It's always an elevator.
Sometimes it's a Capitol elevator, like in one of the fancy buildings where they keep the Tributes. Elevators made of glass so you look like you're flying as it takes you up up up. But more often, it's one like in the mines. Like you're in a cage, descending down the devil's throat, as the miners down at the Hob call it. The ones who still smile and talk and laugh. The younger ones, like Gale and Thom.
This time, the elevator is all sleek steel. She doesn't want to take it (she doesn't trust it), but it's the only way down. And she needs to get down from here. The building might crumble at any moment. She knows it. So she steps in.
The elevator doors remain open for a long moment, blithely inviting any other prey. She remains alone. With a chirp, the doors close at last, and the elevator begins to descend.
She hears a countdown, the opening cannon.
Then the elevator screeches and gives a sickening lurch. Katniss catches herself on the handrails. For a beat, the world stills. She's eying the doors, silver teeth, when the elevator pitches again, throwing her to the ground. With a final scream, it's free-falling, plummeting her to her death.
The numbers blur now into one long stream…7574737271
All she can do is crouch and watch the walls whip by, striations of rock that take her deeper and deeper into the mouth of hell. The walls of the elevator seem to constrict, until she's in a capsule barely big enough for her body.
She can't breathe, can't scream.
She just falls and falls and falls.
She wakes, shooting up and scrabbling about to get her bearings. Incongruous sunlight bathes her face, and a soft, warm body rumbles a sleepy threat when Katniss flails against it.
Looking more closely, she sees that the body is Prim.
Prim's not a morning person.
For a while, Katniss sits back against her pillow and just breathes, lets the panic and the dream recede. Her mouth is sour, her hair stringy against her neck. But she's safe in her bed, safe in the Seam.
It's just the dream. The dream she's had hundreds of times, hundreds of nights. It doesn't mean anything.
Then she remembers what today is.
Katniss is unsettled, distracted all morning, spilling first her oats, then her water as she and Prim get ready for school. She re-braids her hair three times before it's neat enough to wear, and even then she settles for one of her more simple variations, looped about and pinned up so the uneven doesn't show. She's never been so all-thumbs, and she catches Mother and Prim sharing a secret smile.
At this, her mood sours further. They think they understand. It's the last week of school, and then only a few weeks until Katniss turns eighteen. Only a few more weeks until she's free from a final Reaping forever, free to choose a vocation. Or a husband.
Prim has already been teasing her about having senioritis (as though Katniss has ever been anything but lethargic toward school), and Mother has been dropping subtle hints that can only point to one thing. They're just vague enough that Mother could claim innocence, but Mother doesn't usually talk about summer flowers or a visit to the tailor, so.
Change is in the wind. It tastes like bitterbark.
One last week of school, and then the Hawthornes and the Everdeens will have their celebratory meal on Saturday, like they do every year after school ends. Mother has been dropping hints about this, too. As if there's even a remote possibility that Gale will try anything in front of so many people. But these are her people, their people, this is family, so you never know. Mother and Prim certainly anticipate.
If Gale knows what's good for him, he'll propose out in the woods. Where there are no people. And preferably after she's tucked away her bow. But she doesn't want to think about that, doesn't want to think about Gale or proposals or even the future. So she thinks about today instead.
Today is the mines.
In the final week of school, the scholars of District 12 get the dubious pleasure of taking their annual field trip to the mines. They start going down there in middle school, where they're old enough not to wet their pants and cry for their mommy but still young enough to be impressionable (Gale's words). Graduating seniors get to go on a special trip of their own, to a different part of the mine than the younger kids.
"It's subliminal brainwashing," Gale rants. "Release us from school on an exciting trip down to see what our daddies and mommies do all day. Show us all the fun parts, like the well-ventilated upper levels and the piles of sorted minerals and the yellow miner's hats with the lights on them. Make sure everyone's well-fed that day with treats like bread and meat and hey, maybe even a pinch of sugar, what a rush—"
"Shut up," Katniss says at that point because if she doesn't, this could go on for a while.
Gale says this now, but she remembers what he was like the first day he'd gone down into the mines himself, already so tall and so wise, swearing to her afterward that he'd seen the Blind Man, from the cautionary tale of an old miner who'd gone mad in the dark and had morphed into something not quite human.
