That’s when the first bomb hits. There’s an initial sense of impact followed by an explosion that resonates in my innermost parts, the lining of my intestines, the marrow of my bones, the roots of my teeth. We’re all going to die, I think. My eyes turn upward, expecting to see giant cracks race across the ceiling, massive chunks of stone raining down on us, but the bunker itself gives only a slight shudder. The lights go out and I experience the disorientation of total darkness. Speechless human sounds–spontaneous shrieks, ragged breaths, baby whimpers, one musical bit of insane laughter–dance around in the charged air. Then there’s a hum of a generator, and a dim wavering glow replaces the stark lighting that is the norm in 13. It’s closer to what we had in our homes in 12, when the candles and fire burned low on a winter’s night.
I reach for Prim in the twilight, clamp my hand on her leg, and pull myself over to her. Her voice remains steady as she croons to Buttercup. “It’s all right, baby, it’s all right. We’ll be okay down here.”
My mother wraps her arms around us. I allow myself to feel young for a moment and rest my head on her shoulder. “That was nothing like the bombs in Eight,” I say.
“Probably a bunker missile,” says Prim, keeping her voice soothing for the cat’s sake. “We learned about them during the orientation for new citizens. They’re designed to penetrate deep in the ground before they go off. Because there’s no point in bombing Thirteen on the surface anymore.”
“Nuclear?” I ask, feeling a chill run through me.
“Not necessarily,” says Prim. “Some just have a lot of explosives in them. But…it could be either kind, I guess.”
The gloom makes it hard to see the heavy metal doors at the end of the bunker. Would they be any protection against a nuclear attack? And even if they were one hundred percent effective at sealing out the radiation, which is really unlikely, would we ever be able to leave this place? The thought of spending whatever remains of my life in this stone vault horrifies me. I want to run madly for the door and demand to be released into whatever lies above. It’s pointless. They would never let me out, and I might start some kind of stampede.
“We’re so far down, I’m sure we’re safe,” says my mother wanly. Is she thinking of my father’s being blown to nothingness in the mines? “It was a close call, though. Thank goodness Peeta had the wherewithal to warn us.”
The wherewithal. A general term that somehow includes everything that was needed for him to sound the alarm. The knowledge, the opportunity, the courage. And something else I can’t define. Peeta seemed to have been waging a sort of battle in his mind, fighting to get the message out. Why? The ease with which he manipulates words is his greatest talent. Was his difficulty a result of his torture? Something more? Like madness?
Coin’s voice, perhaps a shade grimmer, fills the bunker, the volume level flickering with the lights. “Apparently, Peeta Mellark’s information was sound and we owe him a great debt of gratitude. Sensors indicate the first missile was not nuclear, but very powerful. We expect more will follow. For the duration of the attack, citizens are to stay in their assigned areas unless otherwise notified.”
A soldier alerts my mother that she’s needed in the first-aid station. She’s reluctant to leave us, even though she’ll only be thirty yards away.
“We’ll be fine, really,” I tell her. “Do you think anything could get past him?” I point to Buttercup, who gives me such a halfhearted hiss, we all have to laugh a little. Even I feel sorry for him. After my mother goes, I suggest, “Why don’t you climb in with him, Prim?”
“I know it’s silly…but I’m afraid the bunk might collapse on us during the attack,” she says.
If the bunks collapse, the whole bunker will have given way and buried us, but I decide this kind of logic won’t actually be helpful. Instead, I clean out the storage cube and make Buttercup a bed inside. Then I pull a mattress in front of it for my sister and me to share.
We’re given clearance in small groups to use the bathroom and brush our teeth, although showering has been canceled for the day. I curl up with Prim on the mattress, double layering the blankets because the cavern emits a dank chill. Buttercup, miserable even with Prim’s constant attention, huddles in the cube and exhales cat breath in my face.
Despite the disagreeable conditions, I’m glad to have time with my sister. My extreme preoccupation since I came here–no, since the first Games, really–has left little attention for her. I haven’t been watching over her the way I should, the way I used to. After all, it was Gale who checked our compartment, not me. Something to make up for.
I realize I’ve never even bothered to ask her about how she’s handling the shock of coming here. “So, how are you liking Thirteen, Prim?” I offer.
