The End of the World
Part One: The Quell Card
I climb a tree to take a better look at the tarp I just nailed down on the roof. It's not going to win any beauty contests, but I'm pretty sure I've got the whole gap covered. I didn't see anything up close, and there's no cracking or buckling that I can see from up here. It won't hold in much heat, but at least it'll keep the snow out of Mom's room.
Tin would have been better. Lacklen found some tin in the trash bins at the mine last summer, and we used it for the last of the holes over the kitchen. It wasn't big enough to cover this one. He keeps diving into the bins to see if they'll throw out any more, but so far, the dirty, paint-spattered tarp is the best find he's had. There was no real reason to throw it out, so I guess the mine foreman, who always felt bad for Mom, left it there for him on purpose.
Of course, I know what I really need. I spent an hour in the school library trying to find out how to fix the holes properly. Plywood, shingles, braces, big screws, tools other than the large flat rock I use as a hammer. Even when I start working the mines in two years, it'll take me forever to save up for things like that. It'd be easier to get married, apply for a new family house, then invite Mom and Lacklen to come live with me. Of course, if the government has to repossess it in this state, they'll make me pay for the repairs anyway, but at least Mom and Lacklen would have a real roof over their head while I scrounge.
I can't quite stop my brain from calculating how much time I'll have to get a roof over Mom's head, judging by the bloody cloths she's been coughing into, and coming up pretty short on the two years before I can start working or get married. I push the thought away as hard as I can. If I start thinking about that - about how she just keeps getting weaker, just like Dad did, about how she's told me that I may have to take on looking after Lacklen a little more soon - then I'll freeze up. There's no time to freeze up.
"Admiring your handiwork?"
I look down and grin. Indigo Hardy is standing at the base of the tree, smiling the prettiest smile in about six districts. "Hey, Digger. You get the tessera grain sorted out?"
"All set," she says. "I swear, if they lose my birthday down there again, I'm going to have it tattooed on their faces."
I climb down a few branches until I'm clear to grab a low branch and just drop the rest of the way. I'm sure this would turn out very graceful, except that one of the strings holding my shoes together snaps when I land, and I end up stumbling into Digger and knocking us both off balance. She catches herself on another tree, and I catch myself on her. Which is more or less where I intended to end up anyway. I kiss her. Even after two years of going out on and off, I still can't believe she lets me do this.
She smiles when I pull away to take a breath, and rubs a little spit off the corner of my mouth with her thumb. "There's mandatory viewing tonight," she says. "Is your television working, or are you going to come up to the square?"
I wrinkle my nose and take her hand, then lead her toward the house. "Mandatory viewing? What for?"
"House mother says it's probably the reading of the Quell card. Remember? You and your mom and Lacklen can come up to the Community Home, if you want to watch with me. It'll be warmer than in the square."
We get to the door. I have to let go of her hand to open it, since the top hinge isn't... well, there. I pulled the pin last month and used it to secure a blanket to insulate Mom's wall. If I don't balance the top of the door and keep it where the hinge is supposed to keep it, it'll tip and not close right. "Are you sure it's all right with the house mother if we come? Because our television got a little doused in the big storm last fall. Kind of fried."
"Oh, yeah. It was her idea. She likes your mom. And your brother." Digger grins as she goes inside. "Of course, she thinks you're more or less a lost cause."
The smell hits right away when I go in, so I don't smile at her joke. I know it'll fade into the background soon, and Digger makes a great effort to not show on her face that she smells it, too. But it's there. It never leaves - the smell of wood rot and disease and death. Now, when it's cold out, it smells like filthy bodies, too, because we only bathe when we can't stand to smell each other anymore. And I don't let Mom bathe in cold water, even when she wants to. If she catches a cold, she could die.
From the back, I hear her coughing. She appears at the door to her room, moving aside the old, tattered blanket that covers it. "Indigo?" she says. "That you, honey?"
"Sure is," Digger says brightly. "Figured you could use someone to talk to who can manage more than a syllable at a time." She glances over at the staircase (which leads to nowhere; the upstairs rooms fell in years ago, when Dad was still alive to fix the roof under them). "Lacklen - what are you doing hanging upside down?"
