My feet back up automatically and I blend into the trees. I cover my mouth with my glove to disperse the white of my breath in the icy air. Adrenaline courses through me, wiping all the concerns of the day from my mind as I focus on the immediate threat before me. What is going on? Has Thread turned on the fence as an additional security precaution? Or does he somehow know I've escaped his net today? Is he determined to strand me outside District 12 until he can apprehend and arrest me? Drag me to the square to be locked in the stockade or whipped or hanged?
Calm down, I order myself. It's not as if this is the first time I've been caught outside of the district by an electrified fence. It's happened a few times over the years, but Gale was always with me. The two of us would just pick a comfortable tree to hang out in until the power shut off, which it always did eventually. If I was running late, Prim even got in the habit of going to the Meadow to check if the fence was charged, to spare my mother worry.
But today my family would never imagine I'd be in the woods. I've even taken steps to mislead them. So if I don't show up, worry they will. And there's a part of me that's worried, too, because I'm not sure it's just a coincidence, the power coming on the very day I return to the woods.
I thought no one saw me sneak under the fence, but who knows? There are always eyes for hire. Someone reported Gale kissing me in that very spot. Still, that was in daylight and before I was more careful about my behavior. Could there be surveillance cameras? I've wondered about this before. Is this the way President Snow knows about the kiss? It was dark when I went under and my face was bundled in a scarf. But the list of suspects likely to be trespassing into the woods is probably very short.
My eyes peer through the trees, past the fence, into the Meadow. All I can see is the wet snow illuminated here and there by the light from the windows on the edge of the Seam. No Peacekeepers in sight, no signs I am being hunted. Whether Thread knows I left the district today or not, I realize my course of action must be the same: to get back inside the fence unseen and pretend I never left.
Any contact with the chain link or the coils of barbed wire that guard the top would mean instant electrocution. I don't think I can burrow under the fence without risking detection, and the ground's frozen hard, anyway. That leaves only one choice. Somehow I'm going to have to go over it.
I begin to skirt along the tree line, searching for a tree with a branch high and long enough to fit my needs. After about a mile, I come upon an old maple that might do. The trunk is too wide and icy to shinny up, though, and there are no low branches. I climb a neighboring tree and leap precariously into the maple, almost losing my hold on the slick bark. But I manage to get a grip and slowly inch my way out on a limb that hangs above the barbed wire.
As I look down, I remember why Gale and I always waited in the woods rather than try to tackle the fence. Being high enough to avoid getting fried means you've got to be at least twenty feet in the air. I guess my branch must be twenty-five. That's a dangerously long drop, even for someone who's had years of practice in trees. But what choice do I have? I could look for another branch, but it's almost dark now. The falling snow will obscure any moonlight. Here, at least, I can see I've got a snowbank to cushion my landing. Even if I could find another, which is doubtful, who knows what I'd be jumping into? I throw my empty game bag around my neck and slowly lower myself until I'm hanging by my hands. For a moment, I gather my courage. Then I release my fingers.
There's the sensation of falling, then I hit the ground with a jolt that goes right up my spine. A second later, my rear end slams the ground. I lie in the snow, trying to assess the damage. Without standing, I can tell by the pain in my left heel and my tailbone that I'm injured. The only question is how badly. I'm hoping for bruises, but when I force myself onto my feet, I suspect I've broken something as well. I can walk, though, so I get moving, trying to hide my limp as best I can.
My mother and Prim can't know I was in the woods. I need to work up some sort of alibi, no matter how thin. Some of the shops in the square are still open, so I go in one and purchase white cloth for bandages. We're running low, anyway. In another, I buy a bag of sweets for Prim. I stick one of the candies in my mouth, feeling the peppermint melt on my tongue, and realize it's the first thing I've eaten all day. I meant to make a meal at the lake, but once I saw Twill and Bonnie's condition, it seemed wrong to take a single mouthful from them.
