It was the sound of their footsteps that woke me; a tap, tap, tapping. My eyelids fluttered open in an instant, fighting off the remnants of dreams. Hours had passed since I'd been put to bed and even less time since I had finally shoved aside the mystery of the little girl to capture such sleep.
I was in the closet, where I usually slept, and I clutched at my hair and huddled closer to the back wall, knees shrinking into my chest. The door and whoever may be just outside of it were somewhere beyond, on the far side of the room, hidden from me. To get a good look I would have to move, lean forward, reach out a hand to rip aside the curtain, and I wasn't about to let on that I was awake. That was a four-year-old's logic: if you can't see it, it can't see you.
But I knew how things worked by then. A four-year-old's logic is more likely to get a person killed than saved. I blinked and let my eyes adjust to the dark. Fingers of hallway-light reached through the crack under the door and stretched across the floor, nearly touching the edge of the closet's curtain. I strained to hear anything, something in the room with me, him, but there was nothing except for my stuttered breathing.
For a moment I thought I could have dreamed the tapping.
But there it sounded again. I tensed up, my eyelids closed to small slits. I could pretend to be asleep but still see. The doorknob was rattling, and the lock was being tapped with a pick. What I saw in my mind's hindsight was him; tall, shadowed, covered in blood, with hard black eyes and dirty blonde hair. The door creaked. A figure loomed, silhouetted across the fabric that covered the closet. My tongue was thick and dry in my mouth. He reached out a hand. I was up quickly, ready –
– smashing the top of my head into the clothes-hang bar suspended above me.
I hissed in pain, forgot my visitor momentarily, and placed a hand over my throbbing skull. A surprisingly small – not his – hand clamped over my mouth, shoving me against the closet wall. "Do you want to wake the whole fucking floor?" Clove careened over me, the hallway-light catching the planes of her face in such a way that she is all wide, hard angles and sickly-yellow skin.
Behind her stood three others; Glimmer, the girl from Four B, and another girl from Three. All watched passively as I rubbed at the egg-sized lump on my head, frowning. What are you doing here?
"See, she won't even talk now." Clove sent Glimmer a superior glance. "Told you she wasn't acting."
"Yeah, well, whatever. Just decide to take her or not. I don't have time for this." With that Glimmer slipped out of my room into the light-filled hall and Three went with her like a puppy to its master.
Four B stayed and wrapped her arms around Clove, looking unstable. "Will she come, Clo?"
"Yes, Mermie." Clove ran an absentminded hand through the girl's tangled brown hair. "Come on, Katniss, tonight's not a good night to be in bed. Trust me." Together, they turned to leave, but I sprung forward and grasped Clove's thin shoulder.
I pointed to the camera wordlessly.
Clove's smile was near mocking. "You think those are real?" Of course. I nodded, setting my jaw. "Don't worry about the cameras, they're just show." She reached out to take hold of me, but I twisted away.
For one moment it looked as though Clove would struggle with me, like she would drag me unwilling, argue with me, perhaps begs. Then the moment passed. Clove's dark eyes hardened. "Fine," she said. "Stay. Newbies should take the first couple of days, anyway." They left in a whisper of footfalls. The door swung shut behind them, sapping away the light in the room and abandoning me in the dark.
Slowly, feeling out the wall with my hands, I crawled back into my closet. The moment I got settled amongst the piles of clothes there came a soft knocking on my door. Rap, rap, rap. Strange, I had not heard anyone approach. The knock came again. Rap, rap, rap. I became aware that I had not locked the door after Clove picked and slammed it. I waited for the second intruder to push it casually open… they knock a third time.
I didn't want to answer it. Is it Clove with her facets changed? Come back to apologize? To explain her strange words ("Newbies should take the first couple of days...")? I flipped onto my hands and knees, then crept cautiously out of the closet onto the floor beyond and watched a heavy shadow shift in front of the slit beneath the door.
"Katniss," whispered a voice beyond, a deep one. That stirred lots of bad memories, which I pushed aside. I stood and crossed the room. I strained to hear them speak, two hands wrapped around the door knob. "Katniss… Clove didn't..." I opened the door; my second visitor of the night was Peeta.
