I wake to the sound of riots. Who riots at nine in the morning? I threw a party last night and fell asleep barely five hours ago. I'm still wearing yesterday's clothes, and I haven't even pulled off my shoes. I need more beauty sleep. The noisome hordes pass under my window, but their vitriol is numb by the time it reaches the top floor.
I mumble at the room and it finds me a soft, slow, repetitive track to muffle the sounds from outside. As I drift off again, my mind loses touch with my hearing, and the song shifts in my dreams. It slips into a quicker tempo and adds a new layer at every measure. It's happy, intricate, and beautiful. There is no bass or depth, only overwhelming, incessant sweetness. Occasional unfinished melodies draw me into the song and distract from its hollowness. I try to hum a harmony, but the song resists it. I switch to the melody instead and follow where the music leads me.
My fire alarm goes off and it's like the song never existed. Putrid black smoke is billowing from a stack of tires in the street. Even from twenty stories up, I can see that the crowd is livid. A flickering orange light flies through the air, a window breaks, and flames burst out of the opening. Angry people are flowing by in unlimited supply. They're from the districts. The Capitol keeps them all safe, well-fed, organized, and comfortable, so it's a complete mystery why so many are shouting so loudly. It's not as if they're starving or oppressed.
Scott pounds his fist loudly on my door. He knows he doesn't need to knock, and he never does. "Who are you and what have you done with Goldilocks?" I call sleepily. He keeps banging on the door like he wants to break it down. I'm glad I went easy on the alcohol last night. This would be the worst morning in my life to have a hangover. "It's unlocked!" Suddenly it swings open and my room is flooded with bodies. I'm hurled roughly into the air and passed from person to reeking person. I hear every fragile possession of mine crashing on the marble floor as I'm swept away like a crowd surfer on a mosh pit. Rough hands are pushing me from every side. My vision is filled with strong, sinewy arms, and I can scarcely tell the men's from the women's; they're all filthy, powerful, and impossibly thin. Why don't they eat more? They tug at me like they want to pull me apart. It's not how I planned to die.
A strong hand grabs onto my ankle and I try to kick it off, but I can't escape. It's already holding on for dear life and cutting off my circulation, but it squeezes harder for a moment. My heart sinks. It's Scott. They have him too. I'm curled up in a ball, but he's stretched out and flailing, trying to hit people but unable to free his limbs. Suddenly he goes limp and I feel an uncertain pause in the bodies beneath me. Immediately Scott swings his other arm around and grabs onto me with both hands. Chaos resumes. Scott shouts at me, but I can't hear him over the people. I squeeze my eyes shut and curl up tighter. It will be over soon, I tell myself.
It isn't. We're yanked from side to side for what feels like hours as the mob slowly makes its way deeper into the city, leaving fire and ruin in its wake. Every inch of me is bruised, but Scott is still clinging to me. Everything burns at my senses and I feel dizzy. I don't recognize where we are anymore until I see the Pinnacle Arena in the distance. It is the biggest venue we've ever performed at. We sold it out on tour once, and we were honored to perform here again about nine months ago at the opening ceremonies of the Quarter Quell. I try to imagine that the shouts from all around are from our wild fans. I've come to secretly hate the catcalls, the people screaming, "Marry me, Mitch!" or "You're an angel!" Now, though, I would give anything to be surrounded by wild strangers who adore me instead of wild strangers who might kill me at any moment.
As we draw nearer, the crowd grows denser and I see other captives. Some are held aloft like Scott and me, and some are being shoved around inside the masses. It's easy to see by their clothes that most of them are rich, and by their familiar faces that many of them are famous. Just a few years ago, the mob would have passed me by. They probably recognized us because of our Hunger Games performance. I cringe at the thought that they might have Kirstie, Kevin, and Avi too.
