Chapter Twenty-Seven
I don't know how I live through the next four hours.

I try not to. I try to fling myself onto the fence beside Digger, but Peacekeepers hold me back. I watch her skin turn black and bubble. She never screams. She never had time to scream. Her heart must have stopped the second the current went through her, but they don't turn off the fence. No one gives an order to do it.

Someone must have gone into town, because finally, the mayor arrives, and demands that we be allowed to get her down. Beckett claims that she had trouble reaching anyone, but miraculously manages to get through on the first try this time. The fence goes off.

The Peacekeepers don't offer to assist in getting her down, not that I'd let them near her. I try to do it myself, but I lose any thin grip I had on reality when I try to move her hand and her finger comes off before she can be dislodged from the fence. She's been cooked on it.

I keep trying, and she keeps falling apart in my hands, like a nightmare. I want it to be a nightmare. Something like this could only happen in the twisted parts of my mind. I try to wake myself up, but I cant. There's a horrible smell, and it's all over me.

I finally let other people come to help. They say the fence needs to be cut. Beckett fumes about this. I hear her complain that it will take hours to string new wire. Someone, ignoring her completely, cuts the wires that have fused into Digger's body, and we lay her down on a gray tarp on the ground. The want to wrap her up. She's all over me, a kind of unspeakable sludge that's smeared over my body and my clothes. I lie down on the tarp and try to have them wrap me up with her.

Danny pulls me away. I'm not strong enough to fight him. I'm not even trying to, except for trying to get back to Digger. He turns me around and punches me, and things go blessedly dark.

When I come to, there's moonlight coming in through some window. I don't know where I am. I've been cleaned and put in new clothes. Danny is sitting across from me, and Ruth is beside me on a bed, wiping my forehead with a cool cloth. Someone has washed me, but I can still smell Digger in air around me.

"Where is she?" I ask.

Ruth sighs and smooths my hair back. "Haymitch, they… she… she's gone."

"What did they do with her?"

"She's dead."

"I know she's dead. I'm not crazy. Where is she?"

"They took her to the Justice Building," Danny says. "The mayor is filing a complaint against the Peacekeepers. They can't bury her until it's been investigated."

I blink. "Where am I?"

"You're at the bakery," Danny says. "Well, upstairs. My dad's room. He said you could have it as long as you want. He'll sleep with Mom."

I just accept this. Danny's parents are nice, but they're a little odd. I don't have much will to argue with my sleeping arrangements, anyway.

"Anyway," Ruth says, "I told them it was a medical emergency, and we weren't leaving you alone. We couldn't stay with you in the Village, so we brought you here."

I can't think of anything to say, so I say nothing. I remain awake. Ruth leaves after a little while, saying that she needs to get home. Danny stays with me. He asks if I need anything. I continue not saying anything.

"She loved you a lot, you know," he says.

I know this. She died because she loved me a lot. I look away.

"And she knew you loved her. No matter what you were doing. She said it, while we were watching the Games."

I blink. The ceiling gets a little blurry, but I don't cry.

"I just… I figured you'd want to know that." He goes to the door. "I'll be right down the hall, just for a minute. My dad will bring you something to eat."

I manage to say "Thanks," but he's already gone by the time it comes out.

I close my eyes. I don't sleep. I don't want to risk dreaming. I let my thoughts drift. I remember that she said if she won, she wanted a red dress. I could have gotten her a red dress, at least.

Maybe I eat what Mr. Mellark brings. I'm not sure. I don't see how I could. My head is still full of the smell of my wife burning. I have no idea what time it is when I cross the line between floating awake and being asleep. I dream of the arena again. Maysilee is dying again. Only this time, she keeps turning into Digger. I only wanted a red dress, she says over and over, and she is covered in scarlet blood, spreading around her like a macabre gown.

I wake up at dawn. The Mellarks are already up, getting the bakery ready for the day. I start to leave without saying goodbye, but Danny spots me, and his parents wave him out. He walks with me without talking, all the way back to Victor's Village. I go into my house. The window in the living room looks out on the garden, and on the investigating team at the fence.

