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When we’re back among the clouds, I look at Haymitch. “So why are you going back to Twelve?”

“They can’t seem to find a place for me in the Capitol either,” he says.

At first, I don’t question this. But doubts begin to creep in. Haymitch hasn’t assassinated anyone. He could go anywhere. If he’s coming back to 12, it’s because he’s been ordered to. “You have to look after me, don’t you? As my mentor?” He shrugs. Then I realize what it means. “My mother’s not coming back.”

“No,” he says. He pulls an envelope from his jacket pocket and hands it to me. I examine the delicate, perfectly formed writing. “She’s helping to start up a hospital in District Four. She wants you to call as soon as we get in.” My finger traces the graceful swoop of the letters. “You know why she can’t come back.” Yes, I know why. Because between my father and Prim and the ashes, the place is too painful to bear. But apparently not for me. “Do you want to know who else won’t be there?”

“No,” I say. “I want to be surprised.”

Like a good mentor, Haymitch makes me eat a sandwich and then pretends he believes I’m asleep for the rest of the trip. He busies himself going through every compartment on the hovercraft, finding the liquor, and stowing it in his bag. It’s night when we land on the green of the Victor’s Village. Half of the houses have lights in the windows, including Haymitch’s and mine. Not Peeta’s. Someone has built a fire in my kitchen. I sit in the rocker before it, clutching my mother’s letter.

“Well, see you tomorrow,” says Haymitch.

As the clinking of his bag of liquor bottles fades away, I whisper, “I doubt it.”

I am unable to move from the chair. The rest of the house looms cold and empty and dark. I pull an old shawl over my body and watch the flames. I guess I sleep, because the next thing I know, it’s morning and Greasy Sae’s banging around at the stove. She makes me eggs and toast and sits there until I’ve eaten it all. We don’t talk much. Her little granddaughter, the one who lives in her own world, takes a bright blue ball of yarn from my mother’s knitting basket. Greasy Sae tells her to put it back, but I say she can have it. No one in this house can knit anymore. After breakfast, Greasy Sae does the dishes and leaves, but she comes back up at dinnertime to make me eat again. I don’t know if she’s just being neighborly or if she’s on the government’s payroll, but she shows up twice every day. She cooks, I consume. I try to figure out my next move. There’s no obstacle now to taking my life. But I seem to be waiting for something.

Sometimes the phone rings and rings and rings, but I don’t pick it up. Haymitch never visits. Maybe he changed his mind and left, although I suspect he’s just drunk. No one comes but Greasy Sae and her granddaughter. After months of solitary confinement, they seem like a crowd.

“Spring’s in the air today. You ought to get out,” she says. “Go hunting.”

I haven’t left the house. I haven’t even left the kitchen except to go to the small bathroom a few steps off of it. I’m in the same clothes I left the Capitol in. What I do is sit by the fire. Stare at the unopened letters piling up on the mantel. “I don’t have a bow.”

“Check down the hall,” she says.

After she leaves, I consider a trip down the hall. Rule it out. But after several hours, I go anyway, walking in silent sock feet, so as not to awaken the ghosts. In the study, where I had my tea with President Snow, I find a box with my father’s hunting jacket, our plant book, my parents’ wedding photo, the spile Haymitch sent in, and the locket Peeta gave me in the clock arena. The two bows and a sheath of arrows Gale rescued on the night of the firebombing lie on the desk. I put on the hunting jacket and leave the rest of the stuff untouched. I fall asleep on the sofa in the formal living room. A terrible nightmare follows, where I’m lying at the bottom of a deep grave, and every dead person I know by name comes by and throws a shovel full of ashes on me. It’s quite a long dream, considering the list of people, and the deeper I’m buried, the harder it is to breathe. I try to call out, begging them to stop, but the ashes fill my mouth and nose and I can’t make any sound. Still the shovel scrapes on and on and on….

I wake with a start. Pale morning light comes around the edges of the shutters. The scraping of the shovel continues. Still half in the nightmare, I run down the hall, out the front door, and around the side of the house, because now I’m pretty sure I can scream at the dead. When I see him, I pull up short. His face is flushed from digging up the ground under the windows. In a wheelbarrow are five scraggly bushes.

“You’re back,” I say.

