Title: The Hanging Tree
Summary: Do you believe in ghosts? For this is the tale of the two lovers who met up at midnight in the hanging tree, and you might find yourself questioning your beliefs.
Characters/Pairing: OC/OC. The lovers whose story is The Hanging Tree.
Warnings/Spoilers: Dark themes. This does not have a happy ending. There is suicide, there is starvation, there is murder and there is rape. (Nothing graphic, though.) This is not a story for the youngsters.
A/N: I decided to write this. *shrug* Written for Project PULL, and beta'd by the fantastic Faded Classic. :D Hope you enjoy!
Dedication: To Lola, who helped me out with the names of these people. :D
The Hanging Tree
· A Oneshot ·
Death cannot kill what never dies. ~ William Penn
Do you believe in ghosts?
Ponder that question for me.
Because I'm curious to know if this story changes your mind. For this is the tale of the lovers of the Hanging Tree.
Sella Tremlett meets Jem Barrett when she is seven years old.
Everyone knows who Jem Barrett is. He's the mayor's son, an arrogant son of a bitch with either a heart of gold or lead, depending on the day, whether or not he liked you, and his mood. He also had a fondness for children.
The odds are in her favor that day.
Sella is walking down the dirty street, scrounging for any scraps she could use to feed her family. Her brother is the one who keeps her family alive, but she does what she can to ease the pain of starvation.
The skills she has learned from him also help—how to fade into the background when things become too dangerous, how to pickpocket without the victim knowing it, how to recognize poisonous and edible plants . . . how to tie a proper knot.
She sees a boy paying for apples—apples in an open sack, apples that can easily be reached by her seven-year-old height—and walks toward him, trying to appear nonchalant. He's only bought one apple, and it's obvious that he doesn't miss any meals. She allows a strong flash of envy to course through her before she focuses on her mission. It'll be her first theft. Her brother will be so proud of her.
The boy lingers by to chat, and she deftly comes up to stand behind him, easily covered by his frame. She glances around, and when she knows that no Peacekeepers are nearby, and reaches out to grab a shiny red apple.
Her hand wraps around it and she cradles her hand to her chest, unable to believe her luck. She stuffs the apple into her shirt and casually walks away, hoping to God that no one will shout "Thief!" and beat her to death on the streets.
No one does. She has pulled off her first act of thievery. Her stomach rumbles, and she wonders if her mother can make an apple pie out of just one apple.
Probably not. It was worth a try.
She turns the corner and is about to sprint into a run when someone grabs her arm.
Fear grips her and she turns around slowly, half-expecting her captor to be a raving Peacekeeper. To her relief, it isn't.
It's something much worse.
It's Jem Barrett, in all his eight-year-old glory. "Where do you think you're going?" he asks haughtily, letting go of her arm as if it holds a horrible, contagious disease. He crosses his arms over his chest and stares her down. She scowls at him and copies his actions.
"Home," she replies, mimicking his tone. He raises his eyebrows.
"With a stolen apple? I think not!" he scoffs.
She glares at him. "I di'nt steal nothing!"
Right then, the oddly shaped lump in her shirt slides down further and then falls out of her shirt, landing on the street with a muffled thump. He grins, his point proven, and she scrambles to hide the apple from prying eyes.
"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't tell my father about this," he sneers. Sella dislikes him already. However, she knows when she is beaten.
She looks down at her apple, her prized possession, and tries to hand it to him. "You can give this back to the apple merchant if you care so much," she said quietly. Confusion appears on his once-smug face; he isn't used to his victims giving up. He's used to them fighting back until they're blue in the face. It's especially enjoyable if they start crying.
But this girl just looks defeated, and he doesn't like it.
He looks down at the apple and scowls. "No. Keep it. Might keep you alive for just a day longer." And he shoves it into her hands, turns on his heel, and walks away. She stares after him in disbelief before gathering her bearings and running in the opposite direction, towards her house.
Her entire family gets two apple slices for dessert that night.
The next time she sees Jem Barrett is when she is ten years old. The apple incident has been long forgotten by her, but not by him. He lost that day, and Jem Barrett never loses.