Of course, that was before the explosion, back when she and Gale still made jokes about the mines. Before those same mines ripped their fathers from them and left them on the brink of starvation.
So Katniss hates the mines. Hates how they make people look and how they smell and how they've taken father and now Gale. Oh, Gale's still alive, sure, but it's not the same. When he turned eighteen and went to work in the mines, everything changed. Given his demanding hours, Gale can no longer walk her and Prim home from school. He can hunt with her only once a week, on his day off. Even then, he's often too tired to rise before the sun, like she does. She resents his late nights at the Hob, of him smelling of coal spice and drink. He doesn't smell like the woods anymore. He doesn't smell like Gale.
When she and Prim get to school, many of the other seniors are buoyant, eager to escape the confines of their classes. Granted, many of them are Townies, so they have places to escape to after they graduate. Their parents are florists and grocers and bakers.
Even Madge, whose head is not normally turned by such nonsense, gets carried away. Katniss stands alone at the edge of the soccer field, where her classmates are lining up to step into the wagons that will cart them to the mines. It feels like a Reaping, Katniss separated from everyone she loves. No Prim and no Gale here for her to stand with.
"Do you want to sit with us, Katniss?" Madge asks. Us, she says, because she's not alone, not anymore. Behind her is the half-moon of her flock, a few truly nice girls like Delly and others who are nice to Madge because she's the Mayor's daughter. It wasn't always that way. Katniss can remember a time when they were younger, when it was just she and Gale and Madge sitting together at lunch. Gale would sometimes sneak her a strawberry, the wild ones that grow outside the fence.
For a moment, Katniss considers the offer. She's missed Madge. When Gale left for the mines, no longer an imposing presence at their lunch table, their extra seats were quickly filled by a gaggle of girls, sillier than a pack of turkeys. For Madge, Katniss tried. She did. But it couldn't have been more than a week before she found another table, less crowded.
Still, silly is preferable to the alternative, when you're in the mines. She'd be safe with Madge and her crew. It's customary to stick with your friends down there. Otherwise, you chance spending the day forced to get friendly with a stranger or with some handsy Townie. There's often barely enough room to turn around.
Then Priscilla Cleary—Prissy, as everyone calls her behind her back—locks eyes with her and leans over to whisper to one of the other girls. They both laugh and watch to see what Madge's charity Seam friend will do now. Not for the first time, Katniss wishes she had her bow. She'd prefer to show them what she can do.
Madge follows her gaze, then turns back with an apology. Katniss doesn't understand why she puts up with them. Good practice, she supposes, for the future wife of the Mayor.
"No thanks," Katniss says. I'm sorry, her eyes say.
Madge understands. "Catch up with you later, then?" And she means it. Katniss has no doubt that Madge will look for her again when they get to the mines. She learned long ago not to take Katniss' inevitable no for an answer.
The air is so thick with coal spice that even the Seam kids can smell it. As they spill from the wagons, the Townies put their hands or kerchiefs over their noses. Some of the boys pretend to gag. Katniss watches impassively, the boys with their peacocking and the girls with their ridiculous, pristine clothes. It's one of the best parts, getting to see everyone at the end, covered in the same grime. Coal doesn't discriminate. It gets everywhere on everyone. Even dainty Prissy with her white (white!) gloves and her sneer.
Katniss trails at the fringes of the group, not really eager to step into the Museum, the monument where they always start their tour. The Museum seems to have been built to chronicle the rousing history of District 12 and its miners. It's used only rarely, such as when the Capitol needs footage from 12 or for the occasional tour.
When you step in the door, you wend through the coal mine painted on the floor, stopping at interactive kiosks to learn fun facts about the wonderful world of fossil fuels. See, this is how we coax it from its bed in the earth (smiling yellow hats). Here's how we sort it and cure it (more smiling hats). Here are the lovely people across the Districts who benefit from our labor (smiles and smiles). And peppered throughout these fun facts, these lovely stories, are pictures of the miners themselves, arranged in rows like they're a sporting team or an army, year after year, not a pickaxe out of place. They're not smiling.
This is a glorious tradition, folks, the walls scream. You, too, can be part of it.
Katniss can't pick her father out of his photo.
After an hour in the Museum, they head to the equipment shed. There, they get to put on their own yellow hats, buckle them up real tight and check them twice. They're each issued a blunt rock hammer and a ration pack, which the Townies usually eat before the morning is half over and which the Seam usually squirrel away to take back home. Katniss herself pockets the granola bar.
