Sunday, March 16
There are countless instances when I tell myself that I resent the whole institution of family. Like today.
My mother's voice echoes like . . . something really awful to listen to, I guess. Like President Snow talking, for instance. I mean, the Capitol accent is beyond ridiculous, but Snow is a scary man and there is nothing ridiculous about his voice. Which is exactly how I would describe my mother. Except she isn't the cruel dictator of a nation and isn't responsible for the death of dozens of kids every year. That doesn't really make her good, though.
Wait, where was I? Oh, right. It's Sunday morning. Sunday, for crying out loud. Can't I just get to have a day to do absolutely nothing? No. Of course not. Because mother is busy having to catch up on the town's gossip. Maybe start ranting again about what a shithole the Seam is, how its inhabitants are worthless trash. Of course, she fails to mention that thanks to them we don't freeze to death in winter.
So, I get up from the bed where I was aimlessly laying for the past hour and dragged myself to the living room, where my mother was impatiently awaiting.
"Finally! Go downstairs. Now." I groan dramatically, letting my mother know that there was nothing I desired less than working on a Sunday morning.
"What?" she grunts. "Oh, so you'd sooner starve to death like those Seam brats." I'd love to remind her that, if anything, she was a brat, with her merchant upbringing and well-off family. She never had to starve.
"Fine, whatever," I reply, trying to sound indifferent. "I'm going."
Monday, March 17
The short walk to school is uneventful, but that's not news.
I was hoping to see her, tenderly holding her little sister's hand, her long braid bouncing behind her, but I don't.
I wait until History class — the only class we have together. She is sitting in the same spot, by the window, never paying attention to the propagandist crap we are taught, always looking outside, as if she's a mockingjay ready to take flight.
My notebook is filled with drawings of her, staring outside the window of the History classroom; standing in front of the class, clad in a pretty red dress, singing in a voice that makes the birds go silent.
These are the only glimpses I've caught of Katniss Everdeen.
Thursday, March 20
She talked to me. I mean, she talked to me.
The bell rings and I am running late.
"Mellark, your shoelaces are untied," she cautions as I sprint past her. There she is, casually leaning against the hallway wall, presumably waiting for her sister. Her own eyes, mimicking my own, suddenly widen, as if she didn't meant to talk to me.
"Oh, uh, thanks Katniss," I falter. Katniss nods. "So, how are you?" I ask nervously, while tying my laces. Her eyebrow arches.
"Fine," she responds coolly.
I know. What an idiot I am. I mean, why the hell did I strike a conversation with someone who looks like they hate my guts?
"Thanks for the squirrel," I exclaim. Katniss eyes me cautiously. "I mean, the one my dad, uh . . . "
"It was a trade," she interjects.
"Katniss?" a tiny voice calls. A little girl, who I know to be Katniss' little sister, approaches with little hops. I form a mental image of Katniss doing the very same thing and can't help but smile. It is hard to miss Katniss' glare.
"Hey, little duck," she says — quite cheerfully, I might add — nonetheless.
"Who's your friend?" the girl queries.
"I'm Peeta." I hold my hand out and she takes it with her own small one.
"I'm Primrose. You can call me Prim, though," she says with a smile..
"Well, it's a pleasure to meet you Prim. I, uh . . . " I glance at Katniss, who obviously looks uncomfortable. "I ought to go now, though. Goodbye, Prim, Katniss."
Okay — if this isn't progress, I don't know what is.
Of course, my glee is doomed from the beginning.
Finn, my older brother — who was apparently holding an umbrella when it was raining brains — just has to be jerk and ruin everything for me.
"So, Peeta here is quite the heartthrob," he banters during lunch. "Rumor has it he has the hots for that Seam girl, Everdeen." Oh, Finn, I didn't know you wanted to get your ass kicked today.
"Those brats will do anything for — " mother begins in her usual judgmental tone, but I immediately interject, "That's bullshit, mom. Don't listen to him." I don't bother to mention her idiotic prejudices.