The people slow into gridlock as we approach the entrance, but they propel Scott and me through faster than before. We pass through a dark tunnel between the bleachers, and they deposit us abruptly onto the arena floor. I'm on all fours, and Scott is face down on the ground, exhausted but shaking with adrenaline. His knuckles are white and his grip on me is as tight as ever. I lay a hand on his and he reluctantly lets go. "Scott. Scott, look at me. It's gonna be fine. We're okay now." Clearly we aren't, but at least they aren't holding us anymore. "Sit up. Breathe slowly." I hum gently and he collects himself. I've stayed calm so far, but now a rush of panic crushes me. Everything turns into a thick buzz and all I can hear is my heartbeat. The song I'm humming twists gracelessly off pitch; I can't hear it anymore, but I feel it go wrong in my throat. My vision turns cloudy and then completely dark. I'm going to pass out.
For now, though, I'm conscious. I know it doesn't make sense to pass out, and I'm frustrated with myself. It's not a good time for this. It's terrifying not being able to see my hand in front of my face, so I shut my eyes. I lie all the way down on my back and breathe through my nose. I count. Scott picks up my tune, and after a minute, I can sit up again and crack my eyes open.
The stands are overflowing with rioters from the nearby districts, and a hundred other people from the Capitol are scattered across the arena, with still more trickling in. I don't have even the slightest idea what's going on. "Scott! Mitch!" Most of the people from the Capitol are as dazed as I am, but a few are standing. Kevin is not only standing, but rushing toward us and leaping over people to get here. Avi is striding just behind him. "Are you okay?" Kevin asks breathlessly. "Where's Kirstie?"
"We haven't seen her." Scott frowns. I gasp and point. She's right ahead of me, being shoved into the arena. She trips forward into the open space and catches herself with her arms. She's covered in blood.
I start to pass out all over again, but Scott leaps up and runs after Kevin and Avi toward Kirstie. I have to lie down again to give my brain the oxygen it needs, but I turn my head toward them and try to make out what's happening. Kevin pushes the others back and immediately starts looking for the wound. Scott and Avi tower over helplessly. Kirstie waves her hands and their posture eases. Kevin, still crouched over Kirstie with his back toward me, points with his index finger at Avi's chest and then with his thumb over his shoulder. He remembered me. Avi strides back toward me and I let him prop me up as we make our way back to the others. "She's okay. Her dog attacked the rioters. It's not her blood. She's okay." I can breathe again. I'm tired, sore, and mentally exhausted, but I think I'm capable of walking again, so I pull myself together and start supporting my own weight. When we return, Scott and Kevin are sitting on either side of Kirstie with their arms over her shoulders. Scott is crying in relief and Kevin asks her one more time if she's absolutely certain she's unhurt.
We sit down to form a tight circle. For a while, we say nothing. I wonder what they're all thinking. Scott and Kirstie are probably as confused as I am, but Kevin somehow seems to understand, and I wonder how much Avi comprehends. "What's going on?" I'm looking at Kevin, but as usual, Scott answers.
"I literally have no idea. What gives them the right to drag us out of our beds and halfway across the city, not to mention burn everything to the ground? Are they out of their minds? Are they protesting about the tributes or something? Sure, it's sad and all, but the Games have been going on for decades. You'd think they'd be used to it! Who even let them into the Capitol? It's disgraceful."
Kevin presses his hands into his face and sighs. "They're not rioting about the tributes. You all don't even realize what it's like out there. Panem isn't normal. Your families all come from here, but in other countries, things are different. Not all governments decide what you can and can't watch and read and learn, not all capitals are full of citizens who don't work a day in their lives, and not all countries treat most of their populations like slaves." Scott opens his mouth to object, but Kevin anticipates his argument and explains. "The people they broadcast at the reapings aren't real; they're dressed up and told to celebrate. The happy workers you see in commercials are actors from the Capitol, pure propaganda. The real people of the districts are overworked and hungry."
Scott looks incredulous, but Avi is staring at his hands and Kirstie is shifting uncomfortably. "Do you ever wonder," Kevin asks, "why I keep pushing us to make music when we could just kick back our heels and live off the districts? It's not just because I love writing and performing. It has nothing to do with wanting more fame or money. It's because I feel guilty when I'm not working. The people in those bleachers work all day every day until they die, and they still don't have enough to live on." His speech has a forceful rhythm to it. His nostrils are flared and his lips are twisted in disgust. He looks up at us. "How did you not realize that?" he demands. Suddenly he softens. "I honestly thought you knew, or you at least had some idea, and you just didn't care."