He stood there illuminate in the hallway-light, blinding me momentarily. A halo of yellow hair crowned his head and a huge black sweatshirt was yanked up to his cheekbones, muffling his voice. "You should come with us," he murmured, glancing down the hall. I spotted Clove and the other girls disappearing there. Aly stayed standing against the corner, lingering, waiting for Peeta no doubt.
I raised both my eyebrows at him. Why? What do you want? Then, I wondered if he would elaborate on the little girl from earlier, if he would tell me, finally, what he meant by isolation. The math was hard to figure out; the risk from the benefit. If I went with him he might tell me. What if it was a trap though? Would they all ambush me in the dark halls? Push me down the stairs? Force me to walk up them? I shuddered in disgust.
Peeta noticed. "Not far. Just outside," he said. "Trust me."
Trust him? That was the most ludicrous thing I'd heard. It was the one thing he could have said that would turn me instantly cold to him. That's what all predators want their prey to think; that they can be trusted. I hardened my face and crossed my arms tight over my chest. No. A thousand times no. I don't trust, not him, not anyone. Not since...
"Katniss, you don't want to stay here tonight."
I turned aside my face; I'll decide that for myself, thanks.
Aly spoke from down the hall, timid and frightened. "Peeta…" Peeta, Peeta, Peeta, his name echoed against the walls. "We can't stay. It's getting late. We can't stay." She grew increasingly uncertain when Peeta didn't answer or turn to acknowledge her. He stared hard at me. She took three steps backward, away, headlong after the others. "Peeta?"
She sprinted away.
Something in Peeta's face mirrored her own fear. "Come with us, Katniss." He offered a hand, I looked down to see the burns. He wore gloves. "Please."
Please, my mother had once said. "Please, please, please," she sobbed. I could see her, struggling with the man in the dark kitchen, fighting tooth and nail, being flung into the counter-tops by the hulking figure of him. Then she's not. She's hissing at me and pointing to the stairs. The way her eyes gleamed, terrified, and she wanted me gone, and told me to hide.
I glanced back at the closet. I couldn't leave even if I wanted to.
I'm staying where it's safe, I conveyed by hooking a thumb behind my back.I moved to close the door, but Peeta's hand shot out and kept it open for a fraction of a second. I panicked; heart flying I ripped at his wrist, tore it from the wood and slammed the door shut so hard the frame rattled. Just for good measure I flipped the lock and scrambled away until the back of my knees hit the bed and I dropped back onto the mattress.
I waited for him to kick it in. Except that was silly on my part. Peeta lingered for no more than the space of a heartbeat. Outside in the hall someone joined him, a boy. I heard their fierce whispering. I couldn't hear what most of the words were, but I caught: "For her?" and a "...least I could do..." before there was running footsteps and a creak of the door from the room beside mine. It was Peeta, going back to his bed.
I wanted to throw myself at the wall, in a hysterical fit, beating my fists, like I used to for Haymitch; a familiarity thing. I controlled the impulse merely because I could not shake the oddity of what had just transpired. Clove came to take me away and I refused her. Then Peeta tried to coax me to do the same and I slammed the door in his face. Why were the patients leaving… to go outside... and why were they scared to stay? Why were they seemingly banded together by this? Why would the cameras be fake? How did the staff not know?
I couldn't will myself to stand and move to the closet, so I stayed on the bed curled up around my knees. By no means was it pleasant. The mattress was hard and lumpy, smelt of chemicals, and every time I moved the springs screeched in protest. I rolled tiredly, pulling hands over my face. Sleep would not come to me. There were too many uncertainties in my head.
I wondered when the others would come back from outside. Presumably when the danger had passed, but when was that? Would I know?
For near half an hour I lay there, counting. It was a good pass time for me. I got to three thousand thirty-two when I noticed the sound of people beyond my door. My chest filled so suddenly with dread when I noticed the shadows pause near my side of the hall. Two shadows, specifically. They whisked by. The door next to my room opened; click, creak. A soft, girlish voice issued through the crack underneath my door. Her words were muffled.
