Thank you SO much to those of you who have emailed and nagged me. I sucked. I have no excuse other than chaotic work schedule for my three jobs and a backpacking trip to Costa Rica. Here's chapter five. I'm having to fight my desire to skip ahead but I'll be a good author and not sacrifice the story!
Chapter Five: Spiraling
The peace did not last long.
Children screamed and fled to the edges of the room, climbing onto shelves and tables and chairs to get away from the tangle of arms and legs rolling around the room. In District 12, schoolyard fights had been a daily occurrence, but here they were rare enough that even Ainsley froze in horror and confusion. It was lucky we dealt with young kids, or I never would have been able to pull the boys apart by myself. As it was, I was struggling to keep them out of arm's reach of each other until Ainsley finally stepped into action, wrapping her arms around the other boy so that I could fully restrain Ali.
Ali. My brother Ali. My peaceful, shy, quiet little Ali panted in my arms, his chest heaving, tears streaming down his face and mingling with his bloody lip. It was nothing compared to the nail scratches down the side of the other kids' face, though, or the blood streaming from his nose. Eventually he would develop a shiny black eye in contrast to the small bruise forming on Ali's cheekbone.
And the worst part was that Ali had thrown the first punch.
The other boy, Evanston, could be a smarmy little thing, but then, I guess most six-year-old sons of commanders probably are. I didn't know anything about his father in particular except what his son boasted about in class which, if even half of it were true, meant Evanston's father was a rather important man.
Ali had wanted initially to work with me as we'd pulled out the lesson books, but I'd firmly but gently explained that he needed to work with his peers, just like everyone else. Then he'd tried to rope me into a song of The Itsy Bitsy Spider, grabbing at my hands and trying to force my fingers through the hand-gestures. I'd picked him up, set him in his chair, and insisted he stay in it. He'd sulked for a few minutes but then fallen to work and I'd thought all was forgotten.
Maybe Evanston had said something that set Ali off. Maybe he'd done nothing and just happened to be the closest body. I couldn't tell you. One minute all was calm as we worked in small groups on logic problems and then the next, screams and shrieks and the dull thud of little boy fists trying to do some damage. I'd watched in slow motion as Ali turned to Evanston, dragged his fist back, and let fly at the other boy's face.
Afterwards, as we tried to reign the class back in and staunch the flow of blood from Evanston's nose, Ali calmed almost immediately. His breathing quieted, he sniffled a few times and wiped away his tears, then grabbed at my hands again, motioning for the Itsy Bitsy Spider. The other children kept their distance from Ali for the rest of the afternoon, even Posy, who normally let hardly a foot of space come between them. Ainsley encouraged us to leave before parents started arriving, promising to deal with Evanston's father and smooth things over.
Still, I practically trembled with fear as I hauled Ali through the halls back to our room. He didn't understand my hurry and wanted to skip or walk on his toes or hop like a rabbit but I just wanted to be hidden away. I smiled at everyone we passed, hoping to distract them from Ali's bashed face, but it was hard to miss the curious glances.
I collapsed on my bed as soon as we were in the room. I didn't really care what Ali did. I just needed to decompress. I was so tired, though, that as soon as I lay back, the concrete thoughts I fought so hard to grasp melted and slid from me.
I slept for hours until pounding at the door pulled me quickly from blank sleep. Obviously I feared it was Evanston's dad, come to take Ali from my care. Before I could warn Ali to pretend we weren't here, though, he'd already opened the door and waved cheerfully.
Gale stepped through and I relaxed. Pushing myself from the bed, I stretched to loosen my stiff shoulders and pop my back, cringing at the crackle of my joints.
"That didn't sound too good, old lady," he teased. His eyes were trained on Ali's face, though, and he frowned. "What happened here? And here? And . . . there?" He pointed first at Ali's face, but then to the walls and next to the television screen.
"No- no! Ali, what did you do?" I cried. Great big circles in blue and green looped along the lower third of two walls. A chair had been pushed in front of the television so that Ali could reach high enough to scribble across the screen, short jagged lines between long arcs. I leapt forward and pried open his fingers to remove the small blunt stubs of the crayons that were left. He managed to shove one quickly into his mouth.