“Right now?” she asks. We both laugh. “I miss home badly sometimes. But then I remember there’s nothing left to miss anymore. I feel safer here. We don’t have to worry about you. Well, not the same way.” She pauses, and then a shy smile crosses her lips. “I think they’re going to train me to be a doctor.”
It’s the first I’ve heard of it. “Well, of course, they are. They’d be stupid not to.”
“They’ve been watching me when I help out in the hospital. I’m already taking the medic courses. It’s just beginner’s stuff. I know a lot of it from home. Still, there’s plenty to learn,” she tells me.
“That’s great,” I say. Prim a doctor. She couldn’t even dream of it in 12. Something small and quiet, like a match being struck, lights up the gloom inside me. This is the sort of future a rebellion could bring.
“What about you, Katniss? How are you managing?” Her fingertip moves in short, gentle strokes between Buttercup’s eyes. “And don’t say you’re fine.”
It’s true. Whatever the opposite of fine is, that’s what I am. So I go ahead and tell her about Peeta, his deterioration on-screen, and how I think they must be killing him at this very moment. Buttercup has to rely on himself for a while, because now Prim turns her attention to me. Pulling me closer, brushing the hair back behind my ears with her fingers. I’ve stopped talking because there’s really nothing left to say and there’s this piercing sort of pain where my heart is. Maybe I’m even having a heart attack, but it doesn’t seem worth mentioning.
“Katniss, I don’t think President Snow will kill Peeta,” she says. Of course, she says this; it’s what she thinks will calm me. But her next words come as a surprise. “If he does, he won’t have anyone left you want. He won’t have any way to hurt you.”
Suddenly, I am reminded of another girl, one who had seen all the evil the Capitol had to offer. Johanna Mason, the tribute from District 7, in the last arena. I was trying to prevent her from going into the jungle where the jabberjays mimicked the voices of loved ones being tortured, but she brushed me off, saying, “They can’t hurt me. I’m not like the rest of you. There’s no one left I love.”
Then I know Prim is right, that Snow cannot afford to waste Peeta’s life, especially now, while the Mockingjay causes so much havoc. He’s killed Cinna already. Destroyed my home. My family, Gale, and even Haymitch are out of his reach. Peeta’s all he has left.
“So, what do you think they’ll do to him?” I ask.
Prim sounds about a thousand years old when she speaks.
“Whatever it takes to break you.”
What will break me?
This is the question that consumes me over the next three days as we wait to be released from our prison of safety. What will break me into a million pieces so that I am beyond repair, beyond usefulness? I mention it to no one, but it devours my waking hours and weaves itself throughout my nightmares.
Four more bunker missiles fall over this period, all massive, all very damaging, but there’s no urgency to the attack. The bombs are spread out over the long hours so that just when you think the raid is over, another blast sends shock waves through your guts. It feels more designed to keep us in lockdown than to decimate 13. Cripple the district, yes. Give the people plenty to do to get the place running again. But destroy it? No. Coin was right on that point. You don’t destroy what you want to acquire in the future. I assume what they really want, in the short term, is to stop the Airtime Assaults and keep me off the televisions of Panem.
We receive next to no information about what is happening. Our screens never come on, and we get only brief audio updates from Coin about the nature of the bombs. Certainly, the war is still being waged, but as to its status, we’re in the dark.
Inside the bunker, cooperation is the order of the day. We adhere to a strict schedule for meals and bathing, exercise and sleep. Small periods of socialization are granted to alleviate the tedium. Our space becomes very popular because both children and adults have a fascination with Buttercup. He attains celebrity status with his evening game of Crazy Cat. I created this by accident a few years ago, during a winter blackout. You simply wiggle a flashlight beam around on the floor, and Buttercup tries to catch it. I’m petty enough to enjoy it because I think it makes him look stupid. Inexplicably, everyone here thinks he’s clever and delightful. I’m even issued a special set of batteries–an enormous waste–to be used for this purpose. The citizens of 13 are truly starved for entertainment.