“Dr. Aurelius wouldn’t let me leave the Capitol until yesterday,” Peeta says. “By the way, he said to tell you he can’t keep pretending he’s treating you forever. You have to pick up the phone.”

He looks well. Thin and covered with burn scars like me, but his eyes have lost that clouded, tortured look. He’s frowning slightly, though, as he takes me in. I make a halfhearted effort to push my hair out of my eyes and realize it’s matted into clumps. I feel defensive. “What are you doing?”

“I went to the woods this morning and dug these up. For her,” he says. “I thought we could plant them along the side of the house.”

I look at the bushes, the clods of dirt hanging from their roots, and catch my breath as the word rose registers. I’m about to yell vicious things at Peeta when the full name comes to me. Not plain rose but evening primrose. The flower my sister was named for. I give Peeta a nod of assent and hurry back into the house, locking the door behind me. But the evil thing is inside, not out. Trembling with weakness and anxiety, I run up the stairs. My foot catches on the last step and I crash onto the floor. I force myself to rise and enter my room. The smell’s very faint but still laces the air. It’s there. The white rose among the dried flowers in the vase. Shriveled and fragile, but holding on to that unnatural perfection cultivated in Snow’s greenhouse. I grab the vase, stumble down to the kitchen, and throw its contents into the embers. As the flowers flare up, a burst of blue flame envelops the rose and devours it. Fire beats roses again. I smash the vase on the floor for good measure.

Back upstairs, I throw open the bedroom windows to clear out the rest of Snow’s stench. But it still lingers, on my clothes and in my pores. I strip, and flakes of skin the size of playing cards cling to the garments. Avoiding the mirror, I step into the shower and scrub the roses from my hair, my body, my mouth. Bright pink and tingling, I find something clean to wear. It takes half an hour to comb out my hair. Greasy Sae unlocks the front door. While she makes breakfast, I feed the clothes I had shed to the fire. At her suggestion, I pare off my nails with a knife.

Over the eggs, I ask her, “Where did Gale go?”

“District Two. Got some fancy job there. I see him now and again on the television,” she says.

I dig around inside myself, trying to register anger, hatred, longing. I find only relief.

“I’m going hunting today,” I say.

“Well, I wouldn’t mind some fresh game at that,” she answers.

I arm myself with a bow and arrows and head out, intending to exit 12 through the Meadow. Near the square are teams of masked and gloved people with horse-drawn carts. Sifting through what lay under the snow this winter. Gathering remains. A cart’s parked in front of the mayor’s house. I recognize Thom, Gale’s old crewmate, pausing a moment to wipe the sweat from his face with a rag. I remember seeing him in 13, but he must have come back. His greeting gives me the courage to ask, “Did they find anyone in there?”

“Whole family. And the two people who worked for them,” Thom tells me.

Madge. Quiet and kind and brave. The girl who gave me the pin that gave me a name. I swallow hard. Wonder if she’ll be joining the cast of my nightmares tonight. Shoveling the ashes into my mouth. “I thought maybe, since he was the mayor…”

“I don’t think being the mayor of Twelve put the odds in his favor,” says Thom.

I nod and keep moving, careful not to look in the back of the cart. All through the town and the Seam, it’s the same. The reaping of the dead. As I near the ruins of my old house, the road becomes thick with carts. The Meadow’s gone, or at least dramatically altered. A deep pit has been dug, and they’re lining it with bones, a mass grave for my people. I skirt around the hole and enter the woods at my usual place. It doesn’t matter, though. The fence isn’t charged anymore and has been propped up with long branches to keep out the predators. But old habits die hard. I think about going to the lake, but I’m so weak that I barely make it to my meeting place with Gale. I sit on the rock where Cressida filmed us, but it’s too wide without his body beside me. Several times I close my eyes and count to ten, thinking that when I open them, he will have materialized without a sound as he so often did. I have to remind myself that Gale’s in 2 with a fancy job, probably kissing another pair of lips.

It is the old Katniss’s favorite kind of day. Early spring. The woods awakening after the long winter. But the spurt of energy that began with the primroses fades away. By the time I make it back to the fence, I’m so sick and dizzy, Thom has to give me a ride home in the dead people’s cart. Help me to the sofa in the living room, where I watch the dust motes spin in the thin shafts of afternoon light.