Danny runs around me and closes the curtains. I don't ever want them opened again.

"Did you need something here?" he asks.

I shake my head. Sit down on the couch. Wrap up in my blanket.

Something is making a terrible racket in the study, ringing like hammers in my head. I blink. It's the telephone. I imagine that it's Snow, calling to tell me who's next on his list.

I decide to answer. Better to behave. Better not to call down any more wrath.

I practically sleepwalk into the study. Danny follows me. I pick up the phone and hit the speaker button, but I don't say anything. I can't think of anything to say.

"Hello? Hello?" a woman's voice says.

"He's here," Danny tells her. "He's, um…"

"I'm here," I say.

"Sweetheart, it's Gia. I saw the news. I've been trying to reach you since yesterday. Oh, honey."

I blink. "Gia?"

"Miss Pepper?" Danny says. "I don't know if he's good for the phone."

"Of course not. Is there anything I can do? Anything?"

Danny looks at me with an eyebrow raised.

I want to tell her to get them to leave me alone. To roll things back so that Maysilee comes out of the arena instead of me. I don't think she can do either. It wouldn't be fair, anyway. I wouldn't wish this on Maysilee.

"I guess not," Danny says. "I just -"

"A dress," I say.

Danny looks up.

"What, honey?" Gia asks. "I didn't hear you."

"A dress. For Digger. A bright red one. So bright that it almost glows."

Gia doesn't argue. She doesn't point out that Digger will need to be poured into a dress, or that the dress will just be going underground. She just says, "I know just the one. There's actually a train scheduled this afternoon. I'll be on it. With the dress."

"Thank you," I say, then I go quiet again. There's nothing else to say. Danny tells her that I'll be staying at the bakery, and tells her how to get there from the train station.

Danny lets me be for a little while, then he helps me up to my room. I'm not hurt, but I'm hobbling like an old man. He gets me into my bed, then throws a blanket over me. He covers the windows that overlook the garden.

"We'll get those bricked," he says.

I nod and bury my face in my pillow.

Danny lets me be alone. I cry. I think I do, anyway. Something is hurting my throat, and my face is wet, and I can't breathe right.

Sae from the Community Home comes at lunchtime. I expect her to rage at me for all but pushing Digger into that fence, but she doesn't. She just comes in with a tray and forces some soup down my throat.

Once it's down, she says, "They've asked me what I want done with the body."

"She's my family. Put her with my family. But wait. Gia's bringing her a dress." I frown. "I have to call the man making the stone. They need to add her name."

She sighs. "Haymitch, they've already said she's going to be buried in her own family's plot. With her parents. They just want to know when, and if we want to have a wake at the Community Home. Closed casket, of course."

"I'm her family," I say. "And I don't want anyone dancing around her body. No wake."

Sae nods. She leaves my room, and I hear her talking to Danny downstairs.

I think about stone markers.

I need to take care of her, this one last time.

I make myself get out of bed. Go to my study. Call the undertaker named Hilarius, and order a simple stone with her parents' names and her name - Indigo Hardy Abernathy. I insist on this, maybe too much, since he's not arguing with me. He doesn't give me trouble about anyone's name this time, either. I am about to hang up when he says, "Mr. Abernathy?"


"We all… here in the Capitol… everyone's awfully sorry for everything that's happened to you since the Games."

I frown, confused at this idea. He sounds sincere enough. But…

I shake my head. "Thank you."

He gives me a date for delivery of both stones, and promises to put a rush on them. We hang up.

Danny has gone home, and Sae is here for the afternoon. At suppertime, Kay Donner and Merle Undersee take over, and stay until curfew, at which point they bundle me up in the mine cart Merle rents (he says conversationally that the mine foreman has let him have it "for as long as we need it") and take me back to the bakery. I sleep in Mr. Mellark's room again, but I'm really in the arena. Maysilee and I are crouched under our blanket, and she asks me to tell her about Digger. I tell her everything this time, but when I turn around to see if she's listening, her skin has started to bubble and slough off of her, and I can smell the high, sweet odor of cooking flesh.