It’s on the third night, during our game, that I answer the question eating away at me. Crazy Cat becomes a metaphor for my situation. I am Buttercup. Peeta, the thing I want so badly to secure, is the light. As long as Buttercup feels he has the chance of catching the elusive light under his paws, he’s bristling with aggression. (That’s how I’ve been since I left the arena, with Peeta alive.) When the light goes out completely, Buttercup’s temporarily distraught and confused, but he recovers and moves on to other things. (That’s what would happen if Peeta died.) But the one thing that sends Buttercup into a tailspin is when I leave the light on but put it hopelessly out of his reach, high on the wall, beyond even his jumping skills. He paces below the wall, wails, and can’t be comforted or distracted. He’s useless until I shut the light off. (That’s what Snow is trying to do to me now, only I don’t know what form his game takes.)
Maybe this realization on my part is all Snow needs. Thinking that Peeta was in his possession and being tortured for rebel information was bad. But thinking that he’s being tortured specifically to incapacitate me is unendurable. And it’s under the weight of this revelation that I truly begin to break.
After Crazy Cat, we’re directed to bed. The power’s been coming and going; sometimes the lamps burn at full brightness, other times we squint at one another in the brownouts. At bedtime they turn the lamps to near darkness and activate safety lights in each space. Prim, who’s decided the walls will hold up, snuggles with Buttercup on the lower bunk. My mother’s on the upper. I offer to take a bunk, but they make me keep to the floor mattress since I flail around so much when I’m sleeping.
I’m not flailing now, as my muscles are rigid with the tension of holding myself together. The pain over my heart returns, and from it I imagine tiny fissures spreading out into my body. Through my torso, down my arms and legs, over my face, leaving it crisscrossed with cracks. One good jolt of a bunker missile and I could shatter into strange, razor-sharp shards.
When the restless, wiggling majority has settled into sleep, I carefully extricate myself from my blanket and tiptoe through the cavern until I find Finnick, feeling for some unspecified reason that he will understand. He sits under the safety light in his space, knotting his rope, not even pretending to rest. As I whisper my discovery of Snow’s plan to break me, it dawns on me. This strategy is very old news to Finnick. It’s what broke him.
“This is what they’re doing to you with Annie, isn’t it?” I ask.
“Well, they didn’t arrest her because they thought she’d be a wealth of rebel information,” he says. “They know I’d never have risked telling her anything like that. For her own protection.”
“Oh, Finnick. I’m so sorry,” I say.
“No, I’m sorry. That I didn’t warn you somehow,” he tells me.
Suddenly, a memory surfaces. I’m strapped to my bed, mad with rage and grief after the rescue. Finnick is trying to console me about Peeta. “They’ll figure out he doesn’t know anything pretty fast. And they won’t kill him if they think they can use him against you.”
“You did warn me, though. On the hovercraft. Only when you said they’d use Peeta against me, I thought you meant like bait. To lure me into the Capitol somehow,” I say.
“I shouldn’t have said even that. It was too late for it to be of any help to you. Since I hadn’t warned you before the Quarter Quell, I should’ve shut up about how Snow operates.” Finnick yanks on the end of his rope, and an intricate knot becomes a straight line again. “It’s just that I didn’t understand when I met you. After your first Games, I thought the whole romance was an act on your part. We all expected you’d continue that strategy. But it wasn’t until Peeta hit the force field and nearly died that I–” Finnick hesitates.
I think back to the arena. How I sobbed when Finnick revived Peeta. The quizzical look on Finnick’s face. The way he excused my behavior, blaming it on my pretend pregnancy. “That you what?”
“That I knew I’d misjudged you. That you do love him. I’m not saying in what way. Maybe you don’t know yourself. But anyone paying attention could see how much you care about him,” he says gently.
Anyone? On Snow’s visit before the Victory Tour, he challenged me to erase any doubts of my love for Peeta. “Convince me,” Snow said. It seems, under that hot pink sky with Peeta’s life in limbo, I finally did. And in doing so, I gave him the weapon he needed to break me.
Finnick and I sit for a long time in silence, watching the knots bloom and vanish, before I can ask, “How do you bear it?”
Finnick looks at me in disbelief. “I don’t, Katniss! Obviously, I don’t. I drag myself out of nightmares each morning and find there’s no relief in waking.” Something in my expression stops him. “Better not to give in to it. It takes ten times as long to put yourself back together as it does to fall apart.”
Well, he must know. I take a deep breath, forcing myself back into one piece.
“The more you can distract yourself, the better,” he says. “First thing tomorrow, we’ll get you your own rope. Until then, take mine.”
