The Arena: Burn the Cage
Start with something simple. Start with what you know. That’s how you get through the day. That’s how I’ve always done it.
My name is Katniss Everdeen. No, it was Katniss Everdeen. It’s Katniss Mellark. It has been for a while.
I ran from the stage the second the cannon sounded. No one stopped me. No one tried to. And when I emerged back onto the trading floor no one said a word, not even Haymitch. He didn’t know what to say.
There is nothing to say.
I am forty two years old. Sometimes I still think I’m sixteen. I won the seventy fourth hunger games. I wish I hadn’t.
I deserve this. I can’t help but feel that I do. I should have done better. I’m not a mother. I’m not a mentor. I’m nothing. I’m no one. I’m still a child. A child who grew up too fast when her father died, her mother disappeared, and she was forced to survive. A child who went into the Games and lost herself to them, who killed, who made a choice so she wouldn’t lose another person she cared for, and who became property of President Snow. His symbol. His Mockingjay. A voice to silence others.
I couldn’t watch Ivy. I couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t watch her eyes staring ahead, a storm raging, as Bas lied on the ground beside her. He’s gone and I don’t know what to do. And they’re expecting me to do an interview. I still have a child alive in the arena and they want me to speak about her when I just lost my son.
I can’t handle anything anymore. I wonder how I ever did. Is this what it feels like to fall apart? To really shatter into a million pieces and feel the world shift? What did I think it felt like before? It’s nothing compared to the Hell it is now.
I’m married to Peeta Mellark. We have, had, two children. They’re both in the 100th Hunger Games. No, that’s not true anymore. Only Ivy is in the Games.
I hide in my room. I feel like I should be in a small space, a dark place, somewhere that no one can find me, but there’s nothing like that here. It’s all bright and open in the Capitol and not the open I prefer. Not the woods.
I want to go home. I want to hide there. I don’t want anyone to find me or see me. I don’t want them to make me pretend anymore, but they will. They want me to stay in my cage, to say the words they tell me to. They want me to boast about Ivy being the superior child, the clear winner. They want me to make everyone forget about Basil.
We didn’t plan him. The Capitol didn’t plan him, though I’m sure Snow was all too happy to learn he was a boy. Especially given the plans that were surely in motion the moment Ivy was born.
He was small with a shock of blonde hair and a loud cry. The walls were built with Ivy, they were in place with Bas and it was easier to hold him because I knew I was prepared. And I thought it would make it easier when they were taken, but it didn’t. The walls were a lie, they were something I hid behind and pretended to have when all along there was nothing, nothing but dust and a story to keep myself from feeling.
I should have taken my children and run the day of the Quell announcement. I should have hidden. I should have fought for as long as I could have and we should have run. I should have called for rebellion. I should have been the symbol they needed me to be. I should have done a lot of things. Gale, Madge, the others in Twelve, and now Bas, they might all be alive if I had done things differently. If I had made different choices.
And now my son is dead. And there’s no room to run. There’s nowhere to hide. And my son is gone. And there’s a piece of me that’s been torn out. That’s gone too. And I didn’t think I could feel a pain this bad. And I’ve been trying to keep them alive, trying and hoping that there would be a way out of this. But there’s not.
I don’t know what to do anymore.
I pull my knees to my chest and wait for my sobbing to stop, for my tears to stop, but they don’t. They won’t. And my throat is dry and it burns and my stomach hurts. I want to throw up but I haven’t eaten anything to throw up.
I try to repeat my mantra but it doesn’t work. There is no Katniss Mellark anymore. There’s not even a Katniss Everdeen. I don’t want to be Katniss anymore.
I just want to disappear.
There’s a hole in my stomach that swallows me up and drowns me and my bones are ice, my blood nothing but dirt.
The door opens and someone walks inside, finding me behind the couch instantly.