I threw my hands up in despair and turned to Gale, trying to smile despite my frustration in the hopes of not looking like a completely incompetent care-giver, "I just don't know what's gotten into him today. He's been such a boy."
"All of a boy's favorite things," Gale laughed. "Stop giving your sister such a hard time, kid. You're wearing her out." He tweaked Ali's ear, but Ali just grinned innocently up at him, pushing the piece of crayon slowly through his lips like a tongue. "Fortunately, I've got something that will cheer you up. But we'll need to scrub this off first . . . " He turned to the television again and scratched at the crayon with his nail. "Well, that's not too bad. You got a razor?"
I brought him my shaving razor and sat in one of the awful plastic chairs as he broke the plastic to get at just the blades. Ali watched me hesitantly for a moment before apparently deciding he'd done nothing to be ashamed of and climbing into my lap. I was angry enough not to wrap my arms around him, but never angry enough to push him away. After only a few minutes of Gale's casual chatter and Ali's playful smiles, I felt my anger melt and slide off me like a loose blanket.
Gale generally sought us out at least once a day to chat and, I gathered, decompress. The seriousness he usually met me with left me feeling scrambled and overly energetic to compensate, and over time we'd wear each other down to meet somewhere in the middle, a nice, peaceful zone.
Since arriving in D13, Gale had immediately been pulled into the inner circle, no doubt having proven himself by leading so many people already. He kept me moderately up to date with the news that didn't get shared with the district at large during our daily command meetings. Gale let me know the highlights: who was rebelling, how it was going, how the Capitol was responding. Occasionally things were overheard in the cafeteria, but since I usually ate with other parents . . . well, conversations in my world generally revolved around runny noses, school subjects, and penmanship.
But Gale was right in the thick of it, for better or for worse. He spent his days running messages, listening in on important meetings discussing things I didn't want to know, and in general being an ambassador of sorts for us D12 refugees. He told me just enough to keep me from sounding like a complete bumblehead if anything important did come up in the course of conversation throughout the day, which I appreciated, because I found it increasingly difficult to pay much attention to the news reels shown in command. No point in me getting worked up about things I couldn't control anyway -especially not when I was struggling so much just to keep Ali out of trouble. Still, there are some things it's good to know.
Such as that Panem was at war. The districts were rebelling, one after another, but the Capitol was fighting back. President Coin, the leader of D13, was optimistic, but Gale admitted that no one was winning yet. You know, small things like that.
"You slept through dinner," Gale said, his face pressed against the screen as he carefully slid the razor across. "If you go by the infirmary and tell them you were sick, I bet they'll give you something."
"Maybe I will," I said, shrugging, which meant I wouldn't unless Ali got hungry. For now, he seemed content to tug on my hair and suck his thumb. He hadn't done that in years.
"Rye's not there anymore," he mentioned casually. "He's walking again so they kicked him out. Him and Pann have rooms in another wing. He was pretty grumpy about having to leave. I think he got a bit spoiled, having all those nurses to wait on him and all that."
"Spoiled? Certainly not. That doesn't sound like Rye at all!"
"It's weird when you're sarcastic," Gale laughed, tossing a quick glance at me.
"I'm sorry. I'm just tired. How's Katniss?" He shrugged and said nothing, which I'd learned meant he just needed a little encouragement. He didn't like to sound like he was obsessing. One of those stoically nurturing types. "She still in the hospital wing?"
"Yeah, but she's doing better. She's sleeping less, talking more. Still just spends an awful lot of time worrying about him, especially after today . . . "
He gave me a sly smile that made my stomach leap up into my throat. What did that mean? I sat up straighter and Ali, copying my behavior, watched my face carefully.
"Patience," was all Gale said about it, then continued, "Anyway, she's fine. Distant and wild."
"You knew to expect this. You have to protect yourself a little bit better, Gale," I admonished. "Once he's rescued and they're back together, you have to gracefully back off."
"Do I?" I couldn't tell whether he said it sadly or meanly or wishfully. It was often hard to tell with Gale.
"Yes," I insisted. "And it'd be smart to back off a little bit more now to save yourself the heartache later. I mean, unless she decides that you shouldn't, but . . ."
