Blinding lights. The deafening roar rattles the metal under my feet. Caesar greets me and leads me to a single, ornate chair from which the winning tribute watches a film of the highlights of the Games. Caesar is sombre, respectful but still entertaining. This will last exactly three hours and is required viewing for all of Panem. As the lights dim and the seal appears on the screen, I realize I'm unprepared for this. I do not want to watch my twenty-three fellow tributes die. I saw enough of them die the first time. Especially Peeta. My heart starts pounding and I have a strong impulse to run. I keep his image beside me, an identical chair beside mine. His hand resting in my upturned palm.
During the highlights, they periodically show the winner's reaction up on a box in the corner of the screen. I think back to earlier years . . . some are triumphant, pumping their fists in the air, beating their chests. Most just seem stunned. I am the latter. Condensing several weeks into three hours is quite a feat, especially when you consider how many cameras were going at once. Whoever puts together the highlights has to choose what sort of story to tell. This year, for the first time, they tell a love story. I feel my heart shatter. The love I lost, whether romantic or otherwise.
The first half hour or so focuses on the pre-arena events, the reaping, the chariot ride through the Capitol, my training score, and my interviews. There's this sort of upbeat soundtrack playing under it that makes it twice as awful because, of course, almost everyone on-screen is dead. Everyone except me. What do I get to live? It isn't fair.
Once we're in the arena, there's detailed coverage of the bloodbath and then the filmmakers basically alternate between shots of tributes dying and shots of us. Mostly Peeta really, there's no question he's carrying this romance thing on his shoulders.
Now I see what the audience saw, how he misled the Careers about me, stayed awake the entire night under the tracker jacker tree, fought Cato to let me escape and even while he lay in that mud bank, whispered my name in his sleep. I seem heartless in comparison — dodging fireballs, dropping nests, and blowing up supplies — until I go hunting for Rue. They play her death in full, the spearing, my failed rescue attempt, my arrow through the boy from District 1's throat, Rue drawing her last breath in my arms. And the song. I get to sing every note of the song.
Something inside me shuts down and I'm too numb to feel anything. It's like watching complete strangers in another Hunger Games. But I do notice they only briefly show the part where I covered her in flowers.
Things pick up for me once they've announced two tributes from the same district can live and I shout out Peeta's name and then clap my hands over my mouth. If I've seemed indifferent to him earlier, I make up for it now, by finding him, nursing him back to health, going to the feast for the medicine, and being very free with my kisses. Objectively, I can see the mutts and Cato's death are as gruesome as ever, but again, I feel it happens to people I have never met.
And then comes the moment with the berries. I can hear the audience hushing one another, not wanting to miss anything. It begins with a scene I do not remember. Peeta beside me as I sleep, his back is turned to me. He's using a small bundle of fur as a paintbrush, coating red berries with a mixture of black and purple juices. That's how he did it. Genius, really. I make decisions too quickly to notice the difference and Peeta proved his camouflage skills. But how did he know I would use them?
I watch him carefully replace the nightlock with them and pocket the real berries. They cut to the two of us as the decision is made. I tell him I love him. The audience sighs. They know what is coming. Peeta stares into the distance. I turn; he swaps the fake nightlock I have given him for the real thing.
The countdown. We force the berries into our mouths. I stand with my eyes closed in anticipation as Peeta falls. A close-up of Peeta's face. Dead blue eyes. And he's gone. I am announced as victor. They cut out the part where I weep over the body and have to be sedated. It ruins the effect.
The anthem's playing yet again and we rise as President Snow himself takes the stage followed by a little girl carrying a cushion that holds the crown. He's still smiling when he settles the crown on my head, but his eyes, just inches from mine, are as unforgiving as a snake's. That's when I know that even though a victor was chosen, both of us ate the berries. That in its self was an act of rebellion. Here I am to blame for having the idea. I'm the instigator, and I am alive to punish.
Much bowing and cheering follows. My arm is about to fall off from waving when Caesar Flickerman finally bids the audience good night, reminding them to tune in tomorrow for the final interviews. As if they have a choice.
I am whisked away to the victory banquet at the President's mansion where I have very little time to eat as Capitol residents and particularly generous sponsors elbow their way through the crowd to get a picture with me. Everybody want a little of the girl on fire. I can't stand it all.
I grab glass after glass of bubbling golden liquid, becoming increasingly intoxicated as the night wears on until the minutes begin to blur together. I force myself to laugh at bad jokes and shake a thousand hands, each congratulating me on my victory. Victory. As if had used pure strength and skill to win. I know better. It was a mixture of luck and ignorance to Peeta's deception. I find myself muttering under my breath to him, cursing him for leaving me here like this. It isn't fair. He should be the one out here shaking hands and making jokes, charming everyone with his cleaver retorts.