By the time I reach my house, my left heel will bear no weight at all. I decide to tell my mother I was trying to mend a leak in the roof of our old house and slid off. As for the missing food, I'll just be vague about who I handed it out to. I drag myself in the door, all ready to collapse in front of the fire. But instead I get another shock.
Two Peacekeepers, a man and a woman, are standing in the doorway to our kitchen. The woman remains impassive, but I catch the flicker of surprise on the man's face. I am unanticipated. They know I was in the woods and should be trapped there now.
"Hello," I say in a neutral voice.
My mother appears behind them, but keeps her distance. "Here she is, just in time for dinner," she says a little too brightly. I'm very late for dinner.
I consider removing my boots as I normally would but doubt I can manage it without revealing my injuries. Instead I just pull off my wet hood and shake the snow from my hair. "Can I help you with something?" I ask the Peacekeepers.
"Head Peacekeeper Thread sent us with a message for you," says the woman.
"They've been waiting for hours," my mother adds.
They've been waiting for me to fail to return. To confirm I got electrocuted by the fence or trapped in the woods so they could take my family in for questioning.
"Must be an important message," I say.
"May we ask where you've been, Miss Everdeen?" the woman asks.
"Easier to ask where I haven't been," I say with a sound of exasperation. I cross into the kitchen, forcing myself to use my foot normally even though every step is excruciating. I pass between the Peacekeepers and make it to the table all right. I fling my bag down and turn to Prim, who's standing stiffly by the hearth. Haymitch and Peeta are there as well, sitting in a pair of matching rockers, playing a game of chess. Were they here by chance or "invited" by the Peacekeepers? Either way, I'm glad to see them.
"So where haven't you been?" says Haymitch in a bored voice.
"Well, I haven't been talking to the Goat Man about getting Prim's goat pregnant, because someone gave me completely inaccurate information as to where he lives," I say to Prim emphatically.
"No, I didn't," says Prim. "I told you exactly."
"You said he lives beside the west entrance to the mine," I say.
"The east entrance," Prim corrects me.
"You distinctly said the west, because then I said, 'Next to the slag heap?' and you said, 'Yeah,'" I say.
"The slag heap next to the east entrance," says Prim patiently.
"No. When did you say that?" I demand. "Last night," Haymitch chimes in.
"It was definitely the east," adds Peeta. He looks at Haymitch and they laugh. I glare at Peeta and he tries to look contrite. "I'm sorry, but it's what I've been saying. You don't listen when people talk to you."
"Bet people told you he didn't live there today and you didn't listen again," says Haymitch.
"Shut up, Haymitch," I say, clearly indicating he's right.
Haymitch and Peeta crack up and Prim allows herself a smile.
"Fine. Somebody else can arrange to get the stupid goat knocked up," I say, which makes them laugh more. And I think, This is why they've made it this far, Haymitch and Peeta. Nothing throws them.
I look at the Peacekeepers. The man's smiling but the woman is unconvinced. "What's in the bag?" she asks sharply.
I know she's hoping for game or wild plants. Something that clearly condemns me. I dump the contents on the table. "See for yourself."
"Oh, good," says my mother, examining the cloth. "We're running low on bandages."
Peeta comes to the table and opens the candy bag. "Ooh, peppermints," he says, popping one in his mouth.
"They're mine." I take a swipe for the bag. He tosses it to Haymitch, who stuffs a fistful of sweets in his mouth before passing the bag to a giggling Prim. "None of you deserves candy!" I say.
"What, because we're right?" Peeta wraps his arms around me. I give a small yelp of pain as my tailbone objects. I try to turn it into a sound of indignation, but I can see in his eyes that he knows I'm hurt. "Okay, Prim said west. I distinctly heard west. And we're all idiots. How's that?"
"Better," I say, and accept his kiss. Then I look at the Peacekeepers as if I'm suddenly remembering they're there. "You have a message for me?"