"But," he finished for me, "implying to me that that is even a remote possibility would imply that he would then be free to choose you, or even that he would choose you over her in the first place, and you would never suggest something so optimistic for yourself. Heaven forbid their attachment be platonic. You can be hopeful for everyone else, but shit storms and short britches if you suggested that something positive happen for you-"
"Just because you discover you're allergic to peanuts doesn't mean celery is your new favorite food."
He had a good hard laugh at that, shaking his head, and mumbling so I could barely hear it, "I like you better when you're bitter-"
"I'm never bitter!" I insisted, taking off my shoe and throwing it at him. It hit him squarely in the back.
"Hitting an enemy from behind!" he said as he gave the screen one final glance over. He pulled a small square disc he'd brought with him and inserted it at the top of the screen.
"You're not my enemy," I argued.
"We'll see how you feel about that in a minute." He sat down in the other chair and, taking the remote for the TV, explained, "This aired today. We watched it earlier this afternoon. It's sort of being kept under wraps here in D-13 so don't go telling anyone you've seen it. I'm not supposed to even have a copy of this but . . . you were wrong, Del, what you told Rye, about not belonging-"
"You don't know much about it," I reminded as nicely as I could. There was a waver in my voice, though. It didn't take an idiot to know this had something to do with Peeta, and I suddenly wanted nothing more than for Gale to leave and take the disc with him. I wasn't supposed to see this and I didn't want to. His seriousness now compared to his light-heartedness a moment ago confused me, but the terror at what this disc would show me overruled all rational thought. He didn't seem particularly upset, but that could mean anything. Peeta was, after all, his rival, and his concern for him was mainly just for Katniss' benefit, and maybe mine too.
"I know that you care about Peeta very much, maybe more than anyone else here-"
"Except Katniss. And his brothers," I interjected.
"Except Katniss," he repeated, sighing. I hadn't meant to hurt him. It was a reflex I'd trained myself into at this point. Anytime Peeta got mentioned, saying Katniss afterwards was like a pallet cleanser. It took the sad taste out of my mouth. It kept my mind from running away from me by placing a brick wall smack dab in its path.
"You deserve to know what's going on," Gale concluded. "For better or worse. Whether you want to or not, even. I don't envy you your . . . well, I would want to know." Perhaps I looked more panicked than I realized. He gave me an encouraging smile and reminded, "Breathe."
Saying no more, he used the remote to bring up the video.
And there was Peeta. He looked tired and stressed; I could see the circles under his eyes, the sharp gesturing, the uncertainty in his rapid glances. But to the casual observer, he no doubt looked as healthy as you could want to be.
But more importantly, in all other respects, he looked fine. Exhaustion and stress were to be expected. He was a prisoner. But he didn't look like he was being starved or abused or tortured, as Rye had hinted at. He looked unhappy but well-cared for as he answered Cesar's questions in long, meandering sentences. He was rambling. He was performing. He'd done that since he was a scared little boy, trying to find the right thing to appease his mom or teacher or brothers or whomever. Once you know them, the symptoms are impossible to miss. He glanced at the people near him at least once every five seconds to make sure he still had them. He looked down into his palms as though reading cue cards then lifted his palms to the person he was speaking to, in this case that Caesar Flickerman host, as though offering his sincerity. He looked up through his lashes, a supplicating expression that was impossible to deny. He laughed unhappily and scratched the side of his neck, which always flushed the slightest bit and itched when he was concentrating on word-weaving. To cap his speech, he'd slap his knees or clap his hands and gesture to the person he was talking to, turning those blue eyes to them and waiting outwardly calmly, inwardly anxiously, to see what they would do with his story. He talked about the last night in the arena, he defended Katniss' innocence in the rebellion, he even yelled at one point. Then he asked to be taken back to his cell, sounding bored and hopeless. But not like he was facing certain death.
Caesar thanked him and the video cut out.
"This could have been pre-recorded," Gale admitted after a moment of silence. "It doesn't necessarily mean anything now but-"
"But it means he made it out of the arena all right," I pointed out.
Gale nodded, "And, more importantly, it means they realize he has a value to them. They aired this in all the districts."
"So they think he can convince everyone to make peace?"