Peeta's wasn't. "Please." Then he called nothing more.
The shadows were three when they passed again, the door swung shut none too quiet. I was left, sitting up at attention, eyes wide in the dark, knees hugged to my chest. I scrambled to my closet the second I was sure no one would hear. Somehow I knew they would be coming back.
Minutes later, as predicted, the footsteps returned. I heard doors opening. I imagined them finding each empty, one after another. Will they wonder or know where the others had gone? I didn't dare breathe.
My door was opened last.
A man stood beside a small girl in the frame. Like Peeta they were silhouetted by the light that shined from the hall, but instead of brightening them, it made them stand out too starkly, made their edges frayed and sharp. Blinking in the sudden harshness, it took me a minute to realize it was the girl that Peeta had warned me against. She seemed especially rougher in that light; older, somehow, more fourteen than twelve. They both looked at me solemnly. I lunged away, but a needle in the man's hand was quicker, and stole my strength and breath.
I could not have shouted please even if I had tried.
"Stay calm," the girl said. "It is better when you behave. That's all we want."
The man stooped to pick me up. He was not as big as Thresh; more portly than muscled, the soft bulge of his abdomen supporting me just as much as his thick arms. I struggled against the drugs in vain. They lay heavy on my limbs, pressed on me from all sides, pushed me further to their will.
"Stay calm," the girl said, again, as we exited the room and made down the hall. "My name is Primrose, but you can call my Prim." She smiled shyly. "I will be your escort for the evening."
Is that what she is? I wondered, foggily. Before, when I had knocked on Peeta's door, I had wanted to know who she was and she says an escort. An escort of fourteen, possibly thirteen, that came to abduct me from my room late in the night? Is this what the other patients fear? The approaching tap, tap, tap of this unlikely pair's footsteps at the hour of the dead, coming to creep inside their rooms, snatch them from their beds... and bring them where?
To my horror we approached a door that gave way to a staircase, spiraling downward. Which meant if I were ever to escape I would encounter stairs, and be forced to climb them. I was struck blind with a panic so sharp I gasped and twisted and would have cried out my fear if my throat would work as I wanted it to. This is his doing. He is taking me. These are his men. I looked despairingly to Primrose; perhaps I could win over the girl, if nothing else. She smiled wider. "Don't worry," she said. "We're here to help."
"Warden Coin wants her back in her room before group therapy," the big man carrying me told Prim.
"Of course," Prim said. She stepped ahead once the stairs ended and we came across another door, heavily secured. Around her neck hung a white card similar to the one Thresh used to open Panem's front doors. The one she had opened the door at the end of the stairs; it slipped effortlessly into a slot and the door gave a soft wail before swinging open. "Warden Coin has ordered a special session for you," she said to me.
I watched the girl twirl into the room, flipping on switches and dancing her way to the padded table in the middle of the floorspace. Leather straps lay dormant across it. The fat man dropped me there, and Prim's hands moved easily to secure the bands over my wrists, ankles, hips, and shoulders. In my mind, I was screaming and thrashing. Bodily I was limp, dead. "The tranquilizer will wear off in a few minutes," Prim reassured me, as though knowing my thoughts.
Making up the right side of the room were rows of glass cabinets. I watched the girl pick through the shelves, examining bottles of medicine, setting them aside for later. What are those for? I willed to know, would have asked if only I had my voice. Why was it I wished to speak only when I could not?
On the other side of the room a woman emerged. Her white uniform was primed and folded neatly against all her sharp curves. A mass of black hair was piled onto her head in a bun, drawing harsh line from her face. Had I imagined it or was there the briefest twist of her lips directed toward Primrose? "That is well enough. I'll call you once Katniss is in need of an escort. You're dismissed."
"Warden." Primrose gave a half-stumbled curtsey, then left.
This woman was Warden Coin then. She made me think of marble; cold expression and bleach-white skin, stiff in the way she moved and just as seamless. Coin seemed unfeeling, but composed and pleasing to look at because of how symmetrical her features were. I stared at the one tiny hair out of pace beside her ear and found comfort in the one imperfection.