It takes a moment for that to sink in. If he believes life is as awful for the districts as he's saying, and he's thought for years that we were indifferent, how could he even stand to look at us? Clearly it's not because he's indifferent. I can't understand why he hasn't talked about this before, but now I begin to see just how much he cares. It's what has driven him all this time. Everything he does begins to make more sense. He lives in a lush apartment because the Capitol gave it to him, but his furnishings are simple, his meals are plain, and his wardrobe is, by my standards, dirt cheap. I always wondered what he did with all his money. Did he have some way of sending it to people who needed it more? Can he even communicate with them? "Listen," he continues. "They're rioting because we've oppressed them for over 75 years, and they've finally torn down the Capitol. Our government is gone. G-O-N-E, gone. It has been for weeks now. President Snow was under house arrest. If my information is solid, he was going to be executed today, but instead of killing him, Katniss shot her own President, Alma Coin, the leader of the whole rebellion." How could I have been ignorant of something so monumental? Even when the riots where going on right outside my window, though, I turned away and tried to sleep through it. What does that say about me?
"That's when the riots reached the city," Kevin continues. "Nobody is in charge anymore. I will not be even a little bit surprised if these people erect a guillotine or a gallows here and now to execute us one by one."
"That's morbid," Scott and I say automatically.
"I'm not joking. They don't teach real history here, and you wouldn't pay attention even if they did, but you would not believe the things that people will do when they're abused for as long as the districts have been. It's a wonder this hasn't happened sooner."
"How do you know any of this?" I ask. "What makes you think it's true?" I'm already starting to believe it, but I don't want to.
"You can't say much on the official international communication channels. Say something out of line, and your correspondence gets cut off permanently. Instead, I tune in to an illegal radio relay network to communicate with my extended family overseas. They give me an outside perspective." Every time I think I've grasped how incredible Kevin is, he proves me very, very wrong.
The stadium lights switch off and on, and a restless, broken silence falls over the arena. "Ladies and gentlemen!" A tall, sunburned district woman is clutching a microphone like an apple and standing in a doorway. "We could kill every last selfish, greedy, pitiless soul in the Capitol for what they've done to us, but we're not here for war. We're here for peace and for payment. Today marks the reaping of the last annual Hunger Games!"
Kirstie gasps and claps her hand over her mouth. Now her face has blood on it. I lean forward and hug her as hard as I can. People come behind us and start dragging us apart by our armpits. She bites an arm and kicks hard at the people behind her. Her eyes are locked pleadingly with someone behind me, but nobody comes to help. Scott and Avi land a few punches, but more people converge on them. I wriggle free and headbutt someone who lunges at me. He falls backward. "RUN!" Avi bellows from behind me. I don't want to leave them behind, but I sprint anyways. I don't want to have to kill them, and I don't want them to have to kill me. The doors are all blocked by hordes of people and I don't know where I'm running to. Maybe there's somewhere I can hide. Maybe there's a trapdoor on the stage. I dodge and swerve as fists swing at me. There's a guard rail ahead, and stairs behind it. I jump over it at full speed and tumble down the steps to a landing. I'm in a narrow space with a door in front of me. It's locked. I ram into it futilely. An arm reaches around my neck and squeezes until I can't breathe. I try to go limp and pretend I've passed out, but I feel like I'm dying, and I can't stop flailing. Spots float before my eyes and I gasp for breath. The grip loosens a little and I push hard off the ground, ramming my head into the chin of my assailant. He falls over backwards and I hear his head hit the stairs. He's in the way. I push off his chest with full force to propel myself up the stairs. I feel ribs give way under my foot, and his howl of pain tells me he's still dangerous. I take the rest of the steps four at a time.
Overhead, the crowd is thunderous. I run along the perimeter of the arena, turning my head from side to side in search of another stairway or exit. My foot catches and I trip on a cord. It's attached to a microphone. I reel it in. I want to scream into it with as much volume as my breathless lungs can muster and deafen everybody here, but even if I could, it would only make them angrier. There's no escape. There's nothing I can do. All around me, young people are being dragged away and older people are sitting by watching silently. There are at least eight people from the districts in the arena turned toward me, but they've paused to see what I'll do with the mic. I sit. I whisper, "I'm sorry."
