The Final Eight
Part One: Mandatory Viewing
Late night viewing of the Hunger Games isn't mandatory, but it's available, and it plays constantly in the square, though the volume is turned down somewhat. I can see the light flickering through my front window every night, and, if I twist around just right, I could actually watch from my room if I wanted to.
If things are bad enough to be watching through the night, I don't want to be alone for it.
Instead, when my parents and my brother go to sleep, I get dressed again and slip outside.
The square is more crowded than it has been for a couple of days. After the explosion this afternoon, they're down to eight tributes, and Peeta and Katniss are still among them. That means that the reporters are back on the trains now, rushing out to interview us.
While there's still time.
Because as of now, Peeta is delirious with fever, lying in a mud bank by a river. Katniss is curled up in the leaves, bleeding from her ear, oblivious to everything around her. The other six are engaged in little more interesting than napping, though little Rue from District Eleven, who's allied with Katniss-smart girl-is searching for her desperately. Every now and then, they cut to her, singing her song to the birds. Most of the programming is recaps and analysis at this point. After the first night, the Capitol tries to make sure nothing much happens at night, while citizens are asleep.
I look up at the sound of my name, and find Primrose Everdeen sitting alone on a bench. She is watching the screen with wide eyes. She's been there since this afternoon, when Katniss fired an arrow into a sack of apples and blew up most of the supplies the Careers had been hoarding. "Any news?" I ask her.
She shakes her head. "I don't think Katniss can hear at all. The birds have been close enough that she should have woken up, but she didn't even turn." Prim bites her lip. "Maybe it's just ringing. Sometimes we have miners come in after explosions, and their ears are ringing. It passes."
She doesn't look hopeful. I budge her over a little and sit down beside her. I don't have anything comforting to say. The blood doesn't look good. "But no one's near her?"
Prim shakes her head. "They were way out in the woods looking for her."
She quiets as the screen switches away from the commentators and back to the arena. Rue has climbed a tree beside the lake and is squinting into the darkness. She moves along a branch and climbs to another tree, further into the forest.
"No, stay," Prim says to her, miserably. "You're almost there."
But Rue can't hear Prim any more than Katniss can hear Rue. She unknowingly moves back toward the Careers' night camp, where the crazy girl from Two is on guard, sharpening her knives on a flat stone while the two boys sleep. They quickly show the others. The redheaded girl from Five, who, like Katniss, has been sleeping in trees, is warily awake, looking down into the grassy valley. The boy from Eleven-the huge one called Thresh-has fallen asleep beside a trap he's made for anyone who thinks of coming after him.
And then there's Peeta. His eyes are open in the moonlight-the camera catches the glint of them-but he isn't awake in any meaningful sense. He's muttering something that might be either "Katniss" or "Kill me." No one responds to either.
I am waiting for the blow to fall. That is why I can't sleep. I don't want to be sleeping comfortably, then wake up to find out that my best friend, a boy I used to pretend was my brother, died alone in the mud overnight. I'd never go to sleep again.
"He needs medicine," Prim says. "Mom says he'll need antibiotics. And someone to give them to him. Do you think Katniss will find him?"
I don't answer this, either. We both know that one of us, at least, is going to end this in mourning. Instead, I say, "How much would it be, do you think?"
"More than we can get." Prim looks anxiously at the screen again. "Mr. Mellark said he'd mortgage the bakery to sponsor Peeta and get him his medicine-on the sponsor boards, you know?" She nods toward the booths, hardly ever used, where people can communicate from the Districts to the mentors about sponsorship. District Twelve's are usually pretty pristine, but this year, they've managed to get a little bit together. For Katniss. Prim sighs. "But Haymitch said that what he could get wouldn't cover half of it. That was on a private response to Mom. He told her not to let Mr. Mellark do it. He said we could sell all of District Twelve and it might not be enough for the Gamemakers to allow the medicine in."
"He got medicine for Katniss. Maybe-"
Prim shakes her head. "The burn ointment is cheaper than what Peeta needs. I've been watching the boards. It was expensive, but not thatexpensive." What she doesn't add, but we both acknowledge, is that Haymitch has seemed more interested in helping Katniss than helping Peeta. I hope this is because it's what Peeta asked him to do.