"Don't be vulgar," she orders and leaves it at that.
She infuriates me so much with her ignorant crap. If she knew how hard it is to lose you father and be forced to support your family when you really have nothing, maybe she'd shut up.
I know I should probably not say this, well, write this, but sometimes I wish she just . . . wasn't around. I'm fairly certain she feels the same way. She would probably not give a damn if, come Reaping Day, I were sent to my untimely death. Perhaps, she'd even feel relieved; one less mouth to feed, she'd think.
I'm not sure why, but this strange thought angers me more.
Saturday, March 22
Today is a good day. Good as in Thursday good. Because Katniss spoke to me. Again. And this time it wasn't a halfhearted warning.
So, Saturday is the day of the week when I am assigned the morning shift at the bakery. Which isn't that special and, frankly, I could live without having to wake up at six in the morning on a Saturday, but, as you may have guessed already, today is a different day.
Let me begin at the beginning, though.
I put on the cleanest apron I find and sit on a stool behind the counter, embracing the fact that this will be a long day.
I completely ignore the jingle of the bells at the door. At first, I even almost completely ignore the call from the other side of the counter. Then, the words repeat themselves in my head and I almost fall from the stool on my butt.
Thankfully, I don't. Because there she is, beautiful as ever, looking at me as if she didn't expect to see me here — or, perhaps, she hoped she wouldn't see me here. I wonder how early she woke up. It's apparent from her bumpy burlap sack that she's already hunted.
"Sorry, what?" I sleepily ask. I see a smile forming on her lips and suddenly feel encouraged.
"A loaf of bread, please?" Katniss repeats.
"How's your sister? Prim?" I ask as I grab a loaf from the rows of bread behind me, hastily shove it in a paper bag, and neatly fold over the edges.
"Um, she's fine. She was feeling a little sick yesterday, but she, uh, she's better now," she mutters. I can tell she's nervous from the way she's her feet are constantly tapping, the way her crossed arms are gripping her biceps.
I hand her the bag and she sets a single coin on the counter.
"Bye. See you at school," she utters and, soon enough, she's out of sight.
Just thinking about our meeting makes me, I guess, overcome with glorious joy. What I'm trying to say is, it's a grand feeling. It no small thing when the girl you've been in love with for the past ten years, the same girl who had never spoken a single word to you before, initiates conversation, not once, but twice.
Of course, my idiot brother, Finn had to, once again, prove that he is required by law to be a complete ass.
"So, I saw that Everdeen girl coming out of the bakery this morning," he announces during lunch. I glance at mother, expecting some kind of alarm miraculously go off at the mere mention of an Everdeen, but, thankfully, she seems preoccupied with driving father insane.
"Yeah, so?" I shoot back.
"Well," he begins.
"Well, nothing," I retort. "You might share mother's opinion that the Seam people are a bunch of savages, pathetic beggars whose only purpose is to mine coal and then silently starve to death, that they covet and envy our lives, that their motives are always questionable, but, as a matter of fact — " I take a much needed breath. "they do go to the bakery," I finish lamely.
Finn stares at me in confusion. His expression soon changes into one of disdain. Idiot.
Then again, he is a male, dumbed down version of mother.
"Then, I certainly hope her boyfriend doesn't take all of this," He makes a circular gesture with his hands. "the wrong way."
Boyfriend. Take this the wrong way.
Peeta is confused.
"What are you even talking about?" I query, a little more aggressively than I'd like, clenching my fists. Mother shushes us and goes back to chastising father.
"You know. That guy, Hawthorne," he says. I shake my head. This causes him to smirk a little bit. "Yeah, whatever," he warns. "Just back off."
Monday, March 24
Saturday was the day when all that progress went to die.
I am optimistic, though. I mean, Katniss must surely not completely despise me, if she decides to talk to me in two different occasions. Plus, I've been waiting for ten years.