There's nothing I can say to make them believe me or care. I sing. There is no song for this, so I make it up. Long, slow, bitter notes, raw and imperfect, issue forth in deliberate succession. It's the harmony to the song I dreamt this morning, the depth that was missing. It's sorrowful and angry, dripping with regret. One voice isn't enough for it, but I don't see Scott, Kevin, Avi, or Kirstie anymore. They keep dragging people away, and they herd the extras into a corner, but they let me continue. Some of the audience start to shout at me, but it just makes the song feel more complete. I feel the end approaching from a few measures away, and I don't try to put it off. There's no point. I let the last note trail off into silence and I whisper once more, "I'm so sorry." I've said and done everything I can, and it's not even close to enough, but I'm glad I got the chance. It doesn't change anything, but it still feels like the most meaningful thing I have ever done.
I stand up and let them take me away. They surround me like an entourage. They don't even touch me. It's like they think there's some kind of understanding between us. There isn't. I don't even understand myself right now. I'm angry, of course. They're going to make me kill people, or, more likely, die. I won't last five minutes. Furthermore, they've taken my friends, practically my family, and there's nothing I can do for them. This is my fault. I hang my head and hug my arms. I've been ignorant my whole life, not because I had to be, but because I wanted to be. The Capitol fed me and entertained me, so I played along, and now I'm going to die, and my friends will die with me.
I look back out at the crowd as I walk. They're staring at me intently. It feels bizarrely familiar. It's like the dreams I have when I'm nervous about a big concert, where I don't know any of the lyrics and everyone is staring at me, waiting for me to begin. A young woman catches my eye. She jerks her head back and holds up a fist with her elbow bent: chin-up, be strong. I stand a little straighter. The audience leans forward. This is nothing like the performances where people jump up and down when I so much as look at them and scream when I blow a kiss, but I have everyone's attention. This might be my chance to win some of them over. What am I thinking? They hate me. They have no reason to forgive me.
But Kevin forgave me. He was outraged, but then, without even berating me, he just let it go. Maybe connecting with these people isn't entirely impossible. Maybe if I can do that, they'll support me and I'll last just a little longer. Maybe I can win a bit of goodwill for all of us, but I'm walking a fine, fine line. Right now, they don't know what to think of me. It's better than when they hated me, but if I offend them, there's still nothing to stop them from ripping me to pieces before I even leave the arena. We're walking slowly, but I don't have much time before we reach the exit. I don't know if it's the right thing to do, but I look up. I pick a person, I make eye contact, I hold for a few seconds, and I nod just barely. I pick someone else on the other side. I can't make out the faces on the far end of the arena, but I cover as much area as possible before I go. They'll remember me, and maybe they'll think, "He looked my way. He's a person. I don't want him to die."
Just as we reach the door, I turn back toward the people. They destroyed my city, they dragged me through the streets, they took my friends, and they're going to put us all through unthinkable horrors, but they are not the happy, stupid pack animals I thought they were. I never noticed it before today, but some of them, many of them, have a kind of dignity that I have never encountered before. I need them to know that I respect them. My fans just want to hear me say I love them, and I comply, and it makes them much too happy. These people need more than that. I hold one forearm behind my back and one across my waist, I stand with my feet together, and I bow. It's not the grandiose bow of a soloist or the perfunctory bow of a servant. It isn't deep or slow- I don't want them to think I'm mocking them- but it isn't shallow either. I'm too afraid to look up. With my eyes fixed on my shiny black shoes, I straighten again and walk out quickly. I feel sick.
The sound of cracking ribs echoes in my mind. I can't shut it out. The thought of my own bones splintering fills my head. I always feel like I should turn away when someone dies in the Hunger Games, but I never do. I watch it again in slow motion, horrified but fascinated. Now I'm paying the price. I can picture myself dying a hundred different ways in gross detail. I don't even try to stop because I'm afraid I might start imagining what will happen to Scott, Avi, Kevin, and Kirstie.