"Haven't got down yet," he says, and pulls himself up, tugging at the length of cloth that's tied around his ankles. He manages to get himself upright - sort of - and says, "Got my arms untied, though."
Mom coughs again then frowns. "Haymitch, why did you tie your brother up?"
"He told me to."
"I do not understand you boys sometimes. Get him down."
"No, I want to figure it out!" Lacklen says. "I've almost got it!"
Mom gears up to scold him, but it comes out in a series of harsh coughs. She puts her pillow to her face, then hides it when she's done, like we don't know she's using it to catch blood. I cut Lacklen down and help him to his feet.
Mom sinks down in her rocking chair. Digger gives her a blanket off Lacklen's bed by the fireplace. "I was just telling Haymitch - mandatory viewing tonight. You can come up to the Community Home to watch with me. It's nice and warm there."
"I don't know if I can get there," Mom says.
I pick up her pillow, check it for blood (not too bad today), and say, "We'll get you there. We'll bundle you up in all the blankets, then me and Lacklen will just pick up your chair and carry you. Right, Lacklen?"
Lacklen nods eagerly. "Yeah. It'll be just like that picture in the story book, where they're carrying the queen into town."
"Are you sure you can do that?" Mom asks. "It's awfully long way to carry someone."
Unfortunately, this isn't hard to answer. Mom's barely been eating, even when we do scrounge up food. I've picked up heavier logs lately. I tell her we'll do just fine, then set about making a fire in the fireplace. We're almost out of sticks to light it with, and I know that if she was feeling stronger, she'd say it was a waste when we'll only have to put it out in a few hours, but she's not stronger, and she doesn't argue. She just starts asking Digger about the Community Home, and what sorts of things she does there all day. Digger paints her a cheerful picture, saying they can have hot baths once a week, if they need them, and play games in the basement at night.
"And you have enough to eat?"
"Well, it's no Capitol banquet, but look me - strong as an ox! And I only poach in the woods a little bit." Digger winks and flexes the muscles in her scrawny right arm. She poaches more than "a little bit" to get decent food for herself and the others, and all of us know it, but no one says anything. "Tell you what. I'll give you a tour of the place before mandatory viewing."
"I'd like that, Indigo. Thank you."
I look at Lacklen, who's gone about six shades of green. Neither one of us has to ask why Mom's wondering about life in the Community Home.
I put together something that resembles lunch. Digger brought us a rabbit last week, and we've been stretching out the soup ever since. I go outside and peel some bark from a pine tree to skin it for the edible stuff inside, and drop it in for a little substance. I throw in a few needles as well, along with a few handfuls of snow to stretch the broth. Sooner or later, the pine tree will die, and we'll be in real trouble, but for now, it gets us through the winter.
Digger tries to beg off, claiming that she's not hungry, but I put a bowl in front of her and don't take any arguments. She eats it as hungrily as the rest of us. A couple of hard biscuits that Lacklen made from the last batch of tessera grain give us something to gnaw on.
There's nothing really to talk about after we eat, so Mom asks if I'll read a story. I go to the battered old cupboard in the kitchen and get the plastic-wrapped box from the shelf.
We weren't always poor like this. When Mom and Dad were both alive and healthy and working in the mines, we did as well as anyone else on the Seam, maybe even a little better for the brief time that Dad got a promotion for his blasting ideas (his drinking ideas put an end to that quickly). We own three books. No matter how much Dad was drinking, no matter how sick either of them got, there was never any talk of selling the books. There probably wouldn't have been any buyers in District Twelve anyway, but I'm pretty sure the subject never even came up.