I wake up screaming in the middle of the night. The Mellarks take turns trying to get me to calm down, and I guess they finally must do it, because suddenly, it's morning, and I'm alone. I can smell bread baking downstairs.

I go down. They are busy and don't notice me. They walk around each other efficiently, moving things from kneading to shaping, pulling them from the oven. The first customers of the day come - a couple of mine supervisors who must have pooled their money, as they buy a fancy looking sweet pastry to take down to the mines with them. Danny winks and puts a sprinkle of extra sugar on it, then says, "Shh," like everyone in town didn't just see him do it. Mir Murphy comes next, with an order from the butcher. She flirts with Danny. He actually flirts back for some reason. Business, I guess. She goes away with a loaf of bread and a bag of rolls. The Mellarks go on with their work. It's relaxing to watch it, my head empty.

At least until the third customer comes in.

Lucretia Beckett looks quite satisfied with herself. "Loaf of white bread," she says. "And one of the cinnamon raisin as well."

Mrs. Mellark goes to the counter and puts up a sign that says, "Closed."

"You don't want to do that," Beckett cautions.

This was what she said right before she turned on the fence. I see her smiling. Pressing the button on her comm device. Killing whatever is in her way. "Don't," I say.

No one hears me.

Danny's father straightens up at the kneading table and says, "You're not welcome in this shop, or any other in District Twelve."

Beckett sneers. "Then every shop in District Twelve is going to be in a world of hurt." She looks over her shoulder. "Ask Abernathy here."

"Leave them alone," I say.

"Or what?''

I don't know what's going to come out of my mouth. I haven't got the energy to be angry. I'm just tired and sick and worn down. My voice is completely flat. "I won the Hunger Games," I say. "And I'm about ten feet from a whole lot of knives."

"They'd hang even a victor for that. They might hang you just for saying it."

I advance on her. I feel like I'm another nightmare about the arena. "At this point, do you really think I care?"

She reaches for her comm device and presses a button on it. No one says anything. No one dies. Beckett and I just stare at each other. The door opens and two other Peacekeepers come in. They grab my arms.

Mr. Mellark comes around the counter. "You're not taking that boy from my house. He's our guest."

The only discernable effect this has is that Beckett draws her gun on the Mellarks while I'm pulled toward the door. I try to signal them to stop fighting. Danny gets it. He pulls his father back, then follows the Peacekeepers out, peppering them with questions about just what they're doing, but not actually crossing the line into insubordination.

There's a whipping post on the square. It's mostly used as a place for couples to carve their initials and their undying love for each other these days, but it still has what it needs. Beckett pulls the shackles down and fastens them around my wrists. I feel her yank off the flimsy shirt I wore to sleep in. My forehead is pressed up against the post. Beneath my face, among the tangles of initials, there is a rough mockingjay carved in the wood. Under it, I see the initials "MD." Where everyone else has put in their sweethearts' names, "MD" apparently loves "D12."

Maysilee. I'm glad she's here with me, but not taking any pain from it.

I should probably be afraid, but I'm not. It will hurt. I don't care. Maybe it will even kill me, and then Beckett will have to deal with whatever happens to her for killing a victor.

Her hand runs down my spine. It's like being touched by a slug that's been soaking in hot saltwater. The pain will be preferable. I brace myself for it.

"What exactly are you doing to my victor?"

The voice comes out of nowhere - high and angry. I look over my shoulder.

Pelagia Pepper is standing on the road from the train station, a garment bag over her shoulder. She manages to look officiously indignant.

"He threatened the lives of Peacekeepers," Beckett says.

"And whatever might have prompted him to do that?" Gia passes the garment bag to Danny and storms right past Beckett, ignoring her. She comes to the whipping post. The shackles apparently don't need keys, because she just presses a button and they release, letting my arms down. She squeezes my shoulder, then turns back on Beckett. "Explain yourself."

"I don't need to explain anything to a glorified fashion model."

Gia takes a few steps forward. "I am here on behalf of the Gamemakers, and the government of Panem."