“Katniss,” Finnick says, his voice is small and quiet and unlike the confident Victor he’s always pretended to be. I wipe the tears, trying to put on a brave face but there’s no bravery left in me. I don’t think I was ever brave. He indicates the empty space next to me with his hand, his eyes avoiding looking at mine. I slide over and he sits down.
There’s a frayed rope in his hands that he plays with, tying knots and loosening them with ease. I wonder how long he’s had the rope and where he’s been keeping it all this time. It’s been used, well worn, like my mantra. And just like me he’s kept it out of sight, put on airs, pretended to be strong.
But there’s only seven tributes left, there’s no more room for pretending.
“Where’s Peeta?” I ask, barely croaking it out.
Finnick doesn’t look up from the rope in his hands, “With Haymitch and Effie, he’s throwing himself into keeping Ivy alive…he’s planning on doing the interview alone.”
Of course he is. Of course he’s doing the right thing while I sit here and hide. Our children are better off without me. Maybe they would have lived without me. And I realize I’m counting Ivy amongst the dead too. There’s no way she’s going to win. Snow won’t let her win. This is all to punish me. And when it’s over, when he comes for me I’ll let him take me. I’ll give him exactly what he wants. A broken Mockingjay whose song is ready to be ended.
“Do you ever think it would have been better if you had died in the arena?” I ask. I’ve asked Peeta this question what seems like a thousand times and he always says no. But Finnick nods. And I see that Finnick and I aren’t so different. And I know that I could have become him if things had been different, if there was no Peeta, if there was no story.
“Sometimes I don’t even know how I’m still here.” He tightens the rope, clenching it in his fingers until they’re red.
“You have Annie. And Beck.”
“I’m not good enough for them. For him.” He pulls the knot loose and starts over. “At the cornucopia, I couldn’t even watch. I tried but I had to leave and…Annie was, is, the strong one. And Beck…that’s all her. They’d be fine without me. They’d be safe without me.”
I feel the truth in Finnick’s words. Bas and Ivy they would have been safe without me. If I had had an accident like Grover’s mother, if I had disappeared like Madge, they might not be here.
He takes a breath, putting down the rope, “But I can’t leave them. They’d never forgive me and that would mean Snow wins.” There’s a long stretch of silence before, “I can’t imagine…I don’t want to imagine what it’s like. And I’m so sorry.”
“I don’t know what to do. Peeta knows what he’s doing. Haymitch and Effie know. I don’t know.”
“I don’t know either. You lost your son, but your daughter, she’s alive. You should keep her that way or you can let Peeta handle it. No one’s going to expect you to do anything.”
“They do. They will. They want their Girl on Fire.” And I feel so bitter while the bile rises in my throat. I swallow it back down, feeling my insides burn. And I think of Ivy, of her still in the arena, still breathing. And I think of that look on her face, the very one I don’t want to think about, the one I couldn’t watch.
She’s going to play. She’s going to give in to what they want. She’s going to give them a show. And I’m supposed to do the same. I’m supposed to give in to what Snow wants me to do. But I can’t. I can’t live in the cage anymore.
I told her to keep fighting, and she is, and I have to do the same.
The Capitol may want their Girl on Fire, they may want to see their Princess kill and claim victory. But they’re not getting that from me. They’re not getting Katniss Mellark.
Start with something simple. Start with what you know.
My name is Katniss Everdeen. I won the seventy fourth Hunger Games. I lost my son to the Games. My daughter is still in the arena. And I’m going to save her. I’m going to be the Mockingjay.
I stand on shaky legs, using the couch to pull myself up. Finnick follows me as I walk to the door, pocketing the rope as he does.
“Katniss,” he calls.
“I have an interview,” I say, opening the door, leaving him behind. Before it shuts I manage out a soft, “Thank you.”
I walk down the long hallway, past doors with Districts who no longer have tributes, whose mentors are sleeping off a hangover, or waiting for things to be over. I move slowly, my limbs ready to collapse, but I have to be strong, I have to do this interview. I can’t let the Capitol see me cry. I can’t let President Snow win. I can’t let him see me broken. I have to be whole.
