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The bottom of the wick

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It wasn’t as if I was ready to die that day.

But like every other child the night before the Reaping, I had had nightmares about being chosen. I dreamed that they called my name, that I walked up to the platform, tasted ashes in my mouth. I dreamed that I was scrubbed and wrapped with jewels, and that for a few days I would have enough to eat before they killed me. I dreamed of a killing field, filled with my friends and classmates; I dreamed that when I finally died it was with a crunch and an ooze and someone’s hands breaking my body.

Then when I woke up, I knew that the dream might be made real that afternoon, or this time next year, or the next or the next or the next. I couldn’t bear the thought that I would have to hold this nightmare for six more years before I could tell myself it wouldn’t happen. How did Katniss do it? How did Gale, with so many tesserae, survive the night before the Reaping each year? I didn’t think I could stand so many years of fear.

So when they called my name? It was a relief. Not because I ever wanted to be a tribute, and not because I’ve ever believed that I might survive the Games, but because it meant I didn’t have to be scared for the next six years. For a few hours, I would be clean and beautiful, I would be seen by everyone, and then I would die. It would only be a few days of terror, not several years. At least it would be quick. I was still afraid, but I was glad that I knew when my death was coming.

And then I heard Katniss scream. I thought at first she was afraid, but what she said was even worse. She volunteered, she climbed the stage, and Gale dragged me back into the crowd. I’d never thought to be afraid of this. What would Mom do without her? What would I do without her? I’d never prepared for this nightmare. I just didn’t know how to act. She’d taken the same moment and done exactly the opposite thing that I’d expected, the opposite thing than I would have done.

Gale came to our house every day before the games started, to bring squirrels and watch the interviews and the training. Then during the Games, he pulled me out into the woods to gather herbs, and when I came home my mother would simply turn off the television and shake her head, saying, “Not today.” Madge brought over some medicine for my mother’s cabinet, but she shook her head and refused it. I’d never seen her do such a thing, and I apologized to Madge over and over and over the next day.

Katniss made it to the final eight, and Hazelle and Gale coached me on how to act and what to say. I was supposed to drop my eyes, look shy, smile when I said my sister’s name. I think I did okay. But every day I waited for her to die, every day I was ready for it to become real and for the grieving to start. And my sister, so reliable at home, pulled the rug from under me again at the Games. Not only did she come home, but she brought Peeta home too. When they stepped off the train, I was in shock; my nightmare hadn’t come true, after all.

That’s how it’s been for the last two years. Are we safe? Is it over? Every time I dared to ask, I discovered we were not. Every time I make peace with our death, the ground shifts and we scrape through one more day, one more week. After we made it to District Thirteen, we began discussing attack, instead of flight and defense. I watched Gale, our protector, who had fed us and sheltered us and risked his own skin to get us out of District Twelve, begin to plot death and chaos. For us, he said. To keep us safe.

More days than not, Katniss joined him. She’d been so reluctant to seek trouble, she’d been such a bad actress when they pushed her in front of the camera. Haymitch stopped goading her and taunting her for her lines, and began discussing strategy. Katniss was always so reliable, even when Mom was sick. Now, she’s different every day. Back then, the few times she tried to take me hunting when we found a wounded animal, I would read its eyes and want to save it. She would read its eyes and know to put an arrow through its heart.

Now? Wedding dresses, rich food from the Capitol, a courtly gentleman who presses his lips to my hand and offers me flowers, now all mean danger. A dirty bunch of weeds, a stranger with a hatchet, and an underground weapons bunker now mean safety. Or perhaps not. I’m no longer sure that Katniss knows who to kill, or when.

At least in the Seam, we could live and starve unnoticed, and we had a good idea what all our days would bring. Katniss would either bring home meat, or we would fall asleep hungry. When a neighbor came to us with a rotten tooth or a weak infant or an arm crushed in the mine, we would give herbs and clean water and kind words, and sometimes they lived and sometimes they didn’t. Keeping one alive was a victory. Watching another die was disappointing, but was never unexpected.

Now everything is upside down. I try to predict the next emergency, and it’s always different, and so much worse, than I expect. Katniss, so uncomplicated before the Games, has turned into the stranger. One minute she swoons for the cameras, the next she scowls like Haymitch, but she’s curled up inside her head now and never surfaces long enough to connect with me or with Mom.

The first time I helped my mother set a bone, I stopped being frightened of other people’s pain. The pain changed him, but only momentarily. After we had pushed the bone back into his skin, gave him enough syrup to relax and drift to sleep, he began to seem like himself again. Pain, hunger, or death didn’t really change who someone was. The Games took my sister and turned her into someone else. If she’d died, this would all be over by now.

I can’t change the way Katniss and Gale did. I can still try to heal the wounded, but I never get more than a moment’s victory. Then the next one comes in, missing an eye or with wounds full of a poison I’ve never seen before, and the herbs run out, and we’re helpless again. At this point, I do feel like I’m ready to die. I just don’t want to be surprised anymore.