"Miss Everdeen, we meet," she said, disdain in her eyes. "I have watched you from afar before, I admit. But it is nice for you to meet me face to face. After all, I will be your soul guardian while you stay here in my asylum. There are no relatives who've claimed the rights to your decisions until you're eighteen so that is also to my control. This is important for you to know."
Why? Cotton stuck my throat, choked the words from my grasp. I could understand the woman was the owner to Panem's mental hospital and that she sent the man and girl to collect me in the middle of the night, without the other staff members or patients knowing, but I worried, more, about the why of it. Why take me in the middle of the night? Assuming the other patient's fear is in the right place, why take them, also? Why had Primrose set the medicine out?
Warden Coin paced around the padded table toward the covered tray beside me, where Prim had placed the supplies moments before departing. With a flick of a finger she removed the cloth covering the tray, and revealed multiple syringes placed in a straight and perfect row. She crooked one. "Here in my asylum, I conduct… treatments for the ill."
No, I thought. No, I don't take treatments. Never have. The pills make me worse.
Carefully, Warden Coin lifted one of the syringes to face level and pressed the excess air from the needle. "You've already met one of my trainees," she continued to speak, in such a cool and passionless tone. "I have no doubt Primrose introduced herself. She is a good pupil, quick learning, and eager to please. She used to be a patient here, but I cured her." Coin pulled a strip of rubber free from the tray, wrapped it around my exposed elbow and tied it unbearably tight, until the veins of my arms leaped against my skin. "In no time, you'll be better. Perhaps you could become a part of my program as well. We just have to find the right medicine, is all. This one seems promising… considering the test we've gotten back from your past doctors, but one never knows. I'll be observing you more in the coming days."
At the pinch of the needle in my arm, the air I had been sucking for desperately in the past few minutes came sharp and hard. I struggled, feebly, and once Coin placed the empty syringe aside, I was overwhelmed with what she was saying. She does experiments on her patients, the ones without family, without someone to know, or to tell. (And who would believe a crazy person anyway?) I wanted to demand to know exactly what she'd put in my body. Or worse… what she'd put into Rue's, or any other patients. Except, I couldn't. My tongue was useless. I felt heavy and slow… and...
Coin called for the others as she peeled off her rubber gloves. Primrose and the man appeared in the room at once. "Heavensbee, Prim, escort Katniss to isolation for a nap, then return her to her bed before the others are awake and frolicking."
Primrose came forward, bouncing on the balls of her feet. "How are you feeling?" she asked me, eyes bright. Apparently unphased by the way I slumped sideways against my restraints. "Do you feel any better yet? Do you still see him? Can you speak now? Are you still scared of stairs?"
The fact that she knew all that about me chilled me.
Coin laughed in a cutting way. She tugged almost playfully on one of Prim's braids. "Contain your curiosity, child. It may your best quality and just what someone in this business needs to have to succeed, but please, save the questions for later on the follow up. Document each symptom Miss Everdeen presents from now on, and get the file to me as soon as possible," and with that Coin departed.
Together, Prim and Heavensbee hauled me to my useless feet, as weak as grass beneath me. My neck felt made of rubber, falling one way, then the other. Still, I struggled to breathe. Prim chattered on and on... until I felt the embrace of cold leather again. Around me a small dark room whirled. Bright spots dotted my vision. Prim's face hovered close to mine, smiling, and she placed a small hand to my forehead. She promised me that Warden Coin would heal me; like her.
Then a heavy door slammed shut. With the people the light went with them. I could see no window, no anything, only blackness and close walls and a cold sting to the air. Otherwise, there was nothing.
I finally found out what isolation was.
At some point, I fell into a state of semi-sleep. (Being kidnapped at a time when one would usually be sleeping induced such.) Weight packed around me within the dream. My legs felt both warm and dead at the same time; I couldn't move them. Something, something big and oppressive, hovered over me, lay thick over my being and suppressed me. My left arm was trapped (underneath the same thing that made breathing so difficult), while my right laid spread outward from my body, white with light.
