand that fed me.
“Peeta Mellark,” I begin with almost bored repetitiveness. “District Twelve. 12-A904-76." Then I list the names of mother, father and two older brothers. All this before the guards have even reached me. They’ve drilled me good.
The ritual continues. I am handed the prosthetic. It’s too much of a nuisance to have to carry me around like a cripple, so they grant me this luxury whenever I am to leave the cell. That way I can walk into Hell on my own account.
We take the traditional route. Left, right, right. This part is always the same. The next junction determines whether I’m subject to more interrogation, or if it’s one of the rare circumstances I have the honor of meeting the elusive President Snow. I can’t say which one is worse.
We go left. Routine. A sigh escapes me - frustration, not relief. How many more ways can I plead for innocence?
The grip on my arm tightens. We come to an abrupt halt.
I can’t see or hear anything out of the ordinary. The guard to my left sniffs the air.
That’s when I notice too. Something between beer and hard boiled egg. I feel woozy, slightly sick to the stomach.
My good leg buckles.
“Shit!” yells the man to my right. “Gas!”
Run, I think. But I hit the floor before the message reaches my legs.
Fire. Back in the chariot, rolling down Victor’s Boulevard. Left and right the masses cheer. Up ahead the Presidential Mansion, President Snow at its head. We don’t wave this time. Eyes up front, serious expressions. Cinna’s outfits engulf us in flames. I take Katniss’ hand in mine, we raise our arms in unity. Triumph. Hail Snow, we doomed ones salute you!
I wake up gasping and gagging. Deafening sirens blare something about evacuation. The floor beneath my hands quakes. Far away the sound of an explosion.
My mind continues where it left off: Run!
From my left I hear a moan. One of the guards is waking up. Control over my body returns in bursts, yet my fingers effortlessly grasp at his throat. By the time I can stand, I’m the Victor With The Bloodless Hands no more. I precariously confiscate a handgun, but hope not having to use it. While tributes are trained in an array of weapons, firearms are not part of that arsenal. The alarm system advises me to practice any marksmanship on the run. To underline the severity of the situation red lights begin flashing overhead.
Another tremor shakes the building.
If I want to get out of here, now is the time.
I’m not sure it’s her until she turns to face me, baton dank from a fresh kill.
I remember this scene like a deja-vu, me coming up in that jungle clearing, finding her hunched over Brutus’ corpse. A cannon going off in the distance. Well, she still had hair back then.
“Where’s Katniss?” I ask now, as I did then.
Only this time, I find myself raising the gun. I can’t distinguish between friend or foe anymore. I’ve seen the tapes. Turncoat. They couldn't have faked that too. I should have known. Katniss did. And now she’s God knows where.
“Oh, please shoot me,” says Johanna provocatively, as if five months of prison haven't been enough to value life. “Been begging these fuckers for weeks now. They never crank up the voltage quite high enough though.”
“You betrayed us. Tried to kill her.”
“Oh, yeah? Really. They've been messing with your head a lot, huh?” She raises an eyebrow. “We’re in the same place in case you hadn’t noticed, genius.” She takes a step towards me. “You wanna sort out a personal vendetta, fine with me. But not now. Not here. And sorry, but this is gonna hurt.”
“Wha-“ I manage to turn around just in time to witness the butt of a rifle french-kissing me in the face.
That’s how I meet fellow inmate, Annie Cresta.
“I’m sorry about your nose,” says strawberry-haired Annie in the sweetest voice ever. At gunpoint. I swallow some of the blood that runs down my throat.
Johanna kicks my pistol away from me. “That little head-butt enough to bring you back to your senses? I’d rather postpone the reunion party if you don’t mind. Priorities, you know. Escape's high up on that list.”
The walls around us shake. “What’s happening?” I ask.
Johanna shrugs. “Sounds like the 76th Hunger Games to me. Wouldn’t that be a thing?”
I warily stare at the outstretched hand she offers me. “You coming now, or what?”
“Where to?” I ask.