I spent Sunday thinking about Katniss' "relationship" with Hawthorne.
Gale Hawthorne. He is supposed to be this really attractive, hunky kind of guy that all of the girls — merchant and Seam — ogle at. I've heard them talk about him. This is why most of them despise Katniss. Because they know he only has eyes for her.
She never seemed interested in him, though. I mean, you can tell she has a strong connection to him, but she doesn't see him like that. Or, perhaps, she has led me to believe that. Perhaps, she doesn't like to show her affections for someone in public. It doesn't take long to be labeled a "Seam slut".
I am waiting for Katniss at the same spot where she saved me from landing on my face. I make sure it doesn't look like I'm deliberately standing there, waiting for her. I pretend to be walking down the hallway, at some point. I do that about five times.
For the past ten minutes I am pretending to be fishing something out of my bag. Where the hell is she? Isn't she supposed to be waiting for her sister?
I give up.
"Looking for something?" a voice calls from behind. I turn around slowly. There she is. Her hair braided behind her back, as per usual, looking at me with a mix of amusement and perplexity, an adorable crease forming between her eyebrows.
"What? Uh," I stammer. "No. I'm just, uh, adjusting my, uh . . . "
There it is. That arch of her eyebrow. "Right."
Way to go Peeta. "So, where's Prim?"
"Uh, she's sick," Katniss replies. "She got better, but she, um, relapsed."
"Oh, I'm sorry. Tell her I wish her a speedy recovery," I mumble embarrassed and eager to get the hell out of here.
"Sure thing. Um, you know, she really likes you." I didn't know that.
"I didn't know that."
"Yeah, well, she does. She asked me if you could, um," She looks very uncomfortable. "Walkwithusafterschool," she spurts. I can tell she's not a big fan of the idea. It's just a favor to her beloved sister.
But I'm optimistic. And I accept.
Tuesday, March 25
Recap from yesterday. Katniss talked to me. She asked me to walk her and her sister home after school. She also mentioned that Prim "really likes me".
I honestly don't know what to think. Either Katniss is looking for a pretext to get spend more time with me — unlikely — or she must really love her sister. I put my money on the latter.
I am still unsure as to why I still retain my hopes. Of course I accepted; you and I both know I would never say no to Katniss. But, still, you've got to admit. I'm a world class fool.
So, come Tuesday, as soon as the final bell rings, I am already waiting at our spot, more nervous than I'd like to admit.
"Hey Peeta!" a lovely voice calls, and I'm initially disappointed when I realize it doesn't belong to Katniss.
"Hello Prim," I say cheerfully. A big smile appears on her face and I can't help but smile as well.
"Ready to go, little duck?" another, not as excited, voice inquires.
"Yes, sir," Prim giggles. The air goes out of my lungs when I see the smile on Katniss' face. "Off we go then."
The journey to the edge of town is uneventful. No gossip-hungry, middle-aged women. No curious teenagers. No one at all, for that matter. That's a good thing. I don't need Finn or mother scoff me for walking with two "Seam brats".
"Your dad owns the bakery, right?" asks Prim, disrupting the brief, awkward silence. I nod.
"The cakes in the shop window always look so pretty," she muses.
"Thanks," I say, a hint of pride in my voice.
"Wait, you make these?" Katniss chimes in.
"Yep," I reply, popping the 'p'.
"Too bad we can't afford them," little Primrose Everdeen whispers sorrowfully and, instantly, my heart melts. I notice Katniss' expression. It's a mix of sadness and guilt. As if she blames herself for that. As if she believes she's failed her sister. She doesn't even look angry at the revelation.
"Neither can we," I shrug.
"Really?" Prim queries, surprised.
"Yeah. I mean, if there's a stale one that nobody's bought . . . "
"Oh." I look at Prim. She looks sad. Not because she can't afford to buy my cakes, but because I can't.