The first book is Dad's dictionary. It was a present from his dad, and it belonged to his grandfather, and maybe his grandfather's father. It's kind of falling apart, even though we take care of it pretty well. I guess it's mine, now, but I always think of it as Dad's. Sometimes, when he was so drunk that I can't figure out how he could actually focus on the little print, he'd pick out words and expound on what they "really" meant by reading the whole history of them out loud, even trying the older languages that they came from. Lacklen and I always thought that was funny. As drunken behaviors go, I've learned since, we had it pretty good. He yelled at his dictionary, but never at us. He never hit us or it. He was just sort of happy and slurry and clumsy. Unfortunately, the clumsy part ended up with half the house going up in smoke when he tried cooking drunk, and the holes it left have been letting in lots of other things that keep eating the place up.
The other two books are story books. Mom and Dad scrimped and saved so that Lacklen and I could each have one book for our very own when we were born. Mine's a collection of fairy tales called Stories From Everywhere. There's a picture on the cover of a boy climbing a giant beanstalk. Everyone told Mom that Lacklen was sure to be a girl, so they got him a book where a princess tells stories every night to her husband to keep him from killing her in the morning. The fact that there's a picture of a girl on the cover never fazed Lacklen very much, as far as I know.
"I want the glass slipper one!" Digger calls.
"You always want the glass slipper one. Mom? Which do you want?"
"The one with the clever pig who builds a strong house," she says, which is also the one she always wants. I don't ask Lacklen. He'll want the one from his book about the fisherman who finds a genie. Almost eighty stories between the two books, and we always end up stuck on the same three.
I mark the one Mom says she wants, in case she insists, but I close my eyes and pick one at random from the middle of the book. It's about a girl with a burned face, who's the only one in her village who can see the Invisible Being, whose hunting bow is a rainbow and who rides a sled made of the Milky Way. It seems like a good mix, so I read it, and no one complains.
When I finish, we bundle Mom up in her chair, and, after a little experimenting, secure some long branches to it. Lacklen and I lift her up way too easily, and the four of us head for town. Digger thinks it's her job to keep Mom entertained, so she talks about silly Capitol fashions she sees on television.
"The whole thing was feathers?" Mom asks, more engaged in the conversation that I'd think she would be. "Wouldn't that itch?"
"You should have seen the drawers that went with it."
"They showed the poor girl's drawers?"
"Made of fur. I can think of places fur would be nice, but that's not one of 'em."
Mom laughs weakly. "My goodness, that's crazy."
"Kind of pretty, though," Digger says thoughtfully. "The feather skirt. Not the drawers. The drawers were just silly. But the skirt had all kinds of great colors in it. There were giant blue and green feathers that looked like they had eyes on them."
"Peacocks," I say.
"Peacocks. They're a bird. There's a picture in my book, and I looked it up Dad's dictionary. They're these giant blue birds, and the males have big feathers with eyes on them."
"I'd like to see a bird like that," Lacklen says. "Where do they live?"
This might turn into an interesting conversation, but as we turn up the Seam, we stop talking. Mom tries to carry on, but Lacklen and Digger and I know better. Talking about peacocks (or stories or dictionaries) is just going to draw out our less than neighborly neighbors. They think it's the height of hilarity that Lacklen and I "put on airs," talking about books and other useless things, when we can't even keep the house dry. A pretty girl named Hazelle Purdy, who finished school last year and works in the mines now, used to put on an exaggerated Capitol accent and explain all the reasons why we weren't fooling anyone. She even found a poem I wrote for homework and read it out loud in that accent in front of half the Seam, then did a whole routine about how I was going to set fashion trends in the Capitol. Everyone would be holding their shoes together with string and good wishes, and no one's clothes would fit, and they'd all smell like they hadn't had a bath in six months. A couple of boys held me still so I couldn't get away until she was done.
After that, I went to the library and got out some books about how to get away from anyone's hold, and I learned to fight. They don't do that to me as much anymore. I also don't wave red flags in front of them by talking about books and fancy birds. I leave that for my literature class, where all of the other students are merchants' kids from town, who couldn't care less that I talk about books. Most of them are okay, but their parents are pretty scandalized that a Seam kid - and not just a Seam kid, but one of the Abernathys, the drunk's kids from the shack by the slag heap - is sitting in class with their pretty, clean blond darlings and getting better grades. Dad and a few of my teachers (and, for some reason, the owners of the local sweet shop) had to fight with everyone in town to get them to let me keep taking the fancy classes, and Dad was pretty sick by then, so I have to stick with them.