“Anywhere,” says Annie and lowers the rifle. “Anywhere but here.”
I’m plenty sure Claudis Templesmith would have his share to say about a return of the Four-Seven-Twelve alliance and how the odds are stacked against it.
But fuck Claudius Templesmith.
Two guards are on our kill-list already. We’re enemies of the worst kind. Terrified, exhausted and with nothing to lose. The Capitol wanted us to be bloodthirsty victors. I hope we live up to the expectation.
Around us foundations crumble. In Twelve we learn that this is the moment you want to put as much distance between yourself and the mine as possible. Annie might say it’s time to leave the sinking ship. I have no idea what the equivalent of that would be for Seven.
“Here. Come on.”
Johanna swerves right into another cell. It’s identical to my own, apart from the man-sized hole in the back wall. Fire and freedom wait on the other side.
I look incredulously at my bald companion. “Don’t tell me you dug that yourself.”
“Oh, I wish. Believe me I tried.” She displays a set of nail-less fingertips. “Bomb went off. Had me dazed and deaf for a good while. When I came to everything had gone in the crapper.”
And yet she’s here with us and not long gone. Something tells me this is about more than a simple team-up for survival.
“It’ll be a free-for-all up there,” Annie warns as we listen to the booms and bangs outside.
I take a demonstrative step forward. It’s time we upgraded from pawns to players.
“Let’s join this game,” I say.
And so we step into the heart of war, and set a match to our souls.
Freedom, it’ll burn us to the bone.
I have only been to the Capitol on three occasions: the 74th, the Victory Tour and the Quell. My feelings spanned from intimidation over awe to repugnance, to near cardiac arrest over my impending fate. But always has there been some deranged admiration laced into all of this. The unique architecture with its off-beat patterns. The sky-scraping towers that can be seen miles before the train pulls into the city.
The Capitol, metropolis of Panem, blazes fiercely against a blood-red sun. A hovercraft whirs above us, herald of death. We dive for cover, lose debris flying around our heads. Guns go off to my left. I can barely see through the smog. My eyes clog with tears from the heat. Someone pushes against me.
“Get going!” Johanna calls.
We break into a run, aimless. Two blocks further a bomb explodes.
This is the Cornucopia, I think, we’re in the middle of the bloodbath!
Another arena, only this time it spans the entirety of the Capitol. And we’re not twenty-four, but hundreds, thousands maybe, fighting for our lives.
I try to stick to the girls, but find that months of physical inactivity haven’t been kind on my endurance. The flames licking the skyscrapers do the same to my lungs, and let’s not start about my stump. The prosthetic sits awkwardly. Slips a little with every step. Soon I’m not running, but limping. Johanna and Annie gain distance on me, while all around us the city gets razed to the ground.
I’m about to cry out for them to wait, when they suddenly rebound all on their own. Before I know it I’ve come to a stop as well, pressed against a wall. To make space for half a dozen people racing down the street. They’re on fire. I catch the unmistakable stench of bubbling skin as one swoops right past me, unable to scream because his lips have melted together.
One of them’s latched on to Annie, yowling in agony. I stumble to their aid. As soon as her attacker is on the ground we make a run for it, not daring to look back.
These howls of anguish follow us for a long time.
"Okay. One. Two. Three - Now!"
It takes our combined strength to relocate the ornate wardrobe. The door is blocked now. My muscles feel like jelly. Collapsed against the fancy furniture, I gulp for air as if the next attempt could be my last.
Johanna drags herself over to the window, peeking through the shutters. With the coast clear she slumps into the nearby futon.
I press my eyes shut. Last hour’s events are taking their toll. After months of sensory deprivation my body is overloaded with smells, sounds and visual info. My stomach has transferred to the upper levels of my throat.
Annie is less successful at keeping the contents of her belly in their destined location. But I'm too exhausted to mind the acrid smell that settles in the room. We’re used to way worse by now.