His game plan is to befriend her, and then humiliate her in public. He has had that game plan since he saw her in the market when he was eight. Harboring a grudge for three years is dangerous business.
He is with his group of cronies when he first notices her at school. She's not in his year, but her grade has the same lunch period as his, and this is the best luck he's had all year. He gets up and walks away from his friends, intent on his mission.
He pulls up a chair in front of her and sits down, resting his arms on the table and grinning at her. She jumps and looks up from her school mush. She has forgotten the apple incident, but she has not forgotten who Jem Barrett is.
"Hi," he says with all the sincerity he can muster. "I'm Jem Barrett."
"I know," Sella says quietly. "The mayor's son."
A part of him gloats over this information, but he keeps quiet, waiting for her to tell him her name. She doesn't. She just keeps her eyes trained on her mush and it aggravates him.
"What's your name?" he tries again.
She looks startled that he's acknowledging her presence and swallows. "Uh, Sella. My name's Sella."
Pretty name, he thinks, and immediately is disgusted with himself. He is not here to compliment her; he is here to knock her down a few notches. She probably gloated to her family and anyone who would listen how she bested Jem Barrett, and this is to show her that he does not lose. Ever.
"I want to be your friend," he says with a winning smile. It works on his mother when she catches him stealing cookies, and he has no doubt that it will work on her.
She stares at him and tucks a strand of dark hair behind her ear, gray ice eyes wide. "Me? Why me?"
Why her, indeed. He wracks his eleven-year-old brain for an excuse and says, "Because I like you, Sella. Do you not want me to be your friend?"
She swallows hard. "Oh—um, no, that's not it! I was just wondering." She looks down and says softly, "Not many people want to be my friend."
"That's okay," he says, flashing her another one of his famous smiles. "We can be exclusive friends."
She has no idea what he means, but she gives him a shaky smile in return. "I—I think I'd like that."
It takes him two years to finally call himself a friend of Sella Tremlett, and he plans on dumping her a few weeks as soon as the reaping celebration begins. He stands with the thirteen-year-olds, his name entered twice for the 31st Hunger Games.
Sella is in the twelve-year-old section. Only the day before, she had disclosed to him that her name was only entered once, because her brother wouldn't let her take any tesserae, and she was worried about the chances of her brother being reaped.
He had smiled at her and said, "He won't be chosen, Sella."
"Yeah, I promise. And you won't be reaped, either." You can't be, or it'll ruin all my plans.
She'd smiled at him and said, "I'm glad to have a friend like you, Jem." And she had hugged him before walking away with the rest of her year at the end of lunch.
Long story short: Sella isn't chosen. Neither is her brother.
Instead, it is a boy by the name of Thormund Denholm and Jem's sister—his beloved, kind-hearted sister—Araya. Both tributes are only fifteen.
He doesn't understand what has happened at first, but as he watches his beautiful sister climb up to the stage, he realizes that she doesn't stand a chance. She is too trusting, too kindhearted, too soft. She will be slaughtered by the Careers in no time flat.
Someone clasps his hand, and he glances over to see Sella smiling at him sadly. Then she lets go and weaves through the crowd before any Peacekeepers can realize that she has broken the rules.
His sister is one of the nine to be massacred in the bloodbath. Thormund is killed days later.
That year, Jem Barrett finally grows up.
They are fifteen and sixteen, and have started to see each other in secret, under a strong tree. It is the only tree in a clearing: a strong and proud oak with nice, thick branches. It is the perfect meeting point because it is impossible to miss.
It is the second anniversary of his sister's death, and he is already waiting for her. "Hi," whispers Sella when she breaks through the line of trees to stand in the clearing. He stares at her with dead eyes. She doesn't say anything, just goes to sit at his side, holding him. The night they spend there is in silence, as it is every year.
Just before she decides it's time to leave, Jem's arms around her tightens. "Don't go," he whispers, as if he can read her mind. She looks at him, shocked, before his lips descend upon hers.
She is too stunned to do anything else but respond. Don't think too much of it, her brain warns her. He is hurting, he is tired, and you're the only outlet of comfort that he has. . . .