Start with something simple.
Just keep walking, I tell myself. Just keep moving. I have to keep moving. I have to do this. My legs feel stronger, my posture straightens, and I no longer have a hand on the wall as I move. I can walk. I can breathe. I can do this.
Start with what you know.
They have to pay. Twelve was fighting. Snow was worried. The rest will follow. And all it takes is one word. All it takes is a spark. And I remember long ago, a meeting in my house, the first time I ever met with President Snow alone.
He had told me to convince him and for the longest time I thought I did. I thought I had succeeded. And the Districts had thought so too, at least most of them. They lost faith. They lost that spark.
And now I have to convince them all over again. And I’m going to.
Peeta is the voice. Peeta makes the speeches and I stay quiet. I smile and wave and play the part, but he speaks. Not this time. All I need is something to say. The right thing to say.
I exit into the trading floor and all eyes turn to me. I can’t look at the screens, but the sounds are enough to send me spinning. It’s all crashing leaves, Beck trying to call for Ivy and her pushing onwards. I don’t even have to see it to know what’s happening, to imagine how she looks.
I have to keep my head up. I have to do this. I have to be stronger than I’ve ever been. I think of Prim at home, of the day I volunteered and I thought I was going to die. I never thought I’d win, but here I am. I thought I was going to starve to death after my father died, but here I am. I’m still standing. And if my life has been about defying the odds then they’re in my favor and I have to defy them once again.
“Hey there, Sweetheart,” Haymitch says, his voice quiet but still trying to comfort me. Effie stands up dramatically, already hurrying over to me. I shake my head and she backs away. Then my eyes look up and they find Peeta.
His hair is a mess, like he’s been running his hands through it too many times. He’s pale and his eyes are red and glassy. I know he’s stopped himself from crying, but he looks like he might break soon. He sucks in a breath and turns back to Haymitch.
“She needs a jacket. We have to focus on keeping her warm. They’ll need food soon.” His voice cracks and fades but he keeps it going. He’s keeping busy, trying to stay strong. And I don’t know if I should go to him, if I should even tell him what I’m going to do.
I can’t tell him. I don’t even know what I’m going to say yet. I have to pretend if only for a little while longer.
Finnick emerges behind me and immediately veers off to speak with Johanna, but before they say anything to each other he turns to Peeta, “I’ll help make sure Ivy gets a good jacket. I have some sponsors I can speak to, they’ll be more than happy to help.”
“I’m sure I can find someone as well,” Beetee says from across the room. Why is Beetee helping? Why would he care about Ivy? Her dying would mean Springer has a chance to win.
Haymitch shakes Beetee’s hand. I can’t focus on this now. I can’t question it. I just have to be grateful. I try to nod but the movement is so slight I don’t know if Beetee even catches it. His small smile makes me think he does.
My eyes fall on Cashmere and Gloss talking to each other. They whisper, glancing around the room, watching the other mentors. And I can see the groups forming. Beetee and Wiress have moved closer to where Finnick and Annie were sitting with Haymitch. Johanna has made a spot for herself there as well. The ones who have lost tributes are wandering the Capitol, visiting their dead loved ones or staying in their rooms now.
But the Careers, the ones who are left, they have their corner of the room. And I realize it now more than ever. If this were a war, they would be standing with the Capitol.
I can’t avoid the screens anymore and when I look up I see Ivy with that dark look in her eyes. It’s a severe determination, an anger that I don’t know if I can match. She’s following a blood trail. Or what was a blood trail and muddy footprints that are drying up now. Her hair is wet but she makes no indication that she’s cold. She’s just focused on the task at hand.
Beck tries to keep up with her, tries to do what he can to stop her. But she’s not hearing him.
“They’re expecting you two for the interview,” Effie chimes in, breaking my concentration on the screen. And whatever look I have in my eyes causes her to look away from me.