By the time we get to town, no one is trying to talk. Mom is shivering despite all the blankets around her, and Digger has donated her jacket to the cause, so she's also shivering. The Community Home is at the far edge of town, beyond the mayor's house, supposedly away from the bad influences of the bars and the Seam. We lift Mom up the front stairs, and Digger fishes for her key card to let us in.
There are a few efforts in the entrance hall to make the place look cheerful. Someone has drawn a clown on the wall, and someone else did a family of rabbits. But the paint is peeling and blistering, and the pictures are distorted, and the dispirited toys that are jumbled in a box don't look like they're much fun for anyone.
"Indigo?" The house mother, a middle-aged woman named Sae, comes out of a back office. "Indigo, you were supposed to be back an hour ago."
"I know. We just got talking." She nods to us. "I'm going to show Mrs. Abernathy around, if it's okay."
Sae takes one look at Mom and nods. "You have a look at anything you want, Rhona. Indigo will answer any questions you have. And if you'd like a hot bath, you just ask. We can make room for all three of you to stay the night, though we don't have breakfast enough for you in the morning." She gives Digger a significant look, and Digger shrugs. Winter is hard weather for hunting. She says Sae can stretch out anything she catches, but sometimes, there's nothing to stretch.
"Thank you," Mom says. "Much obliged. If you have something that needs fixing, you ask the boys, and they'll take care of it." She heaves herself up out of the chair, and Lacklen and I move it into the television room, where several of the house residents are already waiting for mandatory viewing. Digger takes Mom toward the back.
Someone tugs on my shirt. "Do you think they'll have to vote again?"
"The Quell. Last time they had to vote. If they have to vote, it'll be us for sure. No one's worried about us. Grown-ups won't vote for their kids, but we're no one's kids, and -"
I hold up my hand. "I bet it won't be. Why would they do the same thing again?"
"What, then?" a little girl asks. She's standing by a chair, wide-eyed and frightened, even though she's got to be five years away from Reaping age.
"I don't know. Something obnoxious, I guess."
"What if it's younger kids?" she asks. "I think it's going to be younger kids."
I'd like to say that it's impossible, but when it comes to the Hunger Games, I don't write much off. Every year, they grab two kids and send them off to die to punish the districts for something our grandparents did fifty years ago. When you get people who do that, most things aren't off the table, unless they wouldn't make good television. That's probably the only reason they don't just take babies. No one would be entertained by watching babies starve. They don't do much interesting in the process. I wish I didn't know that firsthand. Seven-year-olds, though? Sometimes, they do something interesting. I could see the Capitol deciding to Reap little kids, just because they're bastards.
"They're punishing grown-ups," Lacklen offers. "I bet they say it has to be people with parents to punish."
"It's usually people with parents by accident," an older girl says. I know her from school - Gilla something or other - and she lived on the Seam until her parents died last fall. She's thirteen and definitely in the Reaping. Probably twice, since Community Home kids are required to take tesserae to keep the place fed. "It'll be something weirder than that, so it'll look different from other years."
"Like what?" someone else asks.
"Dunno." She looks at me. "You know stuff. What do you think?"
"I think I'm not making guesses about the Capitol."
"What was the first year?" Lacklen asks. "Maybe the fiftieth will be like the first."
"It was rebels' kids," I say. "They just picked from the kids of the prisoners. We don't have any rebels now, so it can't be that."
I suspect it isn't entirely true about the rebels. I've heard people muttering. I heard Dad muttering when he was drunk sometimes. I know that the Donner girls, who are in my history and literature classes, like to make statements that they think are very obscure, mostly about mockingjays and how they're alive despite the Capitol's intentions. I know Danny Mellark, probably the only guy in school who treats me like a regular person, takes extra tesserae to help people he doesn't even know, which is pretty rebellious around here. But in terms of what the Capitol thinks of as Rebellion - adults with guns shooting Peacekeepers - there really aren't any. Just a whole lot of kids who've been mouthing off a lot lately.