She ignores her common sense and continues to kiss him—slowly, gently, waiting for him to realize what is happening.
He does, and he pulls away from her soon after, his eyes glassy and his whole body trembling. Jem Barrett isn't the type to cry in front of others, but she has a feeling that is about to change very soon.
"It's okay," she murmurs to him, clutching his hand. "It's okay. She's in a better place now."
He pulls her to him, burying his face in her hair, and she can feel warm wetness soak into her scalp.
"It's okay," she whispers, over and over again, and that just makes him cry harder.
She never tells him that he was her first kiss.
"Hi," he greets her when she appears in the underbrush, sweeping her up in an embrace. "I missed you at lunch."
"That's because we won't have lunch together until next year, stupid," she says, laughing. He pulls away and grins at her.
"Yeah, you're right. But still, can't I be allowed to miss my best friend every once in a while?" he teases. His blonde hair is almost white in the moonlight.
She flushes and looks away. "Yeah, I guess you're right."
He has not forgotten their kiss a few weeks prior, either. He grabs her chin and tilts her head up, forcing her to look at him. "Hey, chin up," he jokes. "What's got you so upset?"
"The Reaping," she whispers, not meeting his eyes. "My brother—I'm worried for him."
He swallows hard. The Hunger Games is not something that they speak of often here, so he's a little surprised that she's bringing it up. "Well, look at it this way, he's eighteen. If he isn't chosen this year, he'll never have to worry about it again."
She smiles and embraces him again. "I don't know what I'd do without you, Jem," she whispers. He rests his chin on her head and wraps his arms around her.
Unknown to them, a servant girl is spying on the mayor's orders. She barely stifles a gasp at the sight of the mayor's son interacting with a commoner, and backs up until she is positive that she cannot be seen. Then she turns and runs back, towards the mayor's house.
Three days later, a large chain-link fence stops Sella from going to the meeting point. Her eyes widen and she thinks a silent apology to Jem before heading back to her house.
It doesn't matter. He wasn't there anyway.
He had been caught by his father.
"Jem," says Mayor Barrett calmly. Jem stops dead, his hand already on the doorknob. "Where do you think you're going?"
"Out for some fresh air, father," he replies, straightening and turning around to face the mayor head-on.
"At this hour? Son, it's nearly midnight," says the mayor, setting his book down on the end table. They could afford those kinds of luxuries, and Jem's mind goes to Sella's family. He knew she could read and write—that was what school was for—but had she actually read any books beside the ones at school?
"I know. The house got too hot, and I couldn't sleep," he lies. Bright light floods the house as Mayor Barrett turns on the lamp.
"Well, I'll have you know that there is now a chainlink fence protecting the city from any wild animals," he says. "So you cannot go see this girl anymore."
The mayor's bright blue eyes flash and he stands up, allowing his anger to show. "Do not play me for a fool! You are forbidden to see the girl. If I catch her with you, there will be consequences. You are to be the next mayor, son! I can't allow you to ruin your reputation by playing around with a peasant girl. You will not make me the laughingstock of Panem."
Jem clenches his hands into fists and takes a deep breath. His father gives him an uncompromising look, and he turns on his heel and goes up the steps to his room.
Mayor Barrett may have thought he won. However, Jem Barrett is not the type to go down without a fight.
He corners her at school the next day. "My dad's forbidden me to see you," he tells her in one of the corridors. "But he can go to hell. I won't stop seeing you, Sella. We're best friends and I'm not abandoning you because of what my father wants."
She stares up at him with wide gray eyes. "So I don't suppose you want me to be going to the tree?"
He shakes his head. "No, because I won't be there. I need to fool dad into thinking that I'm not going to see you again. I'll tell you when we can see each other in private again, okay?"
She nods and smiles. "All right. I'll be waiting."
It takes him three years until the Peacekeepers guarding the door to make sure he didn't sneak out were dismissed. The only way their friendship remains intact is stolen moments inside and out of school. He isn't in school anymore, but he often saw her bartering homegrown herbs for some meat in the marketplace.