And then it's time to descend.
It's time for the elevator.
Katniss stoops and pretends to tie her boot, letting a herd of Townies stream by. This is the elevator where her father died. Oh, it's not the same one, of course. It's the upgraded model, 100% safety guaranteed. So said the propos that had aired during the mandatory viewing hour, in the weeks after it was installed. In the weeks after the accident.
The other kids crowd in, Townies jockeying so they're not standing too close to someone from the Seam, purposefully shifting their weight so the conveyance sways and juts up against the rough walls. Until the old miner with no teeth shouts at everyone to be quiet, to be still, like he does every year.
This is it. Who you're standing by in the elevator is your fellow sardine for the next several hours. It's first in, first out, as they do a loop through Grand Central, then usually through one of the maintenance tunnels.
Katniss stands on her toes, a last-ditch look for Madge, who she'd been tracking earlier in the crowd but now lost in the melee. Before she can squeeze in and hope for the best, the metal grate slides shut.
"Take the next one," says the old miner, already turning to growl at a couple of Townies who've started to rock the boat. The elevator creaks and sways under their efforts, and a few girls (all Townie, of course) mock-shriek.
Katniss steps back to wait her turn with a few others, supervised by a surly shift lead who apparently drew the short stick this morning. The remaining Townies mill about in clumps, tossing rocks and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Seam, like her, stand quietly and stare at the walls. Her eyes trace the striations in the rock, these layers of history. Each and every one a story. She wonders if it still shows, the blast that killed her father.
At long last, the elevator rumbles back from the depths, opening to accept the smaller group. Katniss boards first, so she can wedge herself into the back corner, her fingers curled around the wire mesh.
"Glenn," someone hisses, and she looks over to see that one of the Townie boys is watching the old elevator technician with a sly grin, waiting for his back to turn, shifting on the balls of his feet. But before he can really lean in to it, his friend, the one who'd said his name, cuffs him in the ear. "Don't." His tone is light. His fist was not.
Katniss looks away, her throat suddenly tight. She's…grateful. Grateful for the smaller group, plenty of space between them to breathe and to focus on not thinking, on not feeling. Grateful that she'll get to ride in peace and dignity, like her father hadn't. In a way, it feels like she's descending into a grave. Like she's here to pay her respects.
Something about the exchange tickles her consciousness, so she chances a second look. The boy who'd stayed Glenns' hand, she knows him. As if sensing her gaze, his eyes dart over to meet hers. Her stomach drops away, and it's not just because the elevator starts to move.
It's the Baker's son.
The ride is quiet, as elevator rides often are, the primal fear of heights a whisper in their collective mind. As they go down, the temperature goes up. They're all sweating now, and the fun has only just begun. Katniss is glad she pinned her hair up off her neck, glad she wore her most threadbare dress. She hopes Prissy and crew are sweltering in their more substantial Capitol fabrics.
They reach the bottom with a jolt. Wedged in the back corner like she is, Katniss is the last to step out of the rickety cage when the metal gate slides open. She feels something—relief?—to see that several heads separate her from the Baker's son. They won't be on top of each other, and he won't feel forced to make small talk like "Watch your head" or "Wow, it's hot" or "Hey, remember that day with the bread?" There's a reason she's never talked to him.
They clip in, a sturdy rope that joins their belts, and then descend a short passage, a line of ants, until they step in to the controlled chaos of Grand Central. Lanterns deck the walls of the roughly circular cavern, which is swarming with productivity. This is the beating heart of the mine, a steady stream of wheelbarrows and miners pumping in and out of tunnels that go here and there, yellow hats and lights everywhere. They scurry in from these tunnels, dump heaps of coal onto large conveyor belts that carry it back to the surface, and then whisk their empty wheelbarrow away for another round.
Above the din, the Capitol foreman gathers all the kids together, arranging them in rows, and fairly shouts a description of what everyone is doing, the Diggers and the Loaders and the Sorters. Katniss has heard it all before. Father was a Digger.
Sometimes she feels as though her father is still down here, still singing and whistling somewhere down a long-forgotten shaft. The canary, they used to call him. They don't call him that any more, on account of his dying and all. Katniss supposes canaries are expendable.