My head snaps around at the hiss, but it takes awhile to believe he’s real. How could he have gotten here? I take in the claw marks from some wild animal, the back paw he holds slightly above the ground, the prominent bones in his face. He’s come on foot, then, all the way from 13. Maybe they kicked him out or maybe he just couldn’t stand it there without her, so he came looking.

“It was the waste of a trip. She’s not here,” I tell him. Buttercup hisses again. “She’s not here. You can hiss all you like. You won’t find Prim.” At her name, he perks up. Raises his flattened ears. Begins to meow hopefully. “Get out!” He dodges the pillow I throw at him. “Go away! There’s nothing left for you here!” I start to shake, furious with him. “She’s not coming back! She’s never ever coming back here again!” I grab another pillow and get to my feet to improve my aim. Out of nowhere, the tears begin to pour down my cheeks. “She’s dead.” I clutch my middle to dull the pain. Sink down on my heels, rocking the pillow, crying. “She’s dead, you stupid cat. She’s dead.” A new sound, part crying, part singing, comes out of my body, giving voice to my despair. Buttercup begins to wail as well. No matter what I do, he won’t go. He circles me, just out of reach, as wave after wave of sobs racks my body, until eventually I fall unconscious. But he must understand. He must know that the unthinkable has happened and to survive will require previously unthinkable acts. Because hours later, when I come to in my bed, he’s there in the moonlight. Crouched beside me, yellow eyes alert, guarding me from the night.

In the morning, he sits stoically as I clean the cuts, but digging the thorn from his paw brings on a round of those kitten mews. We both end up crying again, only this time we comfort each other. On the strength of this, I open the letter Haymitch gave me from my mother, dial the phone number, and weep with her as well. Peeta, bearing a warm loaf of bread, shows up with Greasy Sae. She makes us breakfast and I feed all my bacon to Buttercup.

Slowly, with many lost days, I come back to life. I try to follow Dr. Aurelius’s advice, just going through the motions, amazed when one finally has meaning again. I tell him my idea about the book, and a large box of parchment sheets arrives on the next train from the Capitol.

I got the idea from our family’s plant book. The place where we recorded those things you cannot trust to memory. The page begins with the person’s picture. A photo if we can find it. If not, a sketch or painting by Peeta. Then, in my most careful handwriting, come all the details it would be a crime to forget. Lady licking Prim’s cheek. My father’s laugh. Peeta’s father with the cookies. The color of Finnick’s eyes. What Cinna could do with a length of silk. Boggs reprogramming the Holo. Rue poised on her toes, arms slightly extended, like a bird about to take flight. On and on. We seal the pages with salt water and promises to live well to make their deaths count. Haymitch finally joins us, contributing twenty-three years of tributes he was forced to mentor. Additions become smaller. An old memory that surfaces. A late primrose preserved between the pages. Strange bits of happiness, like the photo of Finnick and Annie’s newborn son.

We learn to keep busy again. Peeta bakes. I hunt. Haymitch drinks until the liquor runs out, and then raises geese until the next train arrives. Fortunately, the geese can take pretty good care of themselves. We’re not alone. A few hundred others return because, whatever has happened, this is our home. With the mines closed, they plow the ashes into the earth and plant food. Machines from the Capitol break ground for a new factory where we will make medicines. Although no one seeds it, the Meadow turns green again.

Peeta and I grow back together. There are still moments when he clutches the back of a chair and hangs on until the flashbacks are over. I wake screaming from nightmares of mutts and lost children. But his arms are there to comfort me. And eventually his lips. On the night I feel that thing again, the hunger that overtook me on the beach, I know this would have happened anyway. That what I need to survive is not Gale’s fire, kindled with rage and hatred. I have plenty of fire myself. What I need is the dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction. The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it can be good again. And only Peeta can give me that.

So after, when he whispers, “You love me. Real or not real?”

I tell him, “Real.”

EPILOGUE

They play in the Meadow. The dancing girl with the dark hair and blue eyes. The boy with blond curls and gray eyes, struggling to keep up with her on his chubby toddler legs. It took five, ten, fifteen years for me to agree. But Peeta wanted them so badly. When I first felt her stirring inside of me, I was consumed with a terror that felt as old as life itself. Only the joy of holding her in my arms could tame it. Carrying him was a little easier, but not much.