We have reached the Seam before I've even noticed.
"Well, thank you for walking with us, Peeta," she says confidently.
As I wave them goodbye and walk back home, I think. What would make Prim, and therefore Katniss, happy?
As soon as I get home, I immediately start working on my surprise for Prim. I mean, who needs to study propaganda-filled "history" and the importance of a totalitarian, dictatorial regime?
Wednesday, March 26
I carefully put the cookies in a paper bag, neatly fold it and hide it in my own bag.
I can honestly say I worked my ass off yesterday. I know cookies are made for eating, not looking at, but I couldn't help it. I wanted Prim to like them. I wanted Prim to be happy. I wanted Katniss to be happy. Maybe, I wanted to impress her a bit. Sure, I don't hunt and skin squirrels, like Hawthorne does, but I sure as hell can frost.
Katniss ignores me during History, as per usual. Oh well.
The hours are endless. When the final bell finally rings, I am already out of the door, maniacally running down the hallway, to our spot.
And she's not alone.
Hawthorne is there. And he looks pissed.
I quickly retract, hoping to be out of sight before Hawthorne decides to, say, randomly tear me to pieces.
The odds are not in my favor. "Hey, Peeta!" a voice exclaims.
"Prim, hi! I . . . " I stammer. "I was looking for you. I, uh, have a surprise!"
"Really?" she asks hopefully, the corners o her lips turning up. "C'mon," she urges. "Let's show your surprise to Katniss!" Yeah, let's! Initially, I think that maybe Prim just wants Hawthorne to tear me to pieces. When I see his tall, muscular, from all the running and poaching in the woods, figure storming out of the doors, I let out a sigh of relief.
"Hi," Katniss greets me, indifferently.
"Yeah, yeah," Prim interjects. "Peeta said he's got a surprise for me!" Katniss remains unimpressed.
"Well, yeah," I swiftly open my bag, dig out the paper bag and, with a shameless expression of pride, I hand it to her.
At first Katniss looks alarmed. Then, a smile forms on her lips as Prim squeals in excitement at the sight of my present. Then she scoffs.
"Can I have a word with you, Mellark?" What now?
Katniss pulls me aside. "What are you doing?" she asks in a hushed voice.
"What are you doing?" I shoot back, grinning a little bit.
Katniss sighs. "Why do you feel the need to bestow anything upon my family?" What?
"What are you talking about?"
"This!" She points at her sister, who is still ogling at the cookies in awe. "The cookies! The bread!"
"The bread?" Realization hits me. "You mean . . . the bread from when we were little?"
"Uh huh. I don't need your pity, Mellark. We don't need your pity. I might live in the Seam, but I don't need some merchant boy to look out for me," she says rebukingly. "And I'll certainly not let you give false hopes to my sister. She might be a naive twelve year-old, but I'm not." Oh. "C'mon, Prim. Time to go."
"Isn't Peeta coming with us?"
"No. He has . . . stuff to do."
"Okay," Prim pouts. "Thank you for the cookies, Peeta. They are beautiful."
I smile at her. In a matter of seconds, they are both gone.
I honestly don't know how this went wrong. I am certain Prim doesn't know either. I understand why Katniss, out of all people, would be suspicious as to why a boy she hardly knows would offer a gift to her younger sister. Really, it's a matter of pride. Katniss never wanted anyone to help her, let alone feel sorry for her. But, why does she have to question everyone's motives? Not everyone is like old Cray, after all.
Mother is her usual, stern self when I come home.
"I heard you were with that Everdeen girl," she grunts.
"Who told you? Finn?" I ask.
"No. If you must know, it was the florist's wife." Sure. I am certain the bored housewives of the merchant section of District 12 have nothing to do but stake out just in case some "Seam slut" decides to seduce an innocent and naive merchant boy.