They've nearly finished their circuit of Grand Central—"next stop, the west wing!" crows the Capitol foreman with a flourish, channeling his inner Caesar Flickerman—when it happens, too quick for a scream. Someone grabs her arm and yanks the clip from her belt. She smells the dusky sweat of a miner. He has her in his grip and has sequestered her down a nearby access path before she even knows what's happening. When she draws a breath to scream, he covers her hand with his mouth and leans in.
"Katniss," a voice says in her ear. "It's me."
She knows this voice. As he pulls back, the face is still alien, coated in coal, a jag of pink for its mouth. She socks him across the face. Not as hard as she can, but hard enough.
"What was that for?" Gale slurs, holding his jaw.
"You grabbed me." She's agitated, pacing back and forth to expend the fight or flight adrenaline.
"I know. I wanted to see you. But I'm not supposed to."
She whirls on him again. "You could have told me, before." Given her some hint of what he planned. He knows she doesn't do surprises. Certainly not in public.
"It's dark, I took a chance." She scathes at him, but she's softening. He knows just what to say. "Anyway, I wasn't sure I could get away. I'm on break, but I had to haul…" He catches himself. "…rear to get back up here in time to nab you in Central. Would have been harder once you kids get in to the tunnels."
She shakes her head at his logic, at his refusal to say dirty words to her, as if she hasn't already heard them all in the Hob since she was twelve. Then she's distracted by what he's saying.
"How deep are you these days?"
That wipes the grin. "Deepest."
It's sobering, the idea that even the elevator can take you only so far. She can't be mad at Gale. He just wanted to see her, down there in the dark. He hardly ever gets to see the light.
He lounges against the wall, casual as can be, as though they're out for a stroll in the woods, stopping for shade under a willow. "So, Saturday."
"Saturday." She's going to make him dig. He's a miner, after all.
"The big shindig," he prompts. "Our mothers have been concocting."
She sighs, but this is good. This is safe, Gale keeping it all light. "They do that."
"They do indeed. I mean, it's just a party, right? It's almost like they think someone's going to propose or something." Gale looks at her askance now, an expression on his face like can you believe those chuckleheads? But there's something deeper there, too, something uncertain.
Katniss goes very still, like she does sometimes in the woods. She thinks a thousand thoughts. She thinks nothing at all. They've talked about this. They've talked about marriage and kids and how these things just aren't possible for her. She doesn't want to talk anymore, so she plays dumb.
"Rory knows Prim is too young. He wouldn't, would he?"
Gale plays along. "Nah, he knows it's too soon. Next year, maybe." He shifts his weight, tosses a pebble, which echoes further down the shaft. "So I hear they're taking you to the west wing. That's deep."
"As deep as you?"
"I'm deepest, remember? You mere mortals couldn't handle it. Anyway, you'll like it, where they're taking you."
"Then I should get back. Wouldn't want to miss the surprise."
Gale nods and pushes off from the wall, striding to lead her back the way they'd come. Then he stops and pivots so quickly that she runs in to him. He catches her easily, smiling.
"Sorry, that's a buttonhook. We miners like to have our fun." Fun, he calls it. Katniss remembers some of the hazing that Gale himself was subjected to when he was first conscripted. Like being left down in the dark overnight. Fun.
He sobers, and his face is the night sky. "Listen, Katniss, be careful down there. If you hear anything, don't go investigate."
He seems serious, but she's not quite sure. He's tried to scare her before. "What do you mean?"
"There are stories. You know, things that go bump in the night, that kind of thing." His grin turns naughty. "Let's just say I'm not the only thing down here that likes to whisk nubile girls off to a secret lair."
He's just trying to scare her, she's sure of it. She shoves him forward. "Nubile. They teach you that fancy word in miner's school?" She only has a vague idea of what it means. Gale, though, he reads whatever he can get his hands on, stolen moments at school and in the forest. She's the only one who knows he reads. He's wasted down here.
Together, they trek back to the lamplight. As they step into the throngs in Grand Central, they sidle casually back toward the group, just two miners, shoop di shoo. Amid the hustle and bustle, they remain anonymous and oh so sneaky. Gale clips her back in to the end of the conga line as it snakes down toward the west wing.
Then he gives her a jaunty tip of the helmet, and he's gone.