What happened? Where am I? Just those two simple thoughts had me swooning. Instead of thinking, I assessed more of my position, where I lay. My face was cushioned against the coarse touch of wet hair. Blood trickled over my chin, and swam out of my mouth with every painful huff of breath I managed. My first thought, that wasn't interrupted with imagined pain, was that I didn't make it up the damn stairs and that my hand feels oddly empty.
Without understanding either thoughts, I woke, fingers contorting into a fist. I noted, again, vaguely, how empty my hands were. What belonged there, I didn't know. Only that I had the worst headache in the world. A nasty throbbing radiated behind my ears, eyes, and skull, matching to the throb in my joints. Above me hovered Octavia's round face, pea green and artificially blushed. "Goo-oo-od morning, sleepy head!"
I groaned, rolled tighter into the sheets and covered my face. The sight of her was offending. It was not a good morning. Not at all. Not when you were kidnapped in the middle of the night, administered drugs against your will, and woke to remember you would once more have to suffer through another go at group therapy. He just hates me, so much, I thought, and that sent a thrill of renewed fear through me.I would have to be alert. I had to be alert, always. What was I doing? He could come at any time. I sat up so fast, another sound of complaint ripped its way out of my mouth before I could halt it.
"Are you not feeling well?" Octavia asked. She was laying out my clothes. She glanced up to see my scowl. "I could request you a visit with the floor's doctor. I'm sure he could get you something to make you feel better."
"No," I spoke, quickly, soft; my voice sounding strangled and rasped. No more medicines. No more doctors. "No," I said, clearer, but no less quiet, and was relieved to see Octavia nod her head calmly. I think it was the fact that I actually spoke that made her relent so easily.
"Very well," she said. "Get dressed and then we'll join the others. Perhaps you just need a bit of breakfast. Nothing like a nice fresh glass of orange juice to clear one's mind!"
My caretaker left me to let me dress in private. I had trouble with the bra and then, in a slight fit of panic, I noticed the coverings on my camera were removed, and I clamored into the closet, half-dressed. On the way I knocked over the bedside table, tripped and fell flat on my backside, and cried out sharply when my elbow snapped against the closet's back wall. Octavia returned to find me curled up in my place, one arm in a shirt-hole and my pants around my knees. She said nothing. She came forward and aided me without complaint or scold, and then smiled, patted a cheek, and guided me easily into the hall. It was the first time I felt grateful to have a caretaker.
I walked heavily; my muscles still seemed sore. The headache remained, so I clutched at the base of my skull, rubbing my braid between my fingers, while really rubbing the pressured pain away. Since someone might have noticed the way I winced and guessed at my weakness, and have taken advantage of that, I feigned interest in my hair in that way. No one was the wiser.
As I expected, near everyone was already out in the circle of chairs, waiting. Octavia bustled forward to get me a chair and placed it between Rue and, to my displeasure, Peeta. I plopped down, glowering. I pulled my feet onto the chair and hugged my knees to my chin. I looked at no one, did not trust myself to look, and did not want to see knowing in their eyes. Had they heard the tap, tap, tapping of two footsteps late last night, had counted, had noticed how they stopped right at my door… do they know that I am bewildered and disoriented..?
"Good morning, everyone," Effie greeted us. There was a slight ripple of a reply. "I think we all know the drill, so I'll share first, and then Darius, then we'll go in a circle. Agreed?"
Clove made a snort-cough that sounded more like a groan, and rolled her eyes dramatically. No one heard what she said, but it made Glimmer upset to see the bitch-Clove side of the girl's personality disorder getting more attention than her. "Can I share after Darius, first?" Glimmer demanded.
"Now Glimmer," Darius said.
Effie waved him off. "To prevent any problems of order, let's pull sticks. Like old times!"
Cato crossed his arms over his chest. "Like kindergarten. You calling us stupid kids?"
"Of course not, Cato. I wouldn't dream of it. Unthinkable." Effie smiled her brightest winning smile to the ruthless boy, and then shared it with everyone else. "I would like to tell you guys about my husband."
