So: homeward bound. It still feels strange. But then almost everything does these days, unless it hurts.
I always liked trains before. The motion, the changing scenery. Travel's still pretty restricted, and I'm sure that someone has pulled strings to get me on this train going back to what's left of District Twelve.
And why am I going back? I have no family there. Most of the few friends that survived the bombing are still in Thirteen, or so I hear. There's little housing and almost no infrastructure. I'm not entirely sure how they're getting food. But she's there. And Haymitch is there. So I figure I ought to be there, too.
It's not as if there's a place for me elsewhere, either. The Capitol? It's the scene of blood and pain and fire, the place where they tortured me, the place where I went mad and nearly killed her. I did kill my squad member... Mitchell, I think his name was. I couldn't live there, ever. The hospital was okay, in terms of not being scary, but I have had it to my back teeth with hospitals. I'm sick of them. I want to see sky above me.
I could maybe live in Four, I think. I liked the ocean. And there was a doctor in Thirteen who was really from Six, the southern part of it, and she said it was just across the mountain range from us in Twelve, just east a couple of hundred miles. I could live there, maybe, in the mountains that look like mine but aren't quite them.
But I know, of course, that it can only be Twelve. That if I go somewhere else, I'll be giving up on myself. That if I really want to seize my life and take it back, that will be the place. I said as much to Dr. Aurelius, and he just adjusted his glasses and tilted his head in that questioning way of his. We talked about what I'd need there. Things I should do, things I shouldn't do. He's given me some pills I'm supposed to take every day, to smooth out my emotions. I'm taking them now, and at the moment I'm pretty grateful for them, because I'm on edge and I can't imagine how bad it would be if I didn't have this little layer of cotton insulating me. I hope to stop using them at some point, but we'll see.
I want to see her, but also I don't want to.
The closer we get, the less able I am to sit still. I'm fidgeting. There's that flat-topped mountain that's about ten minutes away from the station in Twelve (is there still a station in Twelve?). Almost there, almost there... It turns out that the station is a blackened shell, but it's still standing. I get off the train, I grab my bag, I step out onto what used to be the street. What's left in Twelve?... pretty much nothing, that's what. Pieces of walls. Ashes everywhere.
There's the bakery, only one wall standing and it's the back wall where the brick ovens used to be. They're broken and ruined. Father, I think, and I have to just stand there a minute and breathe. I won't give in to those flames in my mind. I won't do it. I squeeze the handle on my bag until it digs into my hand, and that helps.
I walk past the rubble of the street where I used to live, names echoing in my head. The Gages lived there. That's Mayor Undersee's house. Next to them, the Williams. The Hagas. Jody Miller and her two brothers next to the Hagas. Father standing next to the brick ovens. Banner stacking rolls onto the cooling racks.
I don't notice that I have stopped walking until someone grabs my shoulder. I have to work to make my eyes focus and my ears start hearing again. There's a guy there in my face saying my full name, gripping my shoulder, looking concerned. It takes me a little more work to get my mouth in gear. "I know you," I say. I do. I can't come up with his name, though.
"Joss Kidd. I was a couple years ahead of you in school," he says, and now I place him. "You beat my butt at wrestling when you were just about fourteen," he goes on, and smiles.
I remember him. Seam kid, I think, because his hair is dark and his eyes are that strange indeterminate color between brown and green. And he's got that wiry build that Haymitch had as a youngster, too. "Hi, Joss," I say, because that's what you say when you meet someone.
"Good to see you come home," he says with emphasis, and my face must show what a ludicrous idea I think this is, because it is ludicrous. This is not home. Home has my family in it. Home has whole buildings in it, and people I know, and my blue-green mountains. Home does not have this bizarre dusting of gray stuff that I don't even want to think about what it's made up of.
So I go ahead and say it. "Doesn't look much like home." My voice catches on the last word.
"I know," he says. He's not smiling now, hasn't been since my face went weird. "I know, but the funny thing is, it's what we've got and I still call it home." I nod, considering it. I've decided to be here, I might as well call it what it is. Okay, so, this-is-now home. "Been working on the cleanup crew. You want a ride home?" he asks me, pointing at some dusty wagons. This too is ludicrous. It'll take me ten minutes.
If I don't get sidetracked by memories. Which I might.
"Nah, thanks," I tell him, and heft my bag again. "Good to see you, Joss."
"You too, man," he says, and claps me on the shoulder. I watch him walk away from me, and at the same time I'm watching my school memories of this guy who tried his best to flip me onto my back on a mat, and failed, and then spent the next three months glaring at me in the cafeteria. And now he's happy to see me. I suppose it's doubly weird that I'm actually glad to see him.
Okay, so now I've got to get from the square to the Victors' Village, which I've been told is still standing. It's no more than a ten-minute walk, and even in my broken-down condition shouldn't take me more than fifteen. It actually takes something like half an hour, because I keep stopping to breathe. This dust gets into your eyes, and your mouth.