They shuffle like good little miners, heading farther in the tunnels than Katniss has ever been before, farther than she would have ever thought it would be safe to take teenagers. But she'd missed the speech, so she didn't know where they were headed, or why. All she can tell is that they seem to be walking roughly horizontally rather than down into the bowels like Gale. Briefly, she considers asking ahead, then discards the idea. The Seam girl she'd clipped in to seems even more shy and quiet than she is, the perfect buffer. Katniss doesn't want to ruin it.
Once, the caravan comes to a halt, and they wait for what feels like forever. Then there's some commotion ahead, and Katniss flattens against the wall as one of their miner escorts (on babysitting duty) edges through, a bedraggled Townie girl in tow. She fainted, comes the whisper, like a game of tellyphone. Only after the girl passes does Katniss realize it's Prissy, nearly unrecognizable under all the muck. It happens every year, some girl or boy who just can't handle it. Or who fake it, Seam kids who think maybe they can get out of it, that this doesn't have to be their life.
A tug, and they're moving again. They walk for ages, farther than Katniss has ever walked in the mines before. They might walk forever.
Then, the air stirs with something new. Chatter begins to increase, the hum of bees. Anticipation thrums. From somewhere beyond, she hears whoops, the unmistakable sound of exulting. They've obviously arrived. The pace increases, tugs at her belt, and Katniss has to walk quickly to keep up.
There's more jubilation as wave after wave of seniors take in the surprise. Katniss reaches the end of the tunnel and steps through the supporting beams, a portal into the beyond, where glitters a night sky.
She's stepped into a cathedral of crystal.
It's one thing to read about stalactites and stalagmites in books, and to try to remember the difference between the two for a test. It's an entirely new experience to see them in person, these majestic pillars, testaments to some incredible patience. Hanging from the ceiling like behemoths, jutting from the earth like teeth. Some of them are taller than she is. In this room are thousands of years of history. Before the Games. Before the War. Before maybe even man walked the earth above.
There are pictures of other caves in the Museum, sure, pockets of crystallization, an oversized geode, that have been discovered through the years, intermixed with the coal beds, but this. This is something else. A natural wonder, buried right here beneath their humble district.
Now their tour guide, the foreman speaks, from somewhere above. They look up and he's spotlighted by umpteen helmets, where he's climbed a short rise. "We found this jewel six months ago, an exploratory dig into previously uncharted territory. You're the first students to come here." His voice echoes oddly in the cavern. They're reverent now, he their priest, a stalagmite his podium. "You're the first to see this." He hoists his lantern and sets it into a natural shelf nearby. As if on cue, the other miners, staggered here and there throughout the cavern, also set down their lanterns, a choreograph.
As they do, light shatters into a million pieces, refracted endlessly in crystals here there and everywhere. They look, they dazzle.
Katniss had thought the sun was beautiful, fracturing in the eddies in her father's lake. The cave bursts with crystals of all colors, shapes, and sizes, like stained glass. In this chamber, they are are not Town, not Seam, not miners. They are the same, but pilgrims basking in this wonder.
But there's more. In the twinkle of twilight, Katniss sees something else, a ripple and a shiver in the cave floor ahead. She cranes forward, bumping up against one of her fellow onlookers.
"Sorry," he whispers, as though he's the one who bumped in to her. The Baker's son, of course, but she doesn't respond, can't respond. Because beyond, she sees something else. She can hear it now, can smell it—water. This is not just a cave.
"Yes," the foreman says, noting her interest. "And the greatest secret of them all." He ushers them carefully forward, leading them on a hidden path through the ages, until they stand on a shore lapped by an obsidian lake. "Anyone care for a dip?"
Katniss doesn't even think. She joins the throng of humanity that tumbles toward the cool water, after so long in the stifling heat and crush of rock. For the first time, she's one of them, one in life and joy and belonging. She strips off her dress with the rest of the girls, not even caring who sees her camisole and bloomers before she slips neatly into the water. It's warm, like coming home.
"Stay close," the foreman calls, and the other miners with him fan out along the shore like sentinels. They needn't have worried, as none of the other kids knows how to swim. Katniss wades in as deep as she dares, water to her neck. She can feel it, how easy it would be to just kick up her legs and float. Some of the other kids are trying to do just that, spluttering mouthfuls when they fail. Finally, they learn how to buoy each other up, a single hand on the small of their backs. She remembers her father doing the same, so long ago.