With two practiced motions I unlatch the prosthetic. The relief is immediate. Before being discharged from the hospital last year the Capitol doctors lectured me at length on the importance of proper maintenance. Hygiene needs to be impeccable. Potential pressure points need to be addressed immediately. Infection is my biggest enemy.
So far I’m doing a splendid job of following zero of the neatly listed requirements of my care sheet. I haven't been allowed to shower since petitioning to Panem that revolution is not the way to go. Every pore of me screams defilement.
Annie rises to a four-legged stance and proceeds to crawl into the general direction of the bathroom. The door slams shut, allowing her to continue being miserable in the privacy of the washroom. It’s not like we're worried about disturbing the owners of the flat. It seems like this entire complex is abandoned. No wonder with the upper floors missing altogether, courtesy of heavy bombing.
"How bad off are you?" Johanna asks.
Well, let’s drop the sugarcoating. I'm at an all-time low. I'm so famished, I'm not even hungry. Pain is an invisible coat. I'm cold, miserable and exhausted beyond my capacities.
"Okay," I settle for in the end, because I'm still alive and that outbalances everything else. "What about you?"
Oozing scabs line the skin on her scalp, rough inscriptions of abuse by an uncaring hand. The whites of her eyes are light pink, sunken so far in their sockets it looks like someone dabbed their finger in coal dust and used her face as canvas.
"Gonna live," says Johanna and closes her eyes. “First time in a while that thought makes me happy.”
Annie, slightly less green, returns from the bathroom and collapses on the couch. I notice she’s barefoot. Soot and blood leave stains on the immaculate carpet.
"Okay," starts Johanna now that our merry crew of fugitives has assembled. Getting out of there was a stroke of luck, but we can’t ride that wave forever. Our next step might be our last one just the same.
“We need a plan,” I say, but my concern seems to be of secondary importance.
“How much did you tell them?” Johanna asks.
Annie sighs, massages her temples. “Just the obvious.”
Johanna nods. “Yeah. You got my part. Wasn't pretty. But I like my eyes where they are.”
“What are you talking about?” I say this in a tone coming from the epicenter of frustration I've hoarded since Katniss and I split up at the lightning tree. The reason we're here in the first place. Why I've endured interrogation after interrogation and had no answer to clubs and whips and needles. I’ve been accused of rebellions, uprisings and all other forms of heresy. But the only revolution I had was when I got picked up by that hovercraft, realizing that every person I thought I could trust had wantonly betrayed me. No. Not betrayed. That’s the wrong word. Discarded.
Annie is baffled my ignorance. Johanna chuckles in a quite disturbing way.
"You really don't know? Is it gonna be the whole story or just the highlights?" Not giving me a chance to respond she adds, "Because the short version is: First we've been screwed over by Thirteen. Then we've been fucked by the Capitol. Now we're only alive because of some crass leap of faith, with that bombing and all. And, uh... Panem seems to have gone down the drain while we enjoyed Happy Hour down in the dungeons. Questions?"
Unnumbered. Who was in on it? Why did nobody clue me in? Did Katniss know? Where is she? Is she safe? What about the others? Annie regards me with a sympathy reserved for lost puppies.
"It was better for you to know nothing," she says.
Well, great. Look how that one backfired.
"Snow had you under supervision," explains Johanna, a shabby excuse for all the trouble it's brought me. "We couldn't risk telling you."
"You can tell me now," I demand. I've kept secrets about a rebellion I didn't know existed in the first place. Don't I deserve knowing what that silence was all about?
That’s hardly the intro one would expect to the story of How The Capitol Was Overthrown.
"You can't be serious," I tell Johanna. Isn’t it about time we played with open cards? I look at Annie for backing, a person I only knew from the rundown of the Reapings until she broke my nose an hour ago. Not a lot of support I can expect from her I guess.
Johanna clears her throat and I half anticipate some snarky brush-off. But she just holds her hand over her stomach and I realize everyone's long past the act we put up as victors. There's no place for intimidation, seduction or deception here. Stripped of the roles the Capitol strong-armed us into, we're back to bare bones honesty. Unknown terrain.