"From Head Peacekeeper Thread," says the woman. "He wanted you to know that the fence surrounding District Twelve will now have electricity twenty-four hours a day."
"Didn't it already?" I ask, a little too innocently.
"He thought you might be interested in passing this information on to your cousin," says the woman.
"Thank you. I'll tell him. I'm sure we'll all sleep a little more soundly now that security has addressed that lapse." I'm pushing things, I know it, but the comment gives me a sense of satisfaction.
The woman's jaw tightens. None of this has gone as planned, but she has no further orders. She gives me a curt nod and leaves, the man trailing in her wake. When my mother has locked the door behind them, I slump against the table.
"What is it?" says Peeta, holding me steadily.
"Oh, I banged up my left foot. The heel. And my tail-bone's had a bad day, too." He helps me over to one of the rockers and I lower myself onto the padded cushion.
My mother eases off my boots. "What happened?"
"I slipped and fell," I say. Four pairs of eyes look at me with disbelief. "On some ice." But we all know the house must be bugged and it's not safe to talk openly. Not here, not now.
Having stripped off my sock, my mother's fingers probe the bones in my left heel and I wince. "There might be a break," she says. She checks the other foot. "This one seems all right." She judges my tailbone to be badly bruised.
Prim's dispatched to get my pajamas and robe. When I'm changed, my mother makes a snow pack for my left heel and props it up on a hassock. I eat three bowls of stew and half a loaf of bread while the others dine at the table. I stare at the fire, thinking of Bonnie and Twill, hoping that the heavy, wet snow has erased my tracks.
Prim comes and sits on the floor next to me, leaning her head against my knee. We suck on peppermints as I brush her soft blond hair back behind her ear. "How was school?" I ask.
"All right. We learned about coal by-products," she says. We stare at the fire for a while. "Are you going to try on your wedding dresses?"
"Not tonight. Tomorrow probably," I say.
"Wait until I get home, okay?" she says.
"Sure." If they don't arrest me first.
My mother gives me a cup of chamomile tea with a dose of sleep syrup, and my eyelids begin to droop immediately. She wraps my bad foot, and Peeta volunteers to get me to bed. I start out by leaning on his shoulder, but I'm so wobbly he just scoops me up and carries me upstairs. He tucks me in and says good night but I catch his hand and hold him there. A side effect of the sleep syrup is that it makes people less inhibited, like white liquor, and I know I have to control my tongue. But I don't want him to go. In fact, I want him to climb in with me, to be there when the nightmares hit tonight. For some reason that I can't quite form, I know I'm not allowed to ask that.
"Don't go yet. Not until I fall asleep," I say.
Peeta sits on the side of the bed, warming my hand in both of his. "Almost thought you'd changed your mind today. When you were late for dinner."
I'm foggy but I can guess what he means. With the fence going on and me showing up late and the Peacekeepers waiting, he thought I'd made a run for it, maybe with Gale.
"No, I'd have told you," I say. I pull his hand up and lean my cheek against the back of it, taking in the faint scent of cinnamon and dill from the breads he must have baked today. I want to tell him about Twill and Bonnie and the uprising and the fantasy of District 13, but it's not safe to and I can feel myself slipping away, so I just get out one more sentence. "Stay with me."
As the tendrils of sleep syrup pull me down, I hear him whisper a word back, but I don't quite catch it.
My mother lets me sleep until noon, then rouses me to examine my heel. I'm ordered to a week of bed rest and I don't object because I feel so lousy. Not just my heel and my tailbone. My whole body aches with exhaustion. So I let my mother doctor me and feed me breakfast in bed and tuck another quilt around me. Then I just lie there, staring out my window at the winter sky, pondering how on earth this will all turn out. I think a lot about Bonnie and Twill, and the pile of white wedding dresses downstairs, and if Thread will figure out how I got back in and arrest me. It's funny, because he could just arrest me, anyway, based on past crimes, but maybe he has to have something really irrefutable to do it, now that I'm a victor. And I wonder if President Snow's in contact with Thread. I think it's unlikely he ever acknowledged that old Cray existed, but now that I'm such a nationwide problem, is he carefully instructing Thread what to do? Or is Thread acting on his own? At any rate, I'm sure they'd both agree on keeping me locked up here inside the district with that fence. Even if I could figure out some way to escape - maybe get a rope up to that maple tree branch and climb out - there'd be no escaping with my family and friends now. I told Gale I would stay and fight, anyway.