"You have a husband?" Rue piped in. "You've never said so before. I mean, I remember your puppy, and your house in Florida, and you said once that you had a sister. She has two kids, doesn't she?" Rue rolled forward slightly while she listed all that she remembered, her feet tapping the ground, sliding onto the toes, as though ready to take flight – but that was fleeting, before she rocked back into the wooden chair, gripping the sides of it in tiny fists. "Nissa was her name. Not the dog, your sister. The dog's name was Seaweed. Because he loved the beach... when you lived in Florida… right?"
I blinked at Rue, while the girl from room Seven muttered, "And that is why I never share."
"That's perfectly right, Rue. It heartens me to know you actually hear me when I speak." Effie touched her chest as though to actually bring the matter of her physical heart into presence. "But I didn't think I was ready to speak about my husband until now. I think I am, with you all."
Emotion was in her voice and face. She looked about and I saw one or two of the patients leaning forward, showing their devote attention. Others rolled their eyes or stared blankly in the distance or, like myself, watched the situation guardedly. Emotion was bad, very bad. It meant a possible snap. Snapping, though easy to give into in moments of fear and panic, usually meant bad… because snapping meant punishment… and punishment... had never meant anything to me before. It had meant being kicked out. It had meant another court session, another chance to see the Hawthorne family, to hear Hazelle scold me on my trouble-making, to hear Gale joke with me, even though he looked concerned when he thought I wasn't looking. Here, punishment was redefined.
Here, I shifted in my chair uncomfortably and caught Peeta's stare. There was only the briefest show of his eyes beneath his hood, before he averted his face completely from my direction. The emotion there showed somehow desperate – or had I imagined that? I would like to know that answer, but couldn't due to the boy's infuriating habit of hiding every trace of his body underneath mountains of clothing.
"Was that really so hard?" he'd asked.
For a moment I get caught up in that. Perhaps, somehow, ridiculously, he had said that, to shove me into the position of speaking more? To call off the axe Warden Coin had lifted over my head, and called it curing me. But there was more wrong with me than not speaking. I wasn't safe. He was out there ready to kill me, as he did mommy and daddy. He was out there; that was the main problem.
I could not allow myself to be steered off course. Warden Coin was a minor annoyance, a problem that dimmed in the bright harsh light of him. I wouldn't fear Coin as the other patients did, I resolved, even if I held onto a rage at her for doing all that she'd done to me last night, spoken to me the way she had, put whatever it was within my blood, potentially weakened me, and offered him a chance to snatch me in my moment of weakness. Which made me suddenly suspicious; did Warden Coin work for him?
That was a nasty question to answer coupled with my headache and group therapy.
Effie ended in tears by the time she finished telling us the horror of her cheating soon-to-be ex-husband. Clove had flipped a page in the book, moving to pat the woman's back and offer fluttering eyelashes and empty words. Darius uncomfortably informed us all that he hates violent video games because of a shivery thing that happened to him when he was a kid. (He fingered a scar on the side of his neck as he spoke and I stared so intently at that, that the man could not hold my gaze.)
Pulling sticks, Effie got Rue, who talked of her family's orchard. I'd never seen an orchard before, since there were none in the places I visited as a child; a small community lost in the northern region of Alaska. Through that I came to the realization that near no one in the room with me actually came from Alaska. Not like I had. Rue came from Texas, Clove from New York, and Cato from Maryland. Then Peeta was pulled and he started talking about his family's bakery, somewhere in California. His hands moved animatedly as he reenacted the process of baking bread, "just how my father taught me," and he looked at no one. Ended speaking, stuttered, staring at the burn marks on his hands.
"What about your brother?" the boy from Three spoke up. He tugged at his greasy hair and twisted it anxiously around his fingers, over and over again, eyes round. "Rye, you called him. Yesterday."
"Dead," Peeta said, gruffly.
"We know that, cupcake," Cato said. "He means, did Rye bake or something like you did?"
"We all baked," Peeta said.
"Can you still bake?" Rue asked.
At that Peeta seemed to hunch further into his shoulders and tucked his face closer to his chest and hood. He started to rock. Portia, standing with the other caretakers, rushed forward and aided him to stand. Thresh shadowed them out of the room and Effie waved at the bread boy's back. "Thank you for sharing, Peeta, darling!"