"The president gave me carte blanche to deal with District Twelve as I see fit."

"You overstepped." She lowers her voice, so only Beckett and I could possibly hear her. "The house is bugged, Officer Beckett. We know what you did to him. That was not within your authority, and the president is not pleased."

At this, Beckett actually seems a little bit disturbed, but she sniffs disdainfully. "I've had plenty of experience with victors. I somehow doubt he's going to be treated as sacrosanct."

Gia ignores this entirely. She raises her voice again. "You back off my victor, Officer Beckett, on the orders of the Gamemakers, or you're going to find yourself testing the mutts for next year's arena."

Even the Peacekeepers know better than to contradict the Gamemakers. Beckett grimaces, then waves her hand impatiently, as though nothing on earth could be less important than my impending punishment. She walks away.

Gia comes to me and puts her arms around me. I'm completely numb. I can't even feel her embrace. But I lean into it. I whisper in her ear, "You shouldn't have done that. You'll have trouble."

"I can handle trouble," she says. "You let your friends take care of you now. I'll take care of everything else."

I nod. I am too tired to do anything else.

Danny leads me back to the bakery, and his mother puts me back to bed. I sleep for the rest of the day, and I don't hear any disturbances. When I wake up in the evening, I find out that Gia has put a push on the investigation into Digger's death, and insisted on the release of the body. She's dressed her in a fine red dress. I ask if I can see her in it. Gia doesn't want me to, but doesn't forbid it. She takes me to a room in the sub-basement of the Justice Building.

Digger is in a coffin which is more or less holding her together. There's a surprising amount of skin left on her face. It almost looks like her, except that it's a shade of dark, sooty gray. The red dress glows against it, like lava against ash. I want to kiss her goodbye, but I lose my nerve. If her lips fell off the way her finger did, I'd go insane.

I just smooth back what's left of her hair. "I'm sorry," I whisper.

She says nothing back. I close the coffin. She's buried the next day.

Gia doesn't need to take care of this. My friends and Digger's do. She does threaten to bring down the full weight of the Gamemakers on anyone who tries to film it. I wonder how much of this is in her actual authority and how much she's making up on the spot, but I don't dare ask.

I don't try to speak at the funeral this time. It came out badly enough when I was sober, and I am nowhere near sober when Digger is put into the ground. I snuck back to my house and spent the entire morning drinking, and the best Gia's pills were able to do was keep me awake and on my feet. She found my token in the drawer of my desk, and cleaned it up for me to wear. I notice that there's a wound-through strand of red now, and I realize that it must have come from the grave dress. I don't know if it's morbid or comforting.

I let her run my life for the next three weeks. It's a relief. She powers through the permits to have the back windows of my bedroom bricked up, and hires locally for the job. She lays out clothes for me in the morning and sees to it that I get out of bed and get dressed for at least a few hours. As a Capitol citizen, she's not required to leave Victors' Village at curfew, so she stays with me full time, and lets my friends in all day. I'm not aware of talking much to them, but they're apparently under instructions to be energetic and forceful with me.

I start doing my own errands after a few days, as much in self-defense as anything else. At first, I'm barely present for these trips to town, and several times, I mistake Kay for Maysilee. Once, I see a crow flying near her, and I flash back to the pink birds in the arena. I kill it. I kill a sparrow the next day as well, and when I go into the sweet shop to apologize, I see a bright yellow bird in a cage, and I don't think it could be anything other than a mutt, being that bright. I have a knife in my boot and I try to skewer it. There's a lot of screaming about this, and Kay ends up taking the cage and running from me. I don't see it in the shop the next time I go in.

I notice that Sae seems to be in my house a lot, helping Gia look after me. No one ever tells me, but I start to get the impression that she's been fired from her job as house mother at the Community Home. I find Daisy Conary - the girl who liked Lacklen - and ask her. She says it was because the Capitol found out that she was letting… someone… hunt. She hasn't found a job at the mines, either.