This time, she is bargaining for a healthy goat. Jem ghosts to her side and says to the red-faced merchant, "I'll pay for it. Keep your food, Sella."
She glares at him and opens her mouth—probably to disagree with him—but he's already paid the goat merchant and is holding the goat's rope leash. "C'mon," he says, giving her a look. "I need to talk to you."
She understands immediately. "All right."
They walk side by side in silence for a while, until Jem is sure that they won't be overheard. "My father banned me from talking to you," he starts, kicking a stray pebble. "But I've managed to regain his trust again. I don't have Peacekeeper guards at my door all night anymore. I'm sorry I haven't been able to talk to you but I'm here now. Will you meet me at the tree tonight?"
She finds herself nodding before she can think it through. "Yes," she blurts. "Yes, of course."
He smiles at her and threads his fingers through hers. "Thank you, Sella," he says.
They meet up at midnight under the tree and spend the hour catching up on their lives.
When he slips through the door and silently walks up to his room, the mayor stands up from the chair he was sitting in. He doesn't bother turning on the lamplight as he makes his way to the windows.
"That girl," he vows to himself, watching over the silent city, "is never going to see my son again."
Sella climbs over the fence—no one had the idea to make it electrical until long after her death—and hits the ground running. Jem is already waiting for her. One look at his face, and she knows his day hasn't nearly been as pleasant as hers. Silently, he takes her hand and wraps his arms around her. "Sella," he says in a hushed whisper. "I won't let them take you from me."
"Won't let who take me from you?" she asks, closing her eyes.
"The Capitol," Jem snarls. He pulls away from her then and kisses her hard—it is unexpected, but not unwelcome. However, it is nothing like their gentle, unhurried kiss of three years prior. It is raw, it is angry, it is possessive—and it scares her.
She pulls away after a few moments. "What are you talking about, Jem?"
He pulls her to him again, almost crushing her with his strength. "Apparently, my father found out that I've been coming to see you again. He's not pleased. I overheard him talking about rigging the reaping this year, so that you'll be picked for the Hunger Games."
She gasps. There is no doubt in her mind that he is telling the truth. "Is that legal?"
"Who cares?" he says harshly. "To the Capitol, it doesn't matter what rules are broken as long as they get their blood."
Her mind flashes to all of the deaths she's seen on the television of the tributes and she shudders. "I don't want to leave District Twelve," she whispers. His hold on her tightens.
"Come here tomorrow, at midnight, and we'll figure something out. I promise," he whispers. She nods fervently.
"I'll be there. Promise."
It is eleven thirty-two, and her mother is fast asleep. She is the only one awake in the house, as her brother has married a beautiful girl and they live a few houses down the street.
She stops dead at the sight of her usual route—it is blocked by something, she can't tell what, but it looks important and she doesn't want to risk it. So she takes a shortcut around the blockade, and is on her usual route in no time.
She passes a bar that is usually closed at this hour and freezes. Its lights are on, and she can see three Peacekeepers laughing inside. They probably guard the roadblock that had hindered her minutes before.
Before she can move, before she can do anything, the three Peacekeepers are outside and they have spotted her. Although they are drunk, they are just as dangerous as they are sober.
"Well, hello there," one drawls. He has an ugly stain on his uniform and cold, glittering blue eyes. "What's a pretty face like you doing out in the middle of the night?"
They surround her in moments. She didn't have a hope of escaping. "What are you doing so out so late, pretty girl?" another drawls. This man has a straggly blonde beard, and the smell of alcohol is the strongest on his breath. She winces.
"I was just going home. Please leave me alone," she whispers, too frightened to do anything.
"Hey, we just want to talk to you. It's not often that we see a pretty face around these parts," says the one with the stain. They all laugh as if it's some inside joke of theirs. They shift, and she starts for the clearing between two of them. The third one grabs her arm before she can leave, and she spins around on impulse. Her hand is clenched into a fist, and she socks him firmly in the eye before anyone can comprehend what has just happened.