Every now and again I catch a glimpse of President Snow, his eyes always fixed on me hungrily in a way that sets me on edge. I try to let the fuzziness in my head block out the thoughts plaguing me. Eventually Haymitch prises the glass from my hand and pulls me away from the crowd. "You're making a fool of yourself." He says.
"Leave me alone. I'm fine. I'm just... Oh!" I shout as my legs give under me on the wobbly heels I have been given. Haymitch pulls me up, linking his arms under mine.
"I think it's time you say your goodbyes. You're doing so well, Katniss. Don't ruin it now." He says. I do as I'm told. I don't have the energy to stay any longer and I'm not exactly enjoying myself. Not without Peeta.
The sun is just peeking over the horizon when we arrive back at the training centre. Haymitch half-carries me to my room and tucks me into bed like a little child, still dressed in my gown. At times like this I think perhaps I can see the ghost of who he was before his games. He can't always have been so awful. The last thing I hear before I drift into sleep is Effie's voice. "She's on air at two! She should have been asleep hours ago!" Good old Effie. Always looking out for me in her own way. As long as it suits her.
I wake with a blistering headache and I feel like every drop of moisture has been sucked from my body. I groan and roll over, fading back in and out of sleep until Effie comes to alert me of another "big, big, big day!"
I have about five minutes to eat my bowl of stew and grain before the prep team descends and relieve me from the need to speak for the next hour or so. Haymitch catches me staring blankly at Peeta's chair again but I don't stop. He rests his head in his hands, eventually excusing himself. He has never had to deal with the aftermath of the games before. He is usually alone by now, drowning the memories with a bottle of liquor until the next comes around.
That's when it hits me. I will have to mentor next year as the only other victor of twelve. I will never truly go home, my mind always half in The Capitol waiting for the next set of tributes. Next year is the quarter quell. As Effie would say, "A big, big, big year." Perhaps Haymitch will be willing to share his bottles. Probably not. It doesn't matter. The hob sells white liquor all year round. I'm rich now, I tell myself. He and I will be neighbours.
Cinna comes in and shoos them all away from me. He dresses me in a cream dress with a beautiful black lace trim and large bow at the back. He gives me back those full red lips and fastens what remains of my hair in a twist. He's so quiet today; his eyes have lost their light. He catches himself in the mirror and instantly changes to an easy smile. It's not like him to fake anything for my benefit. I must look more pathetic than I thought. When we're finished he kisses me gently on the head and leaves me. His behaviour is definitely strange.
The interview takes place in the sitting room right down the hall. The furniture has been moved out of the way and replaced by a large ornate sofa not unlike the chair I sat in yesterday. There's a coffee table to my left filled with tiny purple flowers. Back home we consider them to be weeds. They take over full fields if you allow them to, starving the soil of nutrients. I wonder if they even know.
I take my seat opposite Caesar Flickerman. "How are you doing, Katniss?" he asks. He has a tone of sympathy in his voice. I know he liked Peeta. He'd probably prefer to be interviewing him. I'm so much extra work compared to easy, hilarious Peeta. But he is gone.
"I'm just a little nervous." I reply eventually.
"Don't be. We'll have a fabulous time." says Caesar, giving my hand a reassuring pat.
"I'm no good at talking about myself. I can't say anything positive about the games. Not without Him." I say.
Caesar gives an understanding nod. "Just do your best. You'll be just fine. Nothing you say will be wrong." He says. But he did not see the way Snow looked at me. Something is definitely wrong.
We begin the interview and I can't help fidgeting in my seat. The padding is too hard, there's too much space. This seat was built for two; it's almost empty with just what is left of me.
The interview has a slow start. He asks about my various burns and scars, all of which are now obliterated from my skin. It takes him a little while to warm me up before the harder questions begin. It doesn't matter. They can edit out my awkward pauses and lost trains of thought later. He's patient. I wonder how many other broken messes of children he has done this with before. Even with age-reversal surgeries I can tell he is getting old. He has done this as long as anyone can remember.
"Now, Katniss. I remember you saying that you promised your sister you would come home. We were all stunned by your bravery in volunteering for her. How do you feel knowing you will see her soon?" he asks.
"It's the best thing I have felt in a long time. Prim, my mother, my best friend Gale. As much as I love The Capitol, everyone I love is back at home. I can't wait to see them." I reply. Finally I give an answer with some substance. Gale will see I am still thinking of him. I wasn't even lying this time. Peeta is back at home too. Only he, unlike Gale, is in a wooden box probably being buried right now. They will have received his body, made arrangements for the service. It will be done before I even get back. I wonder if I will ever be able to look the baker in the eye again.