The commentators return to the screen, after thoughtfully watching the live feed of the Tributes. Claudius Templesmith, who must sleep less than I do lately, says again, "There you have them. Our final eight tributes. Two from District Two, two from District Eleven, and two from District Twelve... very unusual, wouldn't you say?"
The skinny announcer who helps with the graveyard shift tells him nervously that so much of the final pool being made up of outlying districts-not to mention in intact district teams-is, indeed, unusual, and suggests that we in Eleven and Twelve must be beside ourselves with excitement. Then they go into another recap of the romance angle that Peeta has been using. Apparently, the Capitol is eating it up. Capitol citizens at late night viewing parties are interviewed, and all gush about Peeta's true love, and how they hope Katniss will realize her true feelings... which have so far been expressed by dropping a tracker jacker nest on him, but that doesn't seem to stop the speculation. A few women express a hope that Katniss will become pregnant (presumably sometime after her ear stops bleeding and Peeta manages to wake up from a near coma)-"Then if she lives, it could be like they both lived!"-but Claudius reminds the audience that unfortunately certain things are medically prevented inside the arena.
"I'm sure that's exactly what they're trying to prevent," someone says bitterly behind me. I turn to find Mr. Mellark, looking exhausted, carrying his valise. He has been staying with his oldest son Jonadab since the first wave of reporters left. There was no screaming fight, and he goes in to the bakery every day for business, but he and Mrs. Mellark aren't speaking.
Of course, only their closest neighbors and their sons would notice the difference. Edder says it's because Mrs. Mellark said something bad to Peeta on his way out of town. Edder's opinion is that his father is overreacting ("as usual-she didn't mean it in a bad way"), but he won't tell me what she's supposed to have said, which tells me that it had to be pretty bad. From what I can tell, Jonadab isn't speaking to his mother, either.
Prim gives him a sad smile, and he returns it. She says, "No news, Mr. Mellark."
He nods. "No news is good news. The reporters will be coming back tomorrow."
The bakery door opens and Mrs. Mellark comes out, dressed in her nightgown and bathrobe, a night-wrap around her hair. She stands quietly on the porch, with her eyes cast down, then takes a deep breath and comes down to stand beside her husband.
"You're coming back?"
"They'll want to know how he became such a romantic," Mr. Mellark says, not paying attention to Prim and me. "So you and I are putting on a good show." With that, he goes into the bakery.
Mrs. Mellark stays with us for a few minutes, not talking, then slowly unwinds the wrap from her hair and lets it fall loose in the pretty blond curls she passed on to Peeta (which are the bane of his existence). She takes a deep breath and goes inside after her husband.
Prim and I don't know what to say to each other after this, so we just watch the huge screen for a while. Sooner or later, Rue gives up her search for Katniss and curls up in the branches of a tree. The announcer makes quite a deal of how close she is to a net trap that the Careers have set, but apparently the Gamemakers haven't figured out how it works, because there's no preview graphic of what will happen if she trips it. Everyone falls asleep, including Prim, who leans against my shoulder, looking young and pale. I wake her and start walking her back to the Seam, but halfway there, Gale Hawthorne, looking frantic, finds her, and says that her mother woke up to find her gone and is half out of her mind. He carries her the rest of the way home, and I go back to the square.
The rest of the night is just another re-cap of the early parts of the games, including the Tribute Parade (with the inevitable cut-in shot of Prim jumping up when she sees Katniss and yelling, with fierce pride, "That's my sister!"; it is apparently another favorite of Capitol viewers). Sleep finally ambushes me while they're replaying the death of the boy from District Ten-a horrendous fall on steep slope that he'd have been hard pressed to control even if he hadn't been lamed. I see the beginning of the fall, but am out completely before he hits the rock.
I dream I am in a mine somewhere, and Peeta is lost. Katniss is trying to find him, but he's hiding from her, which makes her very upset. She gives me a hardhat with a light on it (a flame; it's actually an old kerosener, like they have in the coal museum) and sends me down into the depths to find him for her. I'm still calling for him when I wake up.
There is a warm hand on my shoulder, and it is Mr. Mellark. He still looks tired.
I sit up. "News?"
He shakes his head. "No, Delly. No news. But reporters. They're here. They're talking to Mrs. Mellark and me first. But they'll want to talk to Peeta's friends. Do you think you could gather up a few?"