“You don’t have…” Peeta starts.
“I do,” I respond and I’m surprised at how loudly I can say it. I turn towards the door and lead the processional with the sound of Effie’s shoes behind me and Peeta’s loud footsteps hurrying to catch up.
I focus on walking when I can’t focus on the words I’m going to say. I’m hoping they’ll come to me, but I don’t know how much I will be able to get in before I’m cut off. And they will cut me off. It has to be quick. It has to be enough that they’ll all see and they’ll all want to fight.
I have to be like Peeta, but I know I can’t be. And maybe I should just tell him, just ask him to say what he’s feeling. He’ll know what I really mean. But it has to come from me, I know it does. The Districts need me to speak.
The world seems to spin all over again when we pass the cold metal door, my heart bottoming into my stomach. And I know Bas is in there. They’ll fix him up, they’ll send him home and I won’t get to see him before they do.
Start simple, start with what you know.
I have to repeat it, I have to remind myself. Do it for him. Do it for Ivy. Do it for all the tributes you’ve failed the past twenty five years. Find the words and start the fire.
They re-do my makeup and my hair, the stylists making some remark about how I messed it up and should have known better. I’m silent. I do what they ask as they fix me and Peeta and make us look good as new, like our world doesn’t suddenly have a hole where a person should be.
The lights come up and we’re sitting before Caesar but all I hear is white noise. I look and see the camera crew watching me with interest. Ivy excites them. She’s doing what they want. She’s playing, but there’s an unease to Caesar and I know she’s not playing the way they want her to. She’s their Princess, not a ruthless hunter.
There are many things I could say, many things I could try to say. It’s a lie. They killed my son. But it’s not enough. And I don’t know what will be enough.
That is until Caesar gives me my moment. And it’s right there, right off the bat. Because his false sympathy is enough to send me over the edge and that’s all I need.
“Let me begin by saying, I think I can speak for everyone when I say that seeing Basil lose his life like that, it’s truly a tragic loss, especially after Ivy had come so far to find him. And after seeing him grow up before our very eyes, I honestly think his death is one that’s hit us the most so far in these Games. And in many ways I think we all lost a brother and a son.”
He puts his hand on mine and the white noise disappears, the blood in my veins boiling and turning to acid. Peeta straightens, ready to fill the void of silence but I don’t let him smooth it over, I don’t let him be charming.
It’s not about being charming. It’s about being angry. It’s about telling the truth. And judging by the way his other hand grips his knee, the knuckles turning white, he’s just as angry as I am right now. And he should be.
I think of Bas, of watching him grow, of loving him even when I didn’t want to admit to it. I think of teaching him the plants he could eat, watching him learn to bake with Peeta. His first steps. His first words. The first time he held a bow and how he hated it. And now it’s all gone. He’s gone. His drawings, his smile, his calm that came from Peeta and the anger that came from me. He was ours and they took him.
“Does it feel like you lost a son? Do you even know what that feels like? Would you even know?”
This is entertainment for them. Fun. And when it’s over, when they break us they don’t want to see the damage. They can’t see it. They bury the dead and move on to the next year, the next show. They kill us, they threaten us, and they don’t care.
And my son isn’t the only victim. I watched that man from Ten lose his son to these Games too. I watched twenty five years of tributes die for them. Grover is gone because of them. River was killed because of them. Teddy forced to become a monster for them, because any shred of humanity in these Games is met with a swift end.
People in my District were killed over a symbol because they were afraid that entertainment would be taken. And they don’t care. They want control. President Snow wants control.
“You take and you watch and you let us starve and kill each other and for what? Because you think it solves something that happened a hundred years ago? It doesn’t. You think that two tributes who want to die because they don’t want to kill each other is romantic. And you invade their lives so that they become yours.”