The third one, a dark-skinned man, looks up in outrage. "Bitch needs to be taught a lesson," he slurs, his anger unmistakable. Fear courses through her and she seems to be frozen to the spot. The Peacekeepers grab her roughly, dragging her into an abandoned, coal dust-coated alley.
Then things get bad.
Things get very bad.
Jem knows something is up when 12:15 comes and goes, because Sella is late. And Sella is never late. Something must be wrong.
Maybe I should go check up on her.
Yeah. That's a good idea.
He decides to wait just five more minutes, in case she was running short on time, but makes up his mind to go back and check up on her, see if she was all right. They knew each other's routes by heart; they had often reversed their trails to reduce suspicion from any late-night wanderers, and it doesn't take him long to locate her usual course.
The whole city is quiet as he prowls the streets—and then he sees them. Two Peacekeepers, joking and obviously too drunk to realize what they have done. A third is sprawled across a broken olive body that he instinctively knows is her.
He is upon them in an instant, red tinting his vision. The man on top of Sella he manages to pull off, and he somehow knocks the disoriented dark-skinned one down before he could react. The third Peacekeeper, the one with the stain on his uniform, grasps his bearings a little quicker and manages to pull out a knife.
Jem quickly disarms him and stabs him in the chest before he can realize what he is doing. Blood gushes from the wound, coating his arm, the knife and his pants. He wrenches the blade out of the man's heart and pushes him aside.
He turns to assist his unmoving friend, when someone tackles him from behind. The Peacekeepers have realized what's happened and now have started to fight back. The one with a straggly blonde beard gets in five punches to Jem's gut and face before Jem gets the chance to swing his arm up—the one holding the knife.
Blood sprays him directly in the face as the man's jugular is severed and his throat sliced. Jem spits out the man's blood and pushes the corpse off of his body, rolling over and struggling to his knees. His whole body is sore, and he has a sneaking suspicion that his nose is broken. No matter how hard he tries, the coppery taste of blood never leaves his mouth.
Got to get to Sella.
The third one lies motionless on the floor, but Jem plunges the knife into his back for good measure. He doesn't want his house to be bombed by the Capitol in vengeance.
He tucks the knife into a belt loop, unsure of where else to put it, and turns to Sella. Even in the darkness, he can see the blood and the bruises. He's almost afraid to touch her.
"Sella?" he whispers, kneeling at her side. She whimpers when his fingers ghost over her back, determining just how bad her injuries were. His fingers leave Peacekeeper blood in their tracks, and he tries unsuccessfully to clear his right eye of the gore.
"I tried to fight them," she mumbles. "I tried, but they're too strong—"
"Sssh," he whispers, his mind thinking ahead already. "My mother's a healer. She'll take care of you." One piece of clothing by one, he helps her redress. She passes out from the pain before he can get her pants on, so he folds them and tucks them underneath her arms. Then he gently picks her up bridal-style and makes his way for his house.
He gets inside without a problem, and he lays Sella on the dining room table. Then he squeezes her hand and runs up the stairs, to his parents' bedroom. He barges in without warning and gasps, "Mother, we have an emergency."
Light floods the room, and both of his parents sit up to squint at their son. "Jem? What's going on? Oh, Lord, is that—what happened to you? Is that blood?" his mother asks. She is at his side in an instant, prodding his face and wiping the blood away with her hands.
He swats her hands away. "Mother, I need you to help me. Please."
"What is it?" she asks, staring at her son's presumed injuries with wide blue eyes.
"I found a girl. She was—she was—" he can't force the words out of his mouth and instead he says, "She was badly hurt. You have to help her."
His mother's face softens and she nods, following him downstairs. When she sees Sella, she gasps. He doesn't have to look at her to know that she has realized what happened to the girl on her dining table. "My God! Jem, I need to you to get me all of my supplies and a wet rag. Immediately."
He does this, and she shoos him out of the room so she can properly dress her wounds after telling him to clean himself up. He sits on the couch, his face in his hands, motionless.
He looks up to see the livid face of his father. "Yes?"
"That is not your blood." He looks pointedly at the dagger in Jem's belt. He has almost forgotten that it was there, and his father's unsubtle look is an unwelcome reminder. "Did you kill those men?"