"Maybe," Gale shrugged. "Or they want to flaunt him because they think we'll start making offers. Who knows."
"But this is good . . ." I broached hesitantly, wishing Gale would stop telling me theories and tell me what it meant for sure. He gave such an air of someone who knows all the answers.
Gale smiled, "It could be much, much worse."
"No problem, Delly. I'll leave it here in case . . . just so you have a copy. I've got to get going." He didn't say where but I assumed to check on Katniss. He tweaked Ali's nose and took off, leaving me staring at the blank TV screen, trying to ignore the inexplicable nagging fear. Peeta looked fine in the video. Angry, frustrated, unhappy, but mentally and physically fine. Even Gale said it was basically good news. Spinning this to the positive was easy.
But why did I have such a sinking feeling in my stomach still?
I was up earlier than necessary the next morning, already nervous about work. The schedule still had me reporting to Ainsley for work, though, so unless they were planning on pouncing on me there, it looked like Ainsley had succeeded in smoothing things over. Somehow, despite waking up earlier, Ali and I were still late getting out the door, late to breakfast, and just barely dashed into his class before the last kid was dropped off.
Evanston wasn't in class, I noticed immediately, but Ainsley gave me a warm smile so I pushed the worry from my mind. We went about morning lessons and activities without incident, and finally at nap time I managed to have a word privately with her to find out more.
"His father moved him to another class," Ainsley admitted, "but didn't seem otherwise too upset about it. The head of education was a bit more concerned, but as long as it doesn't happen again, I think it'll be forgotten pretty quickly. They were able to heal Evanston's scratches completely already. You should take Ali by the infirmary after class and see if they're able to do anything about his face."
So once all the kids were picked up at the end of the day, that's exactly where we went, walking quickly through the halls, fingers crossed we wouldn't run into Katniss or Rye or Evanston and his father. The list of people I was avoiding was growing quickly but, since conflict was the very thing I was hoping to avoid, I didn't see any way to fix it.
The nurse didn't ask questions as she led us to a table and motioned for Ali to hop up. I held his hand as the nurse spread various gels and creams on his bruises and cut lip. He made a face at the cold sensation of healing but otherwise behaved, for which I was grateful. He made faces at his reflection on a shiny metal cabinet door as the bruises faded.
As the nurse was making a final note in his file, Prim floated by. Seeing us, she descended, giving Ali a big kiss on the cheek and asking him what was wrong while also asking how I was and giving me a hug. How she managed to do so much at once was confusing at best, but she was like a little ball of sunlight bouncing all over the place. I could only imagine the relief she felt at having her sister close by again. It was endearing to see the effect.
"They let me help out here after work!" she explained. Then, hearing her name called, she took off, gone as quickly as she'd appeared. I caught sight of a brown braid and decided it was time for Ali and I to make our departure.
I thought we'd pass an entire day without incident. We almost did. As we were getting ready for bed, Ali started grabbing my hands. trying to pull himself up onto my hip. I was trying to brush my teeth and batted him away. He became more insistent.
"Ali, it's bed time! Brush your teeth, please."
He began to whine and stomped on my foot.
"Alistair Cartwright, you stop that right now!"
Instead, he mimicked rocking a baby with his arms and looked at my pleadingly.
"Please, I'm tired. Let's just go to bed. You don't have to brush your teeth." I pulled back the covers on his bed and motioned for him to get in.
That's when he started screaming. The first genuine vocals I'd heard from my little brother in weeks and it was a bloodcurdling scream as he fell to the ground like someone had hit him.
I lunged forward and pulled him up, hugging him to me and hushing him frantically, but to no avail. I could practically feel the lights flicking on in all the rooms along the hallway as people rolled out of bed, confused and alarmed by the shrieks coming from my room.
"Swing lo, sweet chariot," I tried to sing, rocking him in my arms, but it didn't work. Ali had got himself started and wasn't about to stop. He screamed until he was red in the face, until his dry throat made him cough between breaths, until the tears streaming down his face and mingled with snot.
In a final act of desperation, I turned the TV on as I continued to sing more loudly, hoping one of the generic programs that always ran would be enough to distract him.