"And I know that was the first time you got to see that little bit of footage at the end. Peeta really did make the biggest sacrifice for you. How did you feel knowing he had tricked you?" he says.
I don't like the way he is aiming the question but answer anyway. "I felt like every part of my body had been ripped out at once. I wanted him to swap with me. For him to live." I say. I'm close to crying but I don't even care.
"When was the moment you realised you loved him?" he asks
I do not know how to answer. Am I even sure I loved him that way? It doesn't matter. I still loved him in some kind of way and that's what counts. "It all happened so fast, I don't think I could pick a certain point.
"Well, the moment I knew was when they announced that two could win. When you cried out for him even though you were in danger." He says
"Katniss, I know you've had a shock, but I've got to ask. The moment when you pulled out those berries. What was going on in your mind . . . hm?" he says.
I take a long pause before I answer, trying to collect my thoughts. This is the crucial moment where I either challenged the Capitol or went so crazy at the idea of losing Peeta that I can't be held responsible for my actions. It seems to call for a big, dramatic speech, but all I get out is one almost inaudible sentence. "I don't know, I just . . . couldn't bear the thought of . . . being without him."
"And now..." he begins.
"And now I try to forget." I say. Caesar brings a close to the show. It has been a timid event, barely touching on the main issues. But I'm glad of it. Over faster than I expected. I wasn't exactly dazzling but I don't have to impress anyone anymore.
I reach Haymitch. "Okay?" I ask.
"Just fine." He says. I keep expecting him to say something mean but it does not come.
I go back to my room to collect a few things and find there's nothing to take but the mockingjay pin Madge gave me. Someone returned it to my room after the Games. They drive me through the streets in a car with blackened windows, and the train's waiting for me. I barely have time to say good-bye to Cinna, although I'll see him in a few months, when I tour the districts for a round of victory ceremonies. It's the Capitol's way of reminding people that the Hunger Games never really go away. I'll be given a lot of useless plaques, and everyone will have to pretend they love me.
Effie accompanies me back to the station. And Haymitch too, of course. We eat dinner, but I still don't feel like eating much. Somebody has removed the Mahogany table with four seats and replaced in with a round glass one with three. At least I do not have to stare at his empty chair anymore. We collapse in the sitting room, but do not turn on the TV. Effie falls asleep, her wig falling to the side exposing a section of soft honey-coloured hair beneath. Anywhere but the Capitol it would be considered very beautiful. It makes her look so human.
The train stops briefly to refuel and I'm allowed out if the fresh air. We're well away from the capitol, somewhere fresh and green. The air smells like pine and the sky is a deep blood red. I wander along the path, I no longer need to be guarded. I pick up a handful of the pink and white flowers. Wild onions. I think of the hours I spent gathering them with Gale. I will get to see him soon; I wonder how he will react. Peeta and I seemed like a true couple in love on screen, there is no denying it. I shouldn't feel bad. Gale has no claim to me. We're just friends. It has always been he and I.
Haymitch is calling me back so I drop them and clamber back onto the train. I go back to my room for the night but without the rush of alcohol in my blood I just lie awake and stare at the ceiling. I've been there hours before I finally fall into sleep.
I'm sitting in some kind of ornate chair on a hill. Only it isn't. I'm swaying; I look down below my feet. The faces of my fellow tributes. I'm balanced on a stack of their bodies streaked with blood. Glimmer's face swollen with stings. A look of terror fixed on Cato's ragged flesh. Rue's eyes wide open, staring out against her dark skin like tiny suns. Peeta on the top, my feet rest on his chest. His lips are stained dark purple with the nightlock juice. His eyes open. "You did this." He says. I start to scream.
"Katniss! Katniss, wake up. It's okay. Calm down." says the voice I recognize. It's Haymitch. He must know nights like these well. I manage to slow my breathing, steady my heart. But I'm never going to get back to sleep.
"Come on, sweetheart." says Haymitch. His kindness is still alien. Confusing.
We sit on the sofa and he orders ice cream. He offers me Hot Chocolate but I refuse. It reminds me too much of Peeta dipping the bread in his. Everything reminds me of him. We eat until I feel sick but even that is not much. Morning is almost here so we stay up and wallow in the silence.
When we finally enter the boundary of district twelve the sun has finally risen. The grimy little station rises up above us. Through the window I see the platform is thick with cameras. I take in a deep breath and step out. I'm finally home, but I know this is not over. It never will be.