Ivy and Bas grew up in front of cameras, their lives on display. But they loved Ivy more and they wanted her more, because she looked like me and because she acted like Peeta. And it’s their fault, they took her life and they took mine and they made it theirs. They let the country forget those that died because we were entertaining. They don’t care that people are starving, they don’t care that they’re dying, they just want their Games.
And I remember Peeta telling me he didn’t want to be a piece in their Games but we became them.
“And you pretend to care, you pretend that we matter. But the truth is we don’t matter. We’re just pieces, playthings. Those are our children in that arena, our children who are starving and killing and dying because President Snow wants them to. Because he says they do. Because it’s his game.”
I see nothing but red, but fire and ash and dust and I want this whole city to bury itself in it. I want all of them watching to know. I want President Snow to know. I want him to feel my rage as it consumes this city, these Games.
And that’s when I turn to the camera.
“Well I have a message for President Snow. I’m done playing.”
I think about the years I’ve spent watching parents mourn their children. The years I’ve spent trying to get tributes through Games I knew they couldn’t win. I remember Rue. I remember her face and how she reminded me of Prim.
And I think of Prim and Rory and their son. Would he be reaped? Would he die too? Would I have to watch Prim and Rory mourn?
And I think of all the other mentors back on the trading floor. The ones who are trapped, who don’t get to say goodbye to their dead. Finnick, who can’t acknowledge his son, who can’t be with the one he loves. Annie, who became just the poor mad girl to the Capitol, and who is no more than a joke to them even as she fights to protect her son.
And they took our children. They raised them to be killers in Two to impress the Capitol. And the Capitol has done nothing but break our children and I remember the look on Ivy’s face and the Games have turned her into a Career, a killer, just another piece in these Games.
They’ve turned me into their symbol for obedience. And all those dead children have been forgotten with the Games, with the weight of President Snow.
“And if he wants to kill my children, then I’ll make sure he dies too.”
I rip off the mic to Caesar’s frantic covering, but I know it’s all there, I know they’ve all seen it and there’s no taking it back.
“Someone must be tired,” Caesar jokes, “Peeta would you care to speak for your wife here?” His voice is strained, trying to threaten, and I turn to look at Peeta.
He smiles, puts on the Baker’s boy charm but all he does is whistle and it’s a tune I haven’t heard since my Games. The tune that Rue used as a signal. And then he stands.
“I think Katniss said it all,” he adds before he walks off the stage. Caesar is shouting then, the camera crew stunned.
Peeta pulls me into his arms in a strong hug.
We turn and Haymitch is waiting for us. He grabs my arm and leads Peeta and me backstage. “Nice show,” he says, dragging us past the elevator and I don’t know where we’re going.
“Haymitch, the trading floor is that way,” Peeta tries.
“We’re not going to the trading floor. We need to get the Hell out of here.” He leads us to a back door through a small hallway where no Peacekeepers are waiting.
We’re whisked into a car that’s been waiting for us and I realize this route, this escape, it’s been planned. I don’t know what to think of it or what to do about it. Is he taking me to President Snow? Has he been working with him this whole time?
The car moves down the streets of the Capitol, the windows tinted, Capitol citizens passing by in a blur of bright colors. Of pinks, oranges, and blues all mashed against the gray of the buildings. I feel nauseous and I have to keep my eyes inside the car.
“What’s going on?” I finally ask after a long bout of silence. Peeta watches Haymitch and he’s looking for a way out if we need one, I can see it in his eyes.
Haymitch sighs, reaching into a compartment of the seat, pulling out a small bottle, “You just shot the plan to Hell, that’s what’s going on,” he sucks in a breath, “Although maybe it’s for the best that you did. The Districts certainly needed it after twenty five years of nothing.”
The car makes a sharp turn down an alley as Haymitch considers whether to take a drink from the bottle or not. Given how things are going, I might need one too.
“We should save this. But, what the Hell.” He smirks, giving me a look I haven’t seen in years before toasting me, “Welcome back, Girl on Fire.” And then he takes a swig before passing the bottle to me.