Jem purses his lips. "I did the right thing, father."
"Is the girl in there the peasant you've been seeing?" Mayor Barrett asks.
A scowl dominates his features and he rises sharply. "Does it matter? All that I care about is that a girl who is very important to me is in there, and she might not live. I do not care about your precious reputation. I do not care that I might become the future mayor of District 12. And I certainly do not give a damn if you disapprove of her!" he spits.
Mayor Barrett looks taken aback, and then his face is as stormy as his son's. "I have my connections," he hisses, "but I cannot save you from death should the Head Peacekeeper decide it. Pray to the Creator that He will have mercy on your soul, boy, because Cicero Cray certainly will not."
He glares at his father and mutters, "I'm going to go wash off the blood," before stomping up the stairs and allowing himself to be consumed by his thoughts.
Is this worth saving her? he thinks, scrubbing away the grime until his skin is a shiny pink.
Yeah. Yeah, it is.
"She's awake," his mother whispers to him one morning and that is all he needs to hear before he is gone. Sella is sleeping in one of the guest rooms, her hair washed and her skin scrubbed clean of all coal dust.
The sound of the door opening and closing makes her eyes flutter, and she lets out a low groan. She sits up and winces, and he can't help but clench his fists when he sees the bruises on her neck and arms. She has been asleep for days; it's the new year now, and soon the reaping will be upon them.
Soon she'll deliberately be chosen to go to a bloodbath, where she will be forced to fight to the death. Who knows? She may get to eat a poisonous substance, which will hopefully give her a painless death. That, or she could be viciously speared by one of the Careers—
He focuses on her face to keep these morbid thoughts at bay.
"I should be in the mines. They'll notice my absence," she whispers when she sees him. He crosses the room and stops just short of sitting by her side, unsure of what to do.
"I'm sure they'll understand," he says.
She steals a glance at him and looks away, and it is then that he realizes that there are tears streaming down her face. He makes a soft noise in the back of his throat and sits next to her, drawing her into his arms. Sella's walls finally crack and she clutches his arms as she sobs into his shirt.
His mother's scream shatters the fragile peace they have in that room. He stands up, making sure Sella is behind him, and the door bursts open. Two Peacekeepers stand in the doorway and have grabbed Jem in the blink of an eye. They completely ignore Sella's screams as one hits him on the back of his head with the butt of his rifle and drags his lifeless form out.
The next day, she is kicked out of the house by the livid Mayor Barrett and his devastated wife. She makes for her house, careful to avoid the street where she was raped and ignores the soreness that wracks her body. It is a Monday, yet the gray houses are shuttered and quiet. A Peacekeeper comes out of a house, sees her, and yells at her to be in the main square. Too confused to disobey, she turns on her heel and follows his orders.
She is worn out by the time she gets there, but soon she sees that it was a forced attendance by the Head Peacekeeper. She joins her mother's side—her father has long since died of starvation, under the pretense of pneumonia—and covers her mouth with her hands to stop the gasp.
Standing next to Cicero Cray is Jem. His eyes seek her out immediately and he offers her a confident smile. (It's hard to do that, you realize, when your hands are tied behind your back and you have a prominent black eye.) She shakes her head, not trusting herself to make a sound.
When he is assured all the townspeople are in the square, Cray puts a hand on Jem's shoulder. "This boy," he announces to the tense crowd, "has been found guilty of murdering three Peacekeepers. He will be hung in the forest and left to be the wild animals' midday meal in exactly one week. All of you are required to attend, so that none will have thoughts about defying the Capitol again."
Sella doesn't realize that she is crying until she feels the wetness on her sleeves. Winter has already arrived, so she can be sure that no animals will come along to devour Jem's remains, but she can't quell the empty feeling inside her.
The week passes by so slowly she starts to think the Creator enjoyed tormenting her. And, what's worse—Jem has been placed under house arrest, forbidden to see anyone until he is executed.
When the dreaded day does come, she is herded into the forest with the other townspeople. The snow is up to their ankles, and they tread listlessly after the guards as they search for a suitable hanging tree.