"Can we talk about it over dinner? I haven't seen food in over a week."
A laugh escapes me as I nod my head. Yeah, I guess I can live with that.
Gourmet to Go - Poulet Basquaise, Ten’s finest poultry out of a can would have Effie Trinket drop over dead at the (non)display of table manners. Together we burn through noodle soup and beef stew, stretching our neglected bellies to their limits.
"So..." I say, lightheaded as my blood migrates to the hot spot that has become my digestion. Still, there's some wrinkles in this story that need to be flattened out.
And so I learn, over a hot cup of coffee, the story about Panem's forgotten district. Thirteen, it turns out, is not quite the rubble and ruins the Capitol wants us to believe. It’s heart beats strong beneath this facade.
The change of rules and subsequent double-win last year piqued Thirteen's curiosity enough to engage in an all-or-nothing gamble. That handful of berries and Katniss' embodiment as The Girl On Fire have stirred something dangerous in Panem. For the first time in almost a century there is the flicker of hope. When eventually the interviews for the Quell rolled around and we made the first step of unifying the districts, we set something in motion that could be the turning point in the oppression of a nation.
Plutarch Heavensbee, the head gamemaker, was in fact a sleeper planted by Thirteen. He sweet-talked the majority of districts into cooperation with the promise of political refuge should Katniss' safety be guaranteed until extraction. All was planned. The arena design, Beetee's wire, even the parachutes carrying food had been clues. Haymitch knew about everything.
"And it all looked like Happy End until shit hit the fan and Snow pulled the plug on our little act."
I recall the iron grip of the claw, pulling me out of the burning jungle. Little did I know at that time that I was far from safety.
"He must have realized something was wrong. There was a security sweep before we could all board the hovercraft," Annie says, narrating how the situation escalated in Mentor Central. "Those who weren't shot on the spot, well, the Training Center has a holding capacity none of us knew about."
“Wow.” It’s a lot to swallow at once. "And Katniss? Did she make it? What about Haymitch?”
"Sorry, kid." Johanna shakes her head. "All I know is that the three of us are still alive and kickin’. And if we wanna continue doing so, we better come up with a damn good plan and fast. It's getting dark out there and the Capitol’s no happy place at night."
We don’t fool ourselves. Going out at night is like deliberately placing your hands on top of a hot stove and then being surprised when you get burned. We’ve fortified the apartment to our best capabilities. Annie volunteers for the first shift, which I'm eternally grateful for. My eyelids are as heavy as the flour sacks in the bakery. I promise to relieve her in a few hours. Johanna manages to doze off in the middle of the conversation, leaving her last.
Annie offers me the couch and takes the chair to the window. For the first time in months I stretch out on something that isn't chilly concrete floor. My body shuts off the minute I hit the soft pillow.
I'm back in the arena. In the jungle. In the cave. Running. Captured. Strapped down before a row of vultures demanding my confession of treachery. I'm with Katniss in the train, comforting her and we laugh about the absurd color of Effie's hair. Katniss' favorite color is green, the nuance of my bruises two weeks after infliction. My brothers bake an enormous cake upon my return from the Games. I salivate at the memory of cherry pie on the days the guards forget to give me my ration of bread. The look of horror on my parents' faces when they see the prosthetic for the first time. The helplessness when the leg is taken from me, bereaving me of the last hope to escape.
I wake up gasping like a fish on land, Cato's ghost hand around my throat. My shirt is drenched in sweat and I need a moment to regroup. With receding trepidation I realize I'm not in the cell. I’m not in the arena. I’m definitely not at home. The room is dark but I can make out Johanna, curled into a fetal position, still asleep. In fact, so is Annie, her forehead propped against the window glass. With sleep a futile achievement, I decide I might as well take over from Annie.
Gently I brush against her shoulder. "Hey."
She's got my hand in a deadlock grip before her eyes have fully opened. Defense mechanisms don't stop, especially after you’ve been relying on them for months.