Unexpectedly, her eyes glaze. She thinks of how much her father loved their lake, up on the surface. He never got a chance to see this one.
"It's glorious," a quiet voice says nearby.
She looks over to see a boy standing with water up to his bare chest some careful meters away, watching her. It's him again. Peeta. His hair is dark, slicked back, one of the brave ones who'd baptized himself. She hadn't heard him approach, with all the splashing and shrieking.
She doesn't know what it is about today, how they've gone from years of studious avoidance to this sudden orbit. As though they've been circling each other all day, almost unawares. If he'd approached her at any other time, up there, she would have frozen him out, pretended she hadn't heard until he went away. But down here, in this cavern of wonders, she's warm and soft and just right. It is glorious.
"Yes," she agrees. One word, but it's a positive word, a good word, and she's just said it to him. The first time they've ever spoken. To top it off, she smiles. Just a twitch, but Peeta lights up. She'd thought he was smiling before, when she'd looked over, but that's nothing compared to this. Here, in the glow of a thousand understars, she thinks she sees Peeta Mellark for the first time.
They don't speak again (words aren't enough) and he eventually drifts back to his friends, leaving as quietly as he came, not a ripple in his wake.
Unbearable, when the foreman begins to call them to shore.
Well past midday now, and they still have to make the trek back to the surface. The earlier ebullience, the indescribable sense of camaraderie and community begins to fade as reality sets in. They have to leave this place. They'd trudge back to the surface and emerge into the light, forever changed. Forever aware that this place exists, yet unable to return. Oh, some of them might. Miners, perhaps, in stolen moments between shifts. But it won't be the same. They were free here, today. They'll never be free again. They'll graduate and start on the journey that's been ordained, years stretching endlessly ahead.
And so they drink it in, these final precious moments while they garb themselves in the trappings of their old lives. Piece by piece, weigh themselves down to the people they used to be. No longer gods, no longer nymphs or sprites or a thousand other things they'd imagined themselves to be, in this endless place, this forever space. Now they are but children, Town and Seam alike. Children doomed to repeat the sins of their forefathers.
Perhaps something hears their cry, hears their prayers, for there's a murmur of something new, an awakening somewhere deep in the earth. It starts out as a feeling, a tingling in the marrow of their bones. The miners and foreman grow instantly alert. Katniss feels it, too, through her bare feet against the warm rock. She's stepped off to one side, segmented again, slipping back in to her dress, which chafes at her wet undergarments.
"Clip in!" the foreman calls, it's probably nothing, but the kids already scurry like ants on an upturned anthill, panicking every which way. Clipping in at random until they're one tangled web. The lights from their helmets strobe crazily, the refraction blinding all of them, a macabre dance hall like you sometimes see on Capitol TV.
At the periphery, Katniss stuffs on her boots, not even bothering to lace them. She scrabbles for her pack, her hat. Where's her clip she can't find her clip.
They have seismic detectors galore for this type of thing, scattered throughout District 12, consolidated around the mine itself like vultures. But they're not always enough. Somewhere above, a machine in the Museum is going crazy. A relic, but they were told it still works. They haven't needed it in years, not so much as a tremor in this region, but now it's probably jerking colored lines like it's having a seizure
The foreman and the miners are everywhere, unclipping, slinging kids by their waists, tossing them like bags of flour in the direction of the beckoning tunnel, with its reinforced beams and 100% safety guaranteed. Out here, beneath a sky of shivering crystals, they are woefully, wonderfully fragile.
The team of miners and their foreman become the world's most efficient assembly line, motivated by mayhem, pursued by deadly purpose. They're down to a final clump of Townies or Seam, who can tell.
"Go go go!" the foreman calls to his men.
Katniss stumbles toward them, boots and helmet flopping. She's used to running through a forest of leaves, not rocks. Her toe catches a crevice, and she and her helmet go flying. Something heavy hits the back of her head, a warning. She's dazed, scrabbling again for her helmet, teetering like a turtle shell.
Faces hover like moons in the dim light of the shaft, safety beckoning. They've seen her, this final straggler, the last to arrive, the last to leave. The foreman reaches out his hand. She wants to run toward him, needs to run toward him, but before she can take another step, something plows into her, steals her breath, and she tumbles back. A stalagmite the size of her torso lands where she should have been.
The stars fall.