As time passes, I start to come back to myself, at least enough to know that I don't want to be back in myself. Gia has to go home on the next train; she doesn't have leave to visit me long. I go to the station with her. She promises to see me for the victory tour, and reminds me to find a talent. "Not just for the Gamemakers," she tells me. "You need to fill your days."

I promise her that I will, but I have no intention of keeping that promise. The only idea that keeps filling my days involves the oak tree in Duronda's garden. I don't tell any of my manic caretakers about this. They'll only go away if I convince them that I'm "on the mend," as Sae puts it.

I stay awake most nights, once I convince them all that I'm perfectly sane, and imagine long conversations with Maysilee, curled up in our blanket. I tell her what I mean to do - to break out of the arena for good. She tells me that I'll never get away with it.

It's usually just before dawn when I go outside into the moonlight and walk the green down to Duronda's house. I examine the tree carefully several times, then go back and work on kinks in my plan. The biggest one is what will happen to the tributes next year. That's the only problem I can't seem to work my way around.

When school begins again in the fall, my friends can't spend as much time with me. Danny urges me to come back and finish, but I have a feeling that it wouldn't be permitted. I tell him it definitely wouldn't be, though I never bother to ask.

I don't push them away. That only makes them more determined, and will end up with them dead. Instead, I let them get back to their lives - their school days, their romances, their homework. At first, they make an effort to come up, but for the most part, I am outside of the normal shape of things for them, and the visits slowly dry up.

I continue to visit the tree at night. I am good. I am compliant. Beckett does not visit me, though I gather from a few people that she's been throwing her weight around in town, whenever the merchants refuse to sell to her (which is frequent - the Mellarks and the Donners are leading this, and I can't seem to talk them out of it). She must have decided that Gia's threats about doing anything to a victor were sincere. Even the regular patrols of the green have stopped, and the guards at the gate just stand there on the far side of it.

The fall is unnaturally dry, what Mom always called "tinderbox weather." The grass crunches under my feet when I walk on the green during the day. I sometimes lie on the bench and wonder if I could just let myself dry up like the plants. It seems unlikely, considering how much I've been drinking.

It's nearly October when I decide to go ahead and do it. Merle's been tying burlap around shrubs for the winter, and there's plenty of rope. I gather a solid length of it in the middle of the night, and I head over to Duronda's place. I leave my door wide open.

The tree is strong and easy to climb, even with the rope over my shoulders. I climb as high as I can.

From here, I can see all of Victors' Village, and if I turn, I can see a good part of the town. It's early dawn, and on the Seam, I can see people starting to move toward the mines. I can't hear anything from this distance, but I know they're all shouting to each other, bellowing greetings as they run to catch up with their friends. I know that the merchants are getting up as well, getting ready for the day. The Mellarks will be doing their quiet, efficient dance around the kitchen.

I think about the scratched letters on the whipping post. "MD loves D12." Maysilee was nuts. She loved me, if I need any further proof of this.

I wrap the rope as securely as I can around the thickest branch. I take the other end, and realize that I have no idea at all how to tie a noose. I probably should have looked that up.

It doesn't matter. Any loop tight enough to hold will do, if I drop fast enough.

I fumble with the rope. It doesn't seem to want to get a tight grip. My hands are shaking. I close my eyes and try to gather myself up. The sun is getting higher. Pretty soon, the others will all be heading off for school, to talk about the symbolism of volcanoes.

There's a flash of motion in the square. I can't tell who anyone is, but someone is shoved out in front of a pair of Peacekeepers, toward the center, where I know the whipping post stands.

The first scream reaches even me.

I look at the rope in my hands.

What are you doing?

It's not Maysilee's voice, or Mom's, or Lacklen's, or Digger's. It's my own. It's the horrified voice of the boy who stood in another tree last spring, staring down at the tarp he'd just scrounged to fix yet another problem in the roof. That tree is too far away to see, even from here, somewhere at the other end of the world.

I stare at the rope. It seems like a snake, coiled in my hands.

I take the end of it and climb back down, leaving it dangling, like a fuse.

I go to my house and rummage in the kitchen until I find what I need, then I go back to the tree.

And strike a match.

The End