"And Delly-I'm sorry about what you saw last night."
"No. I have a bad habit of saying things I shouldn't in front of people who shouldn't hear them. But please... I don't know what they're allowed to see in the arena, but if the tributes are allowed to hear-please don't say anything that would upset him."
I nod, understanding, though I think we all know that the tributes won't hear a thing. I think Mr. Mellark is just convincing himself that he has one more chance to talk to his son, so he won't go crazy in front of the cameras.
He goes back inside, through what seems a full parade of cameras and crew, one of whom turns a camera briefly on me before being turned away by his boss. I go off to get as many of Peeta's friends as I can find.
I wonder what they will ask us. I imagine they might want to know what Peeta was thinking when the girl from District Eight begged him to kill her. I could answer that-we watched a boy with an injury like that die in agony over four days last year. Peeta said then that he hoped if anything like that ever happened to him, someone would have the kindness to finish the job. It still practically killed him to do it. The screen only showed it for a minute, him biting on the sleeve of his jacket, trying not to scream-he couldn't afford for the Careers to think he was weak-but I'd think anyone could see that he was just about crazy from it. Then he got himself under control. You could see him do it. And he went back and put on an act. I've seen him do this before, mostly when his parents are fighting and he suddenly has to greet someone cheerfully in the bakery. He's very good at it.
On second thought, maybe it's not a good idea if they ask about what a good actor Peeta is.
Maybe they'll ask where a baker's son learned to use a knife well enough to duel the girl from District Two to a draw, and use her as a hostage to earn his way into their pack. This was mostly from his wrestling (the team would know his moves), though even I can't guess where he learned to use a knife so well. It was a total surprise to me. Maybe they'll want to know what he's like in school, or what kind of best friend he is. I am happy to answer any of those questions.
Madge Undersee is going to be interviewed anyway, as the mayor's daughter, and she says that she doesn't want to look like she's taking sides, since she's possibly the only person in town who's friends with both Peeta and Katniss. I ask if she means to mention the pin. She says that her mother has absolutely forbidden it.
Cyprian Murphy, whose family owns a raucous pub off the square, is the first to join in; he deeply admires Peeta, and has to be cautioned against mentioning the extra tesserae Peeta took on television. I also dig up Siah Greenville, who is on the wrestling team with Peeta, and he agrees to gather up the rest of them. Most aren't close to Peeta, but he gets along with everyone, and they all think of themselves as his friends. Jemima Kingery was his first date, which I figure will interest people following the love story angle, though I warn her not to play it up too much. She's excited to say what a good date he was, though positively giddy to be able to add-truthfully-that he'd spoken glowingly of Katniss Everdeen in the course of it. "I could help out!" she says. Apparently, she's not too broken up about things not quite working between them. By the time I've gotten this far, Peeta's other friends are coming out of the woodwork, having heard about it, and by the time we get back to the square, there are about twenty of us. The camera crews look stunned, and just start grabbing people at random.
Mr. Mellark pulls me forward and says, "Delly here is about the closest thing Peeta has to a sister. I had a houseful of boys, myself." He shakes his head fondly at Edder and Jonadab, who are sitting with a perfectly presented Mrs. Mellark on the front porch.
I am grabbed at by at least three producers, finally won by a woman with vine tattoos on her head and rings in her nose, and she sits me down under a tree.
"Get the leaf shadows on her," the cameraman says. "It'll hide a little of that baby fat."
"Don't you worry about him," the tattooed lady says. "You're just beautiful, sweetheart. We need to put some makeup on you, just for the lights."
The lights apparently require a lotof makeup, because it's almost fifteen minutes later when the reporter actually appears and sits down beside me.
I glance up at the big screen, which is behind her (the sound has been turned off) and see Katniss wandering through the woods, swatting at her left ear. This is intercut with Rue, who is running from someone, I think. There are no shots of Peeta.
"...of Katniss Everdeen?"
I blink. "Katniss?" I ask.
"Yes. Your friend seems very taken with her."
"Well, yeah. Everyone respects Katniss. Peeta especially. Peeta's really a great guy. He-"
"He told Caesar Flickerman that he's always had a crush on her. Is that true?"