For the next few days, I jump every time there's a knock on the door. No Peacekeepers show up to arrest me, though, so eventually I begin to relax. I'm further reassured when Peeta casually tells me the power is off in sections of the fence because crews are out securing the base of the chain link to the ground. Thread must believe I somehow got under the thing, even with that deadly current running through it. It's a break for the district, having the Peacekeepers busy doing something besides abusing people.
Peeta comes by every day to bring me cheese buns and begins to help me work on the family book. It's an old thing, made of parchment and leather. Some herbalist on my mother's side of the family started it ages ago. The book's composed of page after page of ink drawings of plants with descriptions of their medical uses. My father added a section on edible plants that was my guidebook to keeping us alive after his death. For a long time, I've wanted to record my own knowledge in it. Things I learned from experience or from Gale, and then the information I picked up when I was training for the Games. I didn't because I'm no artist and it's so crucial that the pictures are drawn in exact detail. That's where Peeta comes in. Some of the plants he knows already, others we have dried samples of, and others I have to describe. He makes sketches on scrap paper until I'm satisfied they're right, then I let him draw them in the book. After that, I carefully print all I know about the plant.
It's quiet, absorbing work that helps take my mind off my troubles. I like to watch his hands as he works, making a blank page bloom with strokes of ink, adding touches of color to our previously black and yellowish book. His face takes on a special look when he concentrates. His usual easy expression is replaced by something more intense and removed that suggests an entire world locked away inside him. I've seen flashes of this before: in the arena, or when he speaks to a crowd, or that time he shoved the Peacekeepers' guns away from me in District 11. I don't know quite what to make of it. I also become a little fixated on his eyelashes, which ordinarily you don't notice much because they're so blond. But up close, in the sunlight slanting in from the window, they're a light golden color and so long I don't see how they keep from getting all tangled up when he blinks.
One afternoon Peeta stops shading a blossom and looks up so suddenly that I start, as though I were caught spying on him, which in a strange way maybe I was. But he only says, "You know, I think this is the first time we've ever done anything normal together."
"Yeah," I agree. Our whole relationship has been tainted by the Games. Normal was never a part of it. "Nice for a change."
Each afternoon he carries me downstairs for a change of scenery and I unnerve everyone by turning on the television. Usually we only watch when it's mandatory, because the mixture of propaganda and displays of the Capitol's power - including clips from seventy-four years of Hunger Games - is so odious. But now I'm looking for something special. The mockingjay that Bonnie and Twill are basing all their hopes on. I know it's probably foolishness, but if it is, I want to rule it out. And erase the idea of a thriving District 13 from my mind for good.
My first sighting is in a news story referencing the Dark Days. I see the smoldering remains of the Justice Building in District 13 and just catch the black-and-white underside of a mockingjay's wing as it flies across the upper right-hand corner. That doesn't prove anything, really. It's just an old shot that goes with an old tale.
However, several days later, something else grabs my attention. The main newscaster is reading a piece about a shortage of graphite affecting the manufacturing of items in District 3. They cut to what is supposed to be live footage of a female reporter, encased in a protective suit, standing in front of the ruins of the Justice Building in 13. Through her mask, she reports that unfortunately a study has just today determined that the mines of District 13 are still too toxic to approach. End of story. But just before they cut back to the main newscaster, I see the unmistakable flash of that same mockingjays wing.
The reporter has simply been incorporated into the old footage. She's not in District 13 at all. Which begs the question, What is?
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