"Sorry," says Annie and lets me go when she realizes I'm posing no harm.
"It's okay." I point towards the sofa. "Get some rest."
Before long I find myself tapping mindlessly on the windowsill, trying to find a rhythm to keep me from zoning out. Half the skyline is without electricity. Hovercrafts soar through the air, dark fantasy creatures with iron wings. The streets around us are purged clean. And yet some indescribable force draws me to the battleground. With every cry I hear, I wonder: Could it be hers? Is she there, shooting unerring arrows at assailants? Is she looking for me? Does Gale have her back?
I don't know what I hope to achieve by torturing myself like this, but when Johanna comes to take over guard duty I have exhausted myself with worry about someone I'm not sure is even still alive.
I wake up to a ray of sun purposely blinding me. Ugh. A truck the size of what they use to collect Eleven's crop merrily commutes through my head. I feel like Haymitch after an all-nighter at the Hob; hungover, sluggish and with limbs made of lead.
My companions must already be awake. I follow the sound of muffled voices to the kitchen, door left slightly ajar. The conversation ceases as I step inside.
"Oh. Hey. You're up."
The table is clustered with medical supplies. Annie is just finishing a bandage on Johanna’s right arm. “You’re good,” she declares. Johanna pulls down the sleeve, then turns to me.
"Shower's working. How about you check it out before they bomb the water lines? We laid out some clothes for you."
I mutter a thanks and leave the girls to sort through their issues.
In the bathroom I spot the towel rack and promised wardrobe. A flashy, neon-orange dress shirt and some comparatively dull brown pants. Disgusted, I throw my soiled clothes on top of Annie and Johanna's discarded uniforms. To say I'm dirty underneath is an affront to the word. But with the press of a few buttons I enjoy the luxury of vanilla-scented water.
Time to size up. I'm prepared for the worst confronting the mirror. I'm not let down. Had someone shown me a picture of myself in the state I was in, I wouldn't have recognized that person. The man looking back at me is twenty years older, a kind estimate. A scraggy beard is clotted with blood from my broken nose. I catch a glimpse of the whip-marks on my back. Rainbow bruises all over. I've lost an alarming amount of weight. Would make someone from the Seam look like an overfed first-classer. That's what you get when you try to double-deal the Capitol. It ropes you right back in, settling the score.
Sifting through the cabinets I look for a razor. The beard has to go, no question. Coming up empty I give a frustrated growl. Don't these people shave? I know of the chemicals employed during the Games to inhibit hair growth, but can’t imagine they’re being used on a daily basis.
Never mind. I'll get dressed, get a knife from the kitchen and do it the old way. With my new pants about halfway up I make a vertical leap at Annie's sudden outburst.
"Peeta! Peeta!" Her voice is eerily reminiscent of 4 o’clock’s jabberjays. "Peeta!"
I burst through the door, prepared to fend for our lives. What I find are Annie and Johanna in a state of bewilderment, staring wide-eyed at a hologram that just auto-started on TV.
I almost drop my goddamn pants.
On screen we're introduced to the debris of what used to be a factory of sorts. The camera zooms in through the rising smoke. My breath hitches. There she is. A girl with a braid and arrows on her back.
Resolved, a sooty Katniss Everdeen proclaims to the viewers, "I have a message for President Snow…"
Hand outstretched I step closer, grasping thin air as I try to take a hold of the girl that conquered my mind from day one. The hologram flickers and Annie pulls me back before I jinx this little spectacle.
We watch the scene unfold. Katniss, clad in tar black battle armor, points to a smoldering Capitol hovercraft in the background.
"Do you see that? Fire is catching. And if we burn, you burn with us!"
Cut. A golden mockingjay appears, a replica of Katniss’ district token, breaking from its cage. Bold capital letters animate to JOIN THE REBELLION NOW. Then the screen fades to black. The holo terminates.
Stupefied silence sets in.
And that , I think, is how a revolution is made.