The Village looks like itself, and it's the only place I've seen so far in Twelve that does. The yards are unkempt, but other than that, things look fine. There's a thin curl of smoke from the chimney at her house, and a fatter one from Haymitch's. I grope for the key to my house at the top of the far left shutter, and although I used to not have any trouble reaching this height, now it's difficult. I find it, though, and let myself in. The house looks fine on the inside, too. A little dusty and stale-smelling, and it's chilly, but there's some wood in the box by the stove.
I'll have to start a fire myself. I allow myself to think only of small flames, the homely friendliness of a match. My brain skates across She and I in a chariot wearing fake fire, skims the top of a Capitol hovercraft on fire on a screen, and zooms past children in an inferno, because I force it to go back to the homely friendliness of a match flame. Every morning my father would go down and poke the fire in the bakery ovens; it never really went out, even in the summer. I used to love watching the light flicker on his face.
So, then, a good memory: Father poking up the fire in the ovens, about to turn to me with a smile and ask me for an armful of kindling. That. Yes. And then I have no trouble at all stacking some wood in the stove and lighting a match. I can do this.
I wash my hands and sit down at the kitchen table. There's some food in my bag – a little dried fruit, some beef jerky, two of those small loaves of bread with seeds in it. It's traveling food, and there's not that much of it. I'll have to get some more tomorrow. The fire crackles in the stove.
Without warning she's in my head. Katniss. I want to see her. I don't want to see her. I want her to know that I'm here. I could do something nice for her... not bread, I'm not sure I'm up to that yet. I have to give her Dr. Aurelius' message, but telling her to answer her phone isn't really "doing something nice." The old Katniss would have been furious at being told what to do, and I can't imagine the current Katniss would find it any less infuriating.
I eat some of the food and drink some water. This, at least, seems like home: at least the water tastes right. After I eat, I go walk around outside my house for awhile, looking at stuff. Some of the flowering bushes are not doing so well (dry weather? Cold? Heat? The dust, or ashes, or whatever it is floating around in the air?), and I get to thinking, Hey, we should plant something. Something bright and growing and cheerful, something with good memories... and I have it! I know what to plant, and I even know where to go get them. I know they grow in the woods, and I have a wheelbarrow right here. Even better, I can probably plant them without bothering her at all.
I'm suddenly so tired that I go into the house, toss some more wood into the stove, and collapse on the couch under a blanket. The nightmares only wake me twice, and they're fuzzy ones. In the first, I'm mixing sweet dough for sticky buns under the eagle eye of my mother, and she's unhappy with me. I've measured wrong. I've added items in the wrong order. I start again. Now I've put cumin in the sweet dough instead of cinnamon and I have to start once more. She's angry. I wake and remember there's no bakery, and decide not to remember there's no Mother. The second nightmare is more familiar: Cato has me in a headlock on the Cornucopia, the beast mutts with tribute eyes are snarling and leaping on the ground below. Katniss has an arrow aimed straight at us. Cato keeps talking and talking and Katniss keeps not shooting him, and I keep choking to death. I wake with a dry mouth, drink some water, go back to sleep.
The sun comes early, so when my eyes open I just go ahead and get up. I head off into the woods with shovel and wheelbarrow, and it's so pretty. It's just so, so pretty in the woods, and I can see why she likes being out here. I don't go far, just a little ways in, and here's a whole bank of them: evening primrose. Spring is really coming, it's really almost here, I notice, and my eyes are wet suddenly with the thought of the flowers being here to see the spring, but the namesake never seeing it again. Such a little sweetheart, Prim. Soft, but strong too. Smart. Tender-hearted. And how she looked up to Katniss. We talked some, Prim and me. She had a way of getting right to the heart of things, but not a mean way. I miss her.
I dig up the primroses and push the wheelbarrow back. Everything is quiet and dark at Katniss's house. I want to see her. I don't want to see her. I start digging the planting holes along the side of the house, where I think they would look best.
I've got three dug and have just begun on the fourth hole when she's suddenly just there – no wonder she's such an excellent hunter, she's so quiet I didn't hear her coming at all. She looks beautiful. She looks just as damaged as I do. She's a mess. She's too thin and her hair is a rat's nest, and she's panicked and furious with fists clenched. She looks beautiful.
She comes to a dead stop when she sees me. "You're back," she says, and I can't tell what she's thinking.
I explain about the primroses, and give her Dr. Aurelius' message about answering the stupid phone once in a while. She looks me up and down, and just as I'm getting nervous about it, she nods. She nods like, "Yeah, it's okay if you plant those," or "Yeah, whatever, I'm busy," and disappears back into the house.
I'm not trying to listen, but I hear the front door lock, and I hear footsteps fast on the stairs, up then down. I hear something glass break. An upper-story window goes up, and the water in the house goes on, probably the shower because it runs for a long time. I plant primroses and then I get a bucket from my house and water them, and the shower is still running inside her house.
I don't allow myself to think about what she looks like in the shower. Instead, I think about how she looked coming around the corner of the house, a complete wreck but so prepared for mayhem, a fierce divine being bent on vengeance... and then stopping short and looking at me, really looking at me.
I think: She might not hate me, after all.