"Well, yes." I realize that this is going to be focused on one thing only, so I smile and say, "He sometimes forgot his notebook in school, and if I loaned him mine, it would come back with pictures of Katniss drawn in it..."
There's very little chance to talk about Peeta, per se, which annoys me, but they do ask to see those drawings, as Mr. Mellark has shown them the cake sketchbook and they know it's worth their time. Peeta's drawings will be all over the airwaves tonight. That's something. When I finish up, I look over at the bakery, where Mr. and Mrs. Mellark are sitting on a porch swing (which must have been brought in as a prop, because I've never seen it before), cuddling and talking about their bright-eyed boy. I see another army of media people coming up from the Seam, and I guess they've been interviewing Katniss's people. Mrs. Everdeen, Prim, and Gale are with them. I hope Gale didn't say anything foolish about who Katniss might really love. Madge says he's notKatniss's boyfriend, at least as far she knows, but he sure acts like it.
My tattooed friend directs the whole battalion into places around the square, and sets up family and friends to watch the games. I've seen this in past Games-they like to get shots of people reacting. Every year, they get one or two families watching their children die. Or maybe they get all of them, but only one or two made good television.
"Now, just act natural!" the tattooed woman calls out, then the sound is turned back on.
Katniss has apparently gotten her hearing back in one ear, because she keeps tipping it up. The two tributes from Two were supposed to be searching the woods for her, but have gotten entangled with what seems to be a bear muttation. The camera cuts to the boy from District One, who is hiding in the shadows with a spear. I put my hand over my heart, and I see Mrs. Everdeen rush forward toward the screen, but when the camera pulls back, it shows not Katniss, but the little girl Rue, who is wandering into a clearing, singing to the mockingjays and looking increasingly desperate. She isn't looking where she's going. The camera cuts to Katniss, who finally looks up at the mockingjay song.
Then it goes back to Rue, who is walking backward. Gale Hawthorne yells "Watch out!" but it does no good, of course. Gale has spotted it only a fraction of a second before everything happens anyway. Rue steps on an artfully hidden branch, curved into a spring trap. It drops a net on her from above, and she screams, her voice high and childish.
Katniss hears her, screams her name, runs to her... but it's too late. The boy has speared her like a fish, like that handsome boy, Finnick, did to most of his competition nine years ago. Everyone has tried it since, but this is the first success. He still looks surprised by it when Katniss puts an arrow through his neck. He is dead before he hits the ground, and the field is down to seven. Since he was from District One, which is closer to the Capitol, maybe they had time to talk to his people last night.
The camera stays lovingly on Katniss as she tries not to lose her mind while Rue dies in her arms. It holds close to her while she sings the meadow lullaby (several people here in Twelve sing quietly along, including Prim, Mrs. Everdeen, and the little Hawthorne girl). It even shows her kissing Rue's forehead as she lets go of her life.
The cameras flash briefly on the crowd in District Eleven, then suddenly, the screen is inexplicably taken over by the girl from District Five, who is engaged in none-too-fascinating foraging run. The commentators treat this as if it may change the course of the games. They point out some poison berries that she doesn't go anywhere near. Then they switch to Thresh, cooking a rabbit, and the District Two tributes finishing their fight with the bear (it gets a sword in its throat). Then there is a shot of Peeta, who isn't even muttering now.
There is a lot of puzzlement in the square, questions buzzing around about what Katniss is doing that they needed to cut away from. No one has an answer. When they cut back to her, she is still sitting beside Rue. The shot is tighter. There are some white flowers around Rue's head that I didn't notice before; they must have been under the net, which she's been freed from. Katniss stands up and walks away. The camera remains tight on her. She is crying. I doubt she realizes it.
The media crews descend on Prim and Mrs. Everdeen as Katniss wanders off into the woods, looking dazed and confused.
I go back to the bakery, where Mrs. Mellark is leaning against Mr. Mellark, and he seems to be holding her willingly enough, even stroking her hair and saying comforting things. Maybe the storm has passed again. Edder and Jonadab are sitting on the steps. I sit between them, and Jonadab puts his hand on my head and fusses at my hair, the way he used to do with Peeta when Peeta was very small. I hug him with one arm, and reach over with the other to squeeze Edder's hand. The camera crews are running around madly, grabbing everyone who appears to be from the Seam.
Peeta's people are left alone. All he's doing is dying.