I hugged my legs closer to my chest, until breathing was tight, until I knew I would not rock myself. I thought of bread, and baking, and fire. Burnt, came unbidden. Poor burnt Peeta. Pity broken Rue. Shattered dimensional Clove. Raging unstable Cato. Needy grasping Glimmer. I started to rock without really knowing it, imitating, lost in thought. I caught myself twice, before I shoved my legs harshly to the floor and sat rod straight. Still, I named the people around me. Nice, even labels with two words then a name. Poor burnt Peeta. Pity broken Rue. Playful strange Primrose. Clicking happy Effie. Drunken rude Haymitch. Shattered dimensional Clove. Autistic irregular Marvel. Traumatized mute Katniss.
"Katniss," Effie read from the stick in front of her face. They turned to me, a wave of attention. I shrunk in the shoulders. I thought of him. I thought of the weight packed around me in the dream.
Aly saved me. "I could go for her, if she doesn't want to." There was shyness in her, a demure thrum in her voice. After Peeta had left, I noticed Aly clawing at a necklace around her neck, as though an anchor. "I could go, I could go, I could go," she repeated, whisper quiet. Did she always do that? How had I not noticed before?
"Of course," Effie allowed. "What will you share?"
"A story," Aly said. A story, a story, a story, she repeated herself, under her breath.
"About what?" Rue asked enthusiastically.
Aly's eyes darted Rue's way. The fingers on her necklace tightened around the pennant, knuckles white, and her eyes closed. "A knife. A pretty knife, with jewels in the handle and a long silvery blade." A knife, a knife, a knife.
Apprehension colored the faces of the staff, while Clove leaned eagerly forward. "Was it yours?"
"Did you steal it?" the boy from Four wanted to know. Kleptomaniac clumsy Sal.
"Only for a moment," Aly said. "Only for a moment, for a special thing."
"What special thing?" Darius wanted to know.
Aly looked to him, measured him up, and narrowed her eyes. "They found her in the park." In the park, in the park, in the park. "Parks are good; playgrounds, swings, kids. But it was dark, and everything is awful when it's dark." The way she twisted the necklace tight around her own throat made me nervous. It bit into the thin pale skin, left marks like teeth, would break if she persisted. "She screamed, and cried, and that's where they found her… beside the lake, where he left her."
Effie folded her hands carefully against her knee and stared Aly very evenly in the eyes. "Who is her?"
That was when I realized her meant Aly. "Scared... she is scared," Aly told Effie.
"There's no reason to be scared, here, in these walls," Darius said.
"Parks, though," Aly said. "There was park and the knife. He held it to her, right here." Her knuckles skimmed the apple of her throat, her eyes closed. "She struggled, but he ripped up her pretty dress."
Uncomfortable: that was what I felt. I covered my ears and Rue imitated me. Others were watching Aly, eagerly. Interested were the boys from Eight and Six, the girl from Four, Cato. Clove was twisted up around her own body, recoiling from the words, but had eyes full of fever. "Tell us what happened, next," said Glimmer, ever crude. "Did he rape you?"
"Her," Aly snarled. "Her." You don't understand – her!
"Not you?" Cato asked. There was amusement in his face; I screwed my palms closer to my ears.
"Her. Her. Her."
Cato pushed though, "It was you. Don't pretend. Are you ashamed? Did he make you–"
"Cato." Effie's voice was the crack of a whip. Everyone jumped and recoiled; Cato straightened. "Enough."
Too late. Aly had tears streaming down her face and she started chewing on the end of her honey-colored pony tail, palming anxiously the sides of her hips. Rocking, Thresh pulled her into his arms and carried her out. A caretaker trailed after them.
I considered how fast it took for two of ours to be removed today compared to the amount Level Two lost in less than half an hour. If we lose three more we'd be beating them. Just as the thought occurred, Effie turned to me. She expected me to share, but I was still staring after Aly, clutching my ears. I opened my mouth, maybe to grunt. But a whoop ran through my gut and strangled my throat. Next thing I knew, I was retching at the floor. And all I could think about was the row of syringes, the medicine bottle in Prim's hand, and an unwanted treatment.