Which isn't very smart, when I think about it. I keep my mouth shut, personally.
We take seats on the floor near where we dropped Mom's chair, and watch the Capitol programming that's on before mandatory viewing. Gilla expresses the hope that they'll run an episode of Plutarch's Lives, about a boy who changes his identity for every show and always solves all kinds of problems. I've never seen it - it started after our television fried - but everyone says it's the best show ever out of the Capitol, and it shows how one person can make a difference (yeah, really). Maysilee Donner was complaining in class that it hasn't been on for weeks, and, to Gilla's disappointment, it's not on today, either. Instead, there's a show about men's fashion. Apparently, we're supposed to be wearing feathers, too, and a bunch of painted up male models walk around looking like some weird half-bird creatures, with red feathered pants and boots that look a little bit like talons.
I yawn. Capitol programming is universally boring, at least when I've been able to watch it. Mom's back by the time mandatory viewing starts. Caesar Flickerman has a little bit of a pre-show, catching up with last year's winner from District Two (his name is Brutus, and he seems to be enjoying himself), then President Snow comes out and announces the Quell, and picks a card from a box. Lacklen and I are playing hangman in the dust on the floor.
Digger pokes my back to make me pay attention. She doesn't bother with Lacklen. Lacklen can see something fine if it's as close as he is to the floor for our game right now, but the television is way too far away for him to make sense of anything but the audio. I think he just needs glasses, but then again, I may as well say that I think he just needs to go to the moon for all the likelihood of it happening.
I make myself look at the television. Snow is looking very smug, but then, he always does. "To remind the districts that two rebels died for every Capitol citizen during the uprising," he says, "twice the normal number of tributes will be Reaped." He smiles tightly.
The coverage goes to frantic commentary, during which some brilliant Capitol mathematician deduces that this means there will be iforty-eight/i tributes in the arena. People on the street are excited. Reaction shots in the districts (not here, of course; they don't come out here unless they have to) show stunned people in their squares. I look down and draw another hangman grid, and try to decide what word will most likely stump Lacklen.
Mandatory viewing ends, and Sae turns off the television. "Is everyone all right?" she asks. "Anyone got a question?"
No one does. I look around. The kids are all looking green, even Lacklen, who's twelve and doesn't have any tesserae, so he shouldn't need to worry. Everyone's chances are still pretty small, even with twice the number of names drawn, and nothing about it seems to suggest that they'll go after orphans particularly.
Sae sends the little ones up to bed, and gets an empty room ready for my family. Mom and Lacklen settle in.
I stay down in the television room with Digger.
"Don't worry about it," I say. "It's two more, but your chances aren't really that much worse."
"In District Twelve, it's worse," she says. "We have fewer people to start with, so the odds are worse. Now we're doubling." She bites her lip. "And I have six tesserae."
"Six?" I shake my head. "Digger, what the hell were you thinking? You don't need to have six tesserae. You have to have one."
"I took them for a couple of the little kids, and old Larkspur Blythe - he doesn't have any family to take them for him, and he was starving. And I took over Azalea Sebolt's, too. She's sick. She wouldn't have a chance."
I do the math quickly. One entry, because everyone has to have one. Times five, for her fifth year. Then six tesserae - five times six. Her name will be in the Reaping balls thirty-five times.
"You drop some of those next year, Digger," I say. "It's not worth it."
"It's not going to help if I drop them next year if I get Reaped this year."
"You won't. It's still out of thousands, when you work in everyone else's tesserae. The odds - "
" - aren't very good however you look at it." She sighs. "Maybe I could win. Maybe I could get all the money, and we could have a house in Victors' Village, and your mom and Lacklen could move in with us."
"You're not getting Reaped."
She sniffs and looks out the window at the black night. "Don't you ever just feel like your number's up?"
I always feel like my number's up. Tonight doesn't change that much. I open my arms and let her snuggle up beside me.
It's no big deal.
It's only one girl more from usual.
They won't take her.