And they ultimately decide to choose their rendezvous point—the highest tree branch, maybe ten feet off the ground. With a large enough box acting as the trap door, it is a perfect height for hanging.
It almost makes Sella want to laugh, but she doesn't. The mayor forces her to be up in the front of the crowd, so she will know that she is the reason his son is dying today. Jem's eyes never leave hers, even as they make him stand on a crate—an apple one—and put the noose around his neck.
"Jem Barrett, you have been accused of the following crimes. . . ." a female Peacekeeper says, uncaring of what is about to happen. Strange squealing noises are coming from Sella now as she sobs and she can't seem to stop them or look away from Jem. This is all my fault.
The Peacekeeper finishes her speech with a "Do you have any last words?" and she looks so bored of this whole ordeal that Sella decides then and there that she detests the Capitol.
Jem nods and smiles again at Sella. She doesn't miss how it wavers. "If it gets too much, you can always come back to me," he says. "I'll be waiting."
She understands. If she is reaped, she'll run away to their rendezvous point, in the Hanging Tree, and she'll join him in death. Death next to Jem is better than being subjected to the cruelty of the Capitol. Better than a life sentenced to the Hunger Games. This knowledge makes the stream of tears grow thicker. She nods and smiles shakily at him.
No one knows what he is talking about except for her. But that's okay.
Everything will be all right.
A hidden signal is made. Jem's eyes never stray from her face. Another Peacekeeper smiles maliciously and kicks the crate out from underneath him. Sella doesn't bother to stop her cry as Jem falls and a faint snap is heard throughout the dead air.
The wind picks up almost immediately after this soft noise, blowing her hair away from her face and giving her a fantastic view of her best friend's limp body.
His mother lets out a strangled shriek—that's two children in four years, Sella realizes—and grabs her. For a moment, Sella thinks she is about to be attacked, but instead Jem's mother holds onto her for support. They embrace each other, their tears flowing freely, only to freeze on their cheeks each time an icy gust of wind batters their bodies.
One by one, the townspeople leave the clearing until it is only Sella and his mother. Then, even Jem's mother disentangles herself from her and walks away, glancing behind her every five steps or so.
Sella sinks into the snow at Jem's feet. Even in death, he still has that small smirk on his face, the one that used to infuriate her.
And the Peacekeepers did not bother to take the crate back with them.
"You didn't deserve to die, Jem," she whispers. She stays by his feet until the sky grows dark. No Peacekeeper is sent after her, and for that she's grateful. She hugs herself as the chilly wind wracks her body, and allows herself to really cry for what happened that night. She does not allow herself to feel any pity for what happened to her, but tonight is an exception.
Because Jem is gone forever.
If only she'd been faster, then maybe she could've made it to Jem safely. If only he had done what any normal person would do and had left her alone to save his skin. If only he hadn't killed the Peacekeepers. If only he hadn't befriended her in the first place. . . .
Soon the cold becomes too much, and she stands up, brushing snow off of her pants and facing her best friend. She silently presses the three middle fingers of her left hand to her lips and extends her hand out in his direction. "I'll miss you, Jem," she whispers. "And I'll come to the tree if I—if I need to be free from all this. I promise."
She squeezes his freezing hand and walks away without looking back, this time around the length of fence that they had yet to add. Because now, instead of extending the fence, they have begun to put barbed wire on top of it, making it impossible to climb over.
You better get some sleep, Sella, she thinks to herself. Because tomorrow is the reaping, and you know what that means.
You're going to die, because Jem's father has rigged it.
The reaping of the 37th Hunger Games is a somber affair. Snow still sticks to the ground. The hem of her bright yellow gown is already wet, and her hair is out of its usual ponytail. Today, it is down in dark shimmering waves, all dandruff and coal dust washed out of it.
She stands in with the eighteen-year-olds, knowing what is to come. True to her expectations, the district representative fishes around in the girls' glass ball for a moment until his hand closes around a slip of paper.
The man smiles into the mike and shouts, "Say hello to our newest District 12 female tribute, everyone! This lucky lady's name is—Sella Tremlett!"