The questions are just beginning. The arenas have been completely destroyed, the memorials built, there are no more Hunger Games. But they teach about them at school, and the girl knows we played a role in them. The boy will know in a few years. How can I tell them about that world without frightening them to death? My children, who take the words of the song for granted:

Deep in the meadow, under the willow

A bed of grass, a soft green pillow

Lay down your head, and close your sleepy eyes

And when again they open, the sun will rise.

Here it’s safe, here it’s warm

Here the daisies guard you from every harm

Here your dreams are sweet and tomorrow brings them true

Here is the place where I love you.

My children, who don’t know they play on a graveyard.

Peeta says it will be okay. We have each other. And the book. We can make them understand in a way that will make them braver. But one day I’ll have to explain about my nightmares. Why they came. Why they won’t ever really go away.

I’ll tell them how I survive it. I’ll tell them that on bad mornings, it feels impossible to take pleasure in anything because I’m afraid it could be taken away. That’s when I make a list in my head of every act of goodness I’ve seen someone do. It’s like a game. Repetitive. Even a little tedious after more than twenty years.

But there are much worse games to play.

THE END

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I would like to pay tribute to the following people who gave their time, talent, and support to The Hunger Games.

First off, I must thank my extraordinary triumvirate of editors. Kate Egan, whose insight, humor, and intelligence have guided me through eight novels; Jen Rees, whose clear vision catches the things the rest of us miss; and David Levithan, who moves so effortlessly through his multiple roles of Note Giver, Title Master, and Editorial Director.

Through rough drafts, food poisoning, every up and down, you are there with me, Rosemary Stimola, equal parts gifted creative advisor and professional guardian, my literary agent and my friend. And Jason Dravis, my longtime entertainment agent, I feel so lucky to have you watching over me as we head for the screen.

Thanks to designer Elizabeth B. Parisi and artist Tim O’Brien for the beautiful book jackets that so successfully captured both the mockingjays and people’s attention.

All hail the incredible team at Scholastic for getting The Hunger Games out into the world: Sheila Marie Everett, Tracy van Straaten, Rachel Coun, Leslie Garych, Adrienne Vrettos, Nick Martin, Jacky Harper, Lizette Serrano, Kathleen Donohoe, John Mason, Stephanie Nooney, Karyn Browne, Joy Simpkins, Jess White, Dick Robinson, Ellie Berger, Suzanne Murphy, Andrea Davis Pinkney, the entire Scholastic sales force, and the many others who have devoted so much energy, smarts, and savvy to this series.

To the five writer-friends I rely on most heavily, Richard Register, Mary Beth Bass, Christopher Santos, Peter Bakalian, and James Proimos, much gratitude for your advice, perspective, and laughter.

Special love to my late father, Michael Collins, who laid the groundwork for this series with his deep commitment to educating his children on war and peace, and my mother, Jane Collins, who introduced me to the Greeks, sci-fi, and fashion (although that last one didn’t stick); my sisters, Kathy and Joanie; my brother, Drew; my in-laws, Dixie and Charles Pryor; and the many members of my extended family whose enthusiasm and support have kept me going.

And finally, I turn to my husband, Cap Pryor, who read The Hunger Games in its earliest draft, insisted on answers to questions I hadn’t even imagined, and remained my sounding board through the entire series. Thanks to him and my wonderful kids, Charlie and Isabel, for their daily love, their patience, and the joy they bring me.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

SUZANNE COLLINS is the author of the bestselling Underland Chronicles series, which started with Gregor the Overlander. Her groundbreaking young adult novels, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, were both New York Times bestsellers, received wide praise, and garnered numerous starred reviews. Suzanne lives with her family in Connecticut. You can find her online at www.suzannecollinsbooks.com.

COPYRIGHT

Copyright (c) 2010 by Suzanne Collins

Cover art by Tim O’Brien, (c) 2010 Scholastic Inc.

Cover design by Elizabeth B. Parisi

All rights reserved. Published by Scholastic Press, an Imprint of Scholastic Inc., Publishers since 1920. SCHOLASTIC, SCHOLASTIC PRESS, and associated logos are trademarks and/or registered trademarks of Scholastic Inc.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission of the publisher. For information regarding permission, write to Scholastic Inc., Attention: Permissions Department, 557 Broadway, New York, NY 10012.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available

First edition, September 2010

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of publisher.

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