“I’m going into town today.”
A crease slowly begins to form across Katniss’s brow, and her lips part ever so slightly with the sharp intake of air that’s barely audible, but she can’t quite mask completely. Some would say her face is unreadable, but they don’t know her face the way I do. They haven’t memorized every detail of it, etched it into their every cell the way I have.
“I’ll come with you.”
That I’m refusing her offer surprises me. I can never refuse her anything. But this is different. This will be the first time since coming back to District 12 nearly four months ago that I’ll be going to the scorched, ash-ridden remains of what used to be my home. Where smoke still billows sometimes, like corrupted fog that’s gathered from the smoldering ruins and creeps along the streets, thick and reeking of burnt acid. When the winds shift, I can smell its scent all the way into the Victor’s Village, stinging my throat and nostrils and coating them with a taste that makes me want to vomit. A constant reminder of what took place here, the cost of our defiance.
This is what I’ll be facing today. Willingly. Because I know I can’t keep avoiding it forever.
“I think… I need to do this by myself.”
Katniss nods. I can tell she’s not entirely convinced, but she accepts my decision, the way I would if she were the one making it. Her hand closes around mine and gives it a quick squeeze. There’s concern—even alarm—in her eyes, like storm clouds gathering, charcoal gray instead of the usual pale slate color I normally see when meeting her gaze. I know she’s thinking about could happen out there. What memories might be triggered, what made-up atrocities might rise to the surface that could awaken the monster that still lives deep inside me, however well I manage to keep him imprisoned in my waking hours. I keep him well-encased, shrouded in rescued memories, images I’ve been able to repair over time and months and months of intense therapy, but it’s Katniss that helps keep him caged. And she won’t be there with me this time. Her thumb sweeps along the heel of my palm, brushing my wrist, where handcuffs once bit into my skin to help me keep my grip on reality. I close my eyes and let myself feel her this time, focusing on the gentle, rhythmic motion of her touch, the sensation that keeps me from slipping.
I don't tell her that what worries me more is not what I’ll remember, but what I won’t—that I’ll see the shapes coated with hardened soot and won’t be able to associate them with real objects, things I used to touch and feel and use on a daily basis. That I’ll remember my parents and my brothers, but won’t remember what their voices sounded like, or what made them laugh. It’s a stupid thought, perhaps. The Capitol wouldn’t have bothered to distort those memories, since they had nothing to do with Katniss—but how can I be sure? How can I really be sure of anything anymore?
This is what’s become of me now. Always questioning. Never taking anything for granted.
Except for loving Katniss. And Katniss loving me. This much I know is real.
“I’ll only be a few hours,” I tell her, as I untangle my fingers from hers. The clouds in her eyes shift, darkening, gathering water. I reach up to wipe a tear that’s escaped from a corner of her eye and take her face in my hands, leaning forward to kiss her.
I hear her release a breath as I close the door behind me.
* * *
It’s a clear summer’s day, cloudless and without a hint of haze, but the air chokes me all the same. Fine particles of lingering ash and dust swirl around—invisible at first glance, but glittering when they’re caught in the shafts of bright sunlight. The bones of the old square come into view: a stump of an old whipping post, the steps that once led up to the now-collapsed platform, the charred frame of the dry goods store where my mother would buy the bolts of material for our shirts and pants and aprons.
Which means, of course, that the blackened bits of metal and melted plaster and fragments of bone—I’m fairly certain it’s bone—gathered in various heaps directly across the way from what remains of the crumbling structure is where the bakery once stood.
The bakery that is now a graveyard.
Black dust makes its way into my lungs again when I gulp in air. My throat burns, forcing out a cough, and then another, and yet another after that. Before long, my eyes begin to water, and the stinging is so intense that the only thing I can do is shut them before the dam breaks.
Stop crying, you useless creature!
It’s my mother’s voice I hear in the whisper of a breeze. Her last words to me before I boarded the train to my death sentence. It seems my fears were unfounded after all, because I do in fact remember what made her laugh. Or at least, what made her laugh on this day, when she told me that District 12 might finally have a winner.
She’s a survivor, that one… She’s a grubby little thief, but she’s a survivor!
My mother, whose talent for wielding words like weapons I inherited. My mother, who took such pleasure in never letting me forget that I would always be Katniss’s second choice, as she had been for my father.
I search my brain for some semblance of shine in this memory, some telltale sign of distortion that might redeem my mother in some way, however small. But it’s dull, like the ache that grows in my chest.
I sink down to the ground and lean back against the twisted metal that had once been the frame for the pig pen. Moments later, I feel a hand on my shoulder. I should be startled, but I’m not. When Katniss gathers me in her arms, I bury my face in her hair, plant my lips on her pulse point. I feel her shudder from the warmth of my breath on her neck and she grips me more tightly, as though she’s scared of me slipping away from her again.
“I’m sorry, I know you didn’t want me here, but… I had to come…”
I want to tell her it’s ok. That it’s more than ok. That I’m glad she’s here because I know I don’t belong here anymore. I haven’t belonged here in a long time, really. The only place I’ve ever truly belonged is with her. She’s the only anchor that’s ever made any sense.
Her hand moves up to my face as she eases off to look at me.
“I couldn’t let you be alone. Not here.”
I nod, and for the first time, I find myself without the right words to say. I look back at the debris that’s scattered on the ground before me. The lump in my throat swells until I practically can’t swallow anymore.
“I was a mistake,” I say. “Real or not real?”
I feel Katniss tense beside me. Her hands slide down to grasp mine.
“My mother told me I was an accident. Just another brat that she never wanted… Real or not real?” My voice rises when I don’t get my answer. “Real or not real??”
“Real or not r-”
“Stop it! Stop!”
Katniss cups my face, holds it close to hers until our foreheads are touching. Her grip barely contains my trembling.
“I want you,” she says. “I don’t care what she told you, you’re no accident.” She brushes my jaw with the back of her hand, traces my lips with her finger before she kisses me, full and deep, breathing into me.
Gravity once pulled me here. Guilt and obligation and blind loyalty. But they draw me in no more. When the firebombs dropped, they severed the thin chords that tied me to this place. Released me to mourn the childhood that had been less than what I deserved, the rare moments here and there when I might have actually been loved.
Katniss rises to her feet and holds out her hand to me, pulling me into her own gravity. Where I belong now. I take one last look at this wreckage, casting off the weight that had held me down for eighteen years, and I take her hand, letting her lead me to the place I now call home.