I spend the rest of the night on my mattress obsessively making knots, holding them up for Buttercup’s inspection. If one looks suspicious, he swipes it out of the air and bites it a few times to make sure it’s dead. By morning, my fingers are sore, but I’m still holding on.
With twenty-four hours of quiet behind us, Coin finally announces we can leave the bunker. Our old quarters have been destroyed by the bombings. Everyone must follow exact directions to their new compartments. We clean our spaces, as directed, and file obediently toward the door.
Before I’m halfway there, Boggs appears and pulls me from the line. He signals for Gale and Finnick to join us. People move aside to let us by. Some even smile at me since the Crazy Cat game seems to have made me more lovable. Out the door, up the stairs, down the hall to one of those multidirectional elevators, and finally we arrive at Special Defense. Nothing along our route has been damaged, but we are still very deep.
Boggs ushers us into a room virtually identical to Command. Coin, Plutarch, Haymitch, Cressida, and everybody else around the table looks exhausted. Someone has finally broken out the coffee–although I’m sure it’s viewed only as an emergency stimulant–and Plutarch has both hands wrapped tightly around his cup as if at any moment it might be taken away.
There’s no small talk. “We need all four of you suited up and aboveground,” says the president. “You have two hours to get footage showing the damage from the bombing, establish that Thirteen’s military unit remains not only functional but dominant, and, most important, that the Mockingjay is still alive. Any questions?”
“Can we have a coffee?” asks Finnick.
Steaming cups are handed out. I stare distastefully at the shiny black liquid, never having been much of a fan of the stuff, but thinking it might help me stay on my feet. Finnick sloshes some cream in my cup and reaches into the sugar bowl. “Want a sugar cube?” he asks in his old seductive voice. That’s how we met, with Finnick offering me sugar. Surrounded by horses and chariots, costumed and painted for the crowds, before we were allies. Before I had any idea what made him tick. The memory actually coaxes a smile out of me. “Here, it improves the taste,” he says in his real voice, plunking three cubes in my cup.
As I turn to go suit up as the Mockingjay, I catch Gale watching me and Finnick unhappily. What now? Does he actually think something’s going on between us? Maybe he saw me go to Finnick’s last night. I would’ve passed the Hawthornes’ space to get there. I guess that probably rubbed him the wrong way. Me seeking out Finnick’s company instead of his. Well, fine. I’ve got rope burn on my fingers, I can barely hold my eyes open, and a camera crew’s waiting for me to do something brilliant. And Snow’s got Peeta. Gale can think whatever he wants.
In my new Remake Room in Special Defense, my prep team slaps me into my Mockingjay suit, arranges my hair, and applies minimal makeup before my coffee’s even cooled. In ten minutes, the cast and crew of the next propos are making the circuitous trek to the outside. I slurp my coffee as we travel, finding that the cream and sugar greatly enhance its flavor. As I knock back the dregs that have settled to the bottom of the cup, I feel a slight buzz start to run through my veins.
After climbing a final ladder, Boggs hits a lever that opens a trapdoor. Fresh air rushes in. I take big gulps and for the first time allow myself to feel how much I hated the bunker. We emerge into the woods, and my hands run through the leaves overhead. Some are just starting to turn. “What day is it?” I ask no one in particular. Boggs tells me September begins next week.
September. That means Snow has had Peeta in his clutches for five, maybe six weeks. I examine a leaf on my palm and see I’m shaking. I can’t will myself to stop. I blame the coffee and try to focus on slowing my breathing, which is far too rapid for my pace.
Debris begins to litter the forest floor. We come to our first crater, thirty yards wide and I can’t tell how deep. Very. Boggs says anyone on the first ten levels would likely have been killed. We skirt the pit and continue on.
“Can you rebuild it?” Gale asks.
“Not anytime soon. That one didn’t get much. A few backup generators and a poultry farm,” says Boggs. “We’ll just seal it off.”
The trees disappear as we enter the area inside the fence. The craters are ringed with a mixture of old and new rubble. Before the bombing, very little of the current 13 was aboveground. A few guard stations. The training area. About a foot of the top floor of our building–where Buttercup’s window jutted out–with several feet of steel on top of it. Even that was never meant to withstand more than a superficial attack.
“How much of an edge did the boy’s warning give you?” asks Haymitch.