Her mother starts screaming and thrashing, trying to reach her daughter, but she is restrained by Peacekeepers. Sella ignores her as she walks up on stage without blinking. Jem, I'm coming to the tree tonight, she thinks, and turns around to smile at the crowd. The man—she's already forgotten his name as he replaced their former escort just a year ago—laughs at this attitude and goes to select the male tribute for District 12.
During this, she watches her family. Her brother is watching her with a stony face, but his eyes tell her more than his expression does. He'll miss her. He loves her, but he is already acknowledging her limited chance for survival. His arms are around his wife, who is holding their son—her little nephew Marek—and she gives them a small nod of acknowledgment.
As soon as the ceremony is over, they are allowed to celebrate. Things were different back then. Back in the 37th Hunger Games, you were allowed to spend one last night with your family. Sella was the reason they changed it to an hour in the Justice Building.
No one expects you to run away, because not only would it shame you and your family, it would lessen your chance of survival and lower your amount of sponsors. No one wants to sponsor a coward.
I'm coming, Jem, she thinks.
And waits for midnight.
Hurry, hurry, they've probably already discovered your disappearance!
Her footsteps crunch in the freshly fallen snow, but she has no time to worry about anyone overhearing her. The Hunger Games is the worst fate to anyone imaginable. Sella is not so foolish as to think that she actually has a chance against the Careers.
Are you coming to the tree, Sella? she hears him whisper in her mind. It's just her imagination, but she smiles nonetheless.
I'm coming, Jem.
They have only added a few more feet of fence with barbed wire, and she easily walks around it to go ankle-deep in snow. The cold is unbearable, but she pushes through. Jem is waiting for her, after all.
Soon, the moon lighting the way, she comes upon the hanging tree. Jem's body is frozen to perfection. Even if there's a little frost on his clothes and his lips are blue, she can still see him laughing at her for failing to bring anything that shields against the cold. Still envision him climbing their tree and telling her about his day.
She stops to catch her breath and glances around for the crate. The only thing she has brought with her is a piece of rope fashioned into a poorly made noose. But hey, the only thing that mattered was that it worked, right?
After a few more moments of silence, she sees the crate and goes to fetch it. It is covered with snow and brushing it all off nearly makes her hands freeze, but it doesn't matter to her. She won't be another piece in the Capitol's Games, that much is decided.
She picks up the crate and walks up next to her lover. She drops the crate at her feet, tilts his head up and kisses his dead, unmoving lips, before pulling away to focus on the task at hand.
Noose in hand, she places the crate next to Jem's dangling legs and stands on it. Reaching up on the tips of her toes, she manages to tie the rope off on the tree branch, side-by-side with his hangman's knot. Resting back on the soles of her feet, she watches the noose sway in the wind and shivers from the cold.
Not much time now. They'll discover you're gone. Just . . . think of it as a necklace, Sella. Jem's waiting for you.
Sella takes a deep breath, then smiles. She takes Jem's cold hand in hers, the smile still on her face, and puts the noose around her neck.
Another deep breath. The smile wavers, but holds its place. On three, she tells herself.
She kicks the crate away—and the world goes black.
She never let go of his hand.
I should let you know—the Hanging Tree is still there. The bodies were found the next morning and removed, and the male tribute of the 37th Hunger Games for District 12, Gerard Donner—yes, the future uncle of Maysilee—is left to fend for himself. He dies by a sword's blade to his heart a day before sixteen-year-old Seeder Ewing is crowned victor.
Sometimes, when the conditions are right, a stray traveler may look at the Hanging Tree and see it.
He may glimpse a woman standing on an abandoned crate, a noose hanging in front of her and a dead man to her right. He may watch her smile, put the noose around her neck and take the dead man's hand. He may stare as she steps off the crate and kicks it away. And as the scene passes, he may see her gray, transparent body sway in the nonexistent breeze. The wind might even whisper the lyrics of the lovers' song . . . but only if you're lucky.
Do you wish to see it? There's time.
Come. Walk with me. I have seen this event more times than I care to remember, but I will see it one last time, to show you.
Do you believe in ghosts?