Instead, the TV spot with Peeta started from the beginning. As I fumbled with the remote to change it, Ali's screaming subsided. I felt his body relax as he leaned back against me and pushed his thumb into his mouth.
"I bet you thought you'd done your last interview with me*," Peeta said. Ali stopped screaming entirely, the only sound coming from him now a constant sniffle.
"I confess I did*," Caesar said. Peeta met Caesar's laugh with a small smile. The corners of Ali's mouth tipped up slightly.
I stopped singing when I heard footsteps stop outside our door. It made sense that someone would come to investigate what was going on. But I wasn't about to open the door. Hearing nothing, whoever it was turned and left anyway.
The TV spot ended. I waited to see what Ali would do. He motioned to the remote in my hand and, when I did nothing, hit the 'play' button on it. As the video began again, he motioned with his arms in the rocking motion again.
So I rocked him gently and sang as Peeta and Caesar talked about Peeta's plans to die for Katniss, his anger at the rebellion, his dislike for war, his desire for peace. We watched it second time, and a third, and a fourth. By the fifth time, Ali's eyes were drifting closed and I felt like I was going crazy. It had been bad enough to sit through the video once, but now on my sixth viewing, every nerve ending in my body felt frayed.
I was certainly not an advocate of war. I hadn't the stomach or the mind for warfare. But it was painfully clear to me that Peeta didn't know about District 12. He didn't know about his parents. He didn't realize that the very world he was speaking out to protect was already gone. It was too late. We couldn't go back because there was nothing to go back to. He had to think there was something he was still trying to protect. Otherwise, if nothing else, he'd have dropped the lie about Katniss being pregnant and them being secretly married. I'd known it was all fake even before Gale and Pann had both off-handedly confirmed it. There had to be something else going on, I was certain, for Peeta to be saying the sorts of things he was saying.
When a second video was aired a few days later, which Gale hesitantly brought to me again, it only confirmed the fears I'd tried to ignore: that Peeta was not as all right as he was trying to look. In fact, he was very, very not all right. The second video showed him significantly thinner, exponentially more haggard, and rigid as though the slightest movement made him hurt. The interview was concise to the point of feeling completely and entirely scripted. Peeta's voice wasn't his own, that much was clear, and he was no longer sitting around in a cell building houses of cards.
Peeta had been my best friend for most of my life. As kids, I'd always been able to tell when he was scared, when he was hurt, when he was angry, and when he was sad without a word being said. I could tell when he was lying, when he was pretending, and when he was trying. I didn't have to see the second video to know it would confirm what I had finally come to realize after seven viewings of the first, what I would have known for sure earlier if I hadn't been clinging so hard to my faith in the goodness of people despite all the evidence in the world to the contrary.
When I was five, I stepped on a nail while running around barefoot. I know, the irony of the cobbler's daughter running around barefoot and stepping on a nail. My dad couldn't have paid for better advertising. It was a stray nail on the porch of the Mellark's bakery -and this is actually when Peeta and I became friends, because neither one of us was exactly the type of kid to go up to a stranger and broach the subject of friendship.
I was chasing a stray dog and running around barefoot because that's what silly children do, and I stepped on a nail. I felt this poke in my foot, literally felt the skin push apart, and then this cold shiver ran up my body. Then my stomach dropped and my breath caught in my throat because I could tell something was very wrong. It wasn't until I lifted my foot up and saw the nail sticking out of it that the excruciating pain started. At that point I began screaming and, five-year-old Peeta, seeing the nail sticking out, grabbed my hand and burst into tears with me, even as he was pulling me inside to get help from his mom. That was before she got so mean, and she gave us cookies to eat while she ran to get the doctor and sent Mr. Mellark to get my parents. This was a week before we started real school, so I limped in on the first day, and Peeta held my hand when a couple other kids made fun of how I was walking. Then Katniss sang and, well, you heard the confession of what that moment meant straight from the source, though I didn't know to dread that memory until years later.
Anyway. Point being:
Interview one was the shiver up my spine. Interview two was the stomach drop and sharp inhale.
I'm sure you can see where interview three was headed.
I really will try to keep it from being so long before the next chapter, I swear! Feel free to email and nag me if it's too long though.