“About ten minutes before our own systems would’ve detected the missiles,” says Boggs.
“But it did help, right?” I ask. I can’t bear it if he says no.
“Absolutely,” Boggs replies. “Civilian evacuation was completed. Seconds count when you’re under attack. Ten minutes meant lives saved.”
Prim, I think. And Gale. They were in the bunker only a couple of minutes before the first missile hit. Peeta might have saved them. Add their names to the list of things I can never stop owing him for.
Cressida has the idea to film me in front of the ruins of the old Justice Building, which is something of a joke since the Capitol’s been using it as a backdrop for fake news broadcasts for years, to show that the district no longer existed. Now, with the recent attack, the Justice Building sits about ten yards away from the edge of a new crater.
As we approach what used to be the grand entrance, Gale points out something and the whole party slows down. I don’t know what the problem is at first and then I see the ground strewn with fresh pink and red roses. “Don’t touch them!” I yell. “They’re for me!”
The sickeningly sweet smell hits my nose, and my heart begins to hammer against my chest. So I didn’t imagine it. The rose on my dresser. Before me lies Snow’s second delivery. Long-stemmed pink and red beauties, the very flowers that decorated the set where Peeta and I performed our post-victory interview. Flowers not meant for one, but for a pair of lovers.
I explain to the others as best I can. Upon inspection, they appear to be harmless, if genetically enhanced, flowers. Two dozen roses. Slightly wilted. Most likely dropped after the last bombing. A crew in special suits collects them and carts them away. I feel certain they will find nothing extraordinary in them, though. Snow knows exactly what he’s doing to me. It’s like having Cinna beaten to a pulp while I watch from my tribute tube. Designed to unhinge me.
Like then, I try to rally and fight back. But as Cressida gets Castor and Pollux in place, I feel my anxiety building. I’m so tired, so wired, and so unable to keep my mind on anything but Peeta since I’ve seen the roses. The coffee was a huge mistake. What I didn’t need was a stimulant. My body visibly shakes and I can’t seem to catch my breath. After days in the bunker, I’m squinting no matter what direction I turn, and the light hurts. Even in the cool breeze, sweat trickles down my face.
“So, what exactly do you need from me again?” I ask.
“Just a few quick lines that show you’re alive and still fighting,” says Cressida.
“Okay.” I take my position and then I’m staring into the red light. Staring. Staring. “I’m sorry, I’ve got nothing.”
Cressida walks up to me. “You feeling okay?” I nod. She pulls a small cloth from her pocket and blots my face. “How about we do the old Q-and-A thing?”
“Yeah. That would help, I think.” I cross my arms to hide the shaking. Glance at Finnick, who gives me a thumbs-up. But he’s looking pretty shaky himself.
Cressida’s back in position now. “So, Katniss. You’ve survived the Capitol bombing of Thirteen. How did it compare with what you experienced on the ground in Eight?”
“We were so far underground this time, there was no real danger. Thirteen’s alive and well and so am–” My voice cuts off in a dry, squeaking sound.
“Try the line again,” says Cressida. “‘Thirteen’s alive and well and so am I.'”
I take a breath, trying to force air down into my diaphragm. “Thirteen’s alive and so–” No, that’s wrong.
I swear I can still smell those roses.
“Katniss, just this one line and you’re done today. I promise,” says Cressida. “‘Thirteen’s alive and well and so am I.'”
I swing my arms to loosen myself up. Place my fists on my hips. Then drop them to my sides. Saliva’s filling my mouth at a ridiculous rate and I feel vomit at the back of my throat. I swallow hard and open my lips so I can get the stupid line out and go hide in the woods and–that’s when I start crying.
It’s impossible to be the Mockingjay. Impossible to complete even this one sentence. Because now I know that everything I say will be directly taken out on Peeta. Result in his torture. But not his death, no, nothing so merciful as that. Snow will ensure that his life is much worse than death.
“Cut,” I hear Cressida say quietly.
“What’s wrong with her?” Plutarch says under his breath.
“She’s figured out how Snow’s using Peeta,” says Finnick.
There’s something like a collective sigh of regret from the semicircle of people spread out before me. Because I know this now. Because there will never be a way for me to not know this again. Because, beyond the military disadvantage losing a Mockingjay entails, I am broken.