"Peeta Mellark, are you an idiot?" mother suddenly hollers. "They probably have formed some kind of plan to lure you with their Seam ways and . . . "
"Enough, mother!" I shout, boiling with rage. "I don't care if some Seam girl stole your boyfriend when you were young, I don't care if dad was in love with Mrs. Everdeen — " I really shouldn't have said that last one. Not because mother would never bear the thought of dad and a "Seam slut", but because it wasn't something I'd made up to upset her. It was the truth.
"In your bedroom, now," she orders.
There's only so much I can handle in one day, so when I see Finn, apparently waiting for me, casually leaning against my bedroom door, a cocky smile on his lips, I don't hesitate to punch him in the face.
"You broke my nose, you asshole!" he yells, as I enter my bedroom, shoving him the process, and shutting the door behind me.
I guess I'll pay for that later.
Friday, March 28
After almost two days of agonized contemplation and general angst, I decided to give up.
Yep, you heard me. I would give up trying to make something happen. I always thought that waiting, hopelessly hoping, anticipating the moment when I would suck it up and talk to her was the biggest emotional torture I'd ever endured.
I was wrong.
Have you ever heard that phrase? You know, ignorance is bliss, or something like that. You know what? It is. All I knew was that that uncertainty was killing me. I guess, actually knowing that the person you've loved for more than half your life wants nothing to do with you sucks. Hard.
I'm not even going to start with the fact that the dickhead I call my brother, after a certain unnoteworthy punching incident, took his revenge on me by insisting that I, the now proclaimed Lover Boy, had "viciously attacked" him for insulting my "girlfriend". First of all, it wasn't a vicious attack. It was a mere punch, and, being a grown-ass man, he should suck it up and shut up, in general. And second of all, yeah, I wish.
She didn't come to school today. I mean, really? Does she so desperately want to avoid me? I saw her during History yesterday. She didn't look at me. Not that I expected her to or anything.
She wasn't waiting at our spot.
Today, though, something happened. It was while I was walking back from school.
"Hey, Peeta!" a small, puffed voice calls. I turn around to see a short of breath, red-cheeked Prim, waving at me.
"Hey, Prim," I greet her casually. "What's up?"
She just shrugs. "Nothing much." It's apparent she's dying to tell me something. "Okay, I got an A for a poem I wrote," she says modestly. You can tell she is fighting not to literally beam with pride.
"Really? That's great!" I congratulate her.
"Yeah, but that's not what I wanted to talk to you about," she says, getting serious now.
"Well, you see, Katniss didn't come to school today because she feels bad," Prim mutters. She feels . . . bad?
"Is she sick?" I query anxiously.
Prim shakes her head. "No, not that kind of bad." She pats her chest with her little hand. "I think she feels bad for being mean to you," she explains.
For a moment, I just stand there and stare at her. "Wh — what?" I finally stammer.
"She didn't want to admit it, but I just . . . know," she confesses. Oh.
"You didn't wait for me today," Prim says quietly, her disappointment reflected in her voice. "I thought you'd walk me home." I've never felt more of a horrible human being in my life, I swear. Little Primrose Everdeen is the last person you would want to hurt. "Perhaps you'd like to come with me now? Maybe talk to Katniss?" she asks hopefully.
I consider my options for a moment. If mother finds out I was late — and the precise cause of that delay — I am in big trouble. If I don't meet with Katniss, on the other hand, I'll probably never get the chance to settle things between us. Yeah, coming over it is.
So I follow Prim, who leads with cheerful little hops.
The Everdeen residence is a rundown little place, faded white picket fence and all. I notice a goat, tied to it, lazily chewing the already scarce grass. "That's Lady," I hear Prim say. "Katniss got her for me."
I take my time, trying to practice what I'll say to her, maybe prepare for some potential plate-throwing, though I highly doubt Katniss would care to waste something as valuable because of me, of all people.
"Katniss?" Prim calls as she enters the dim house. Someone is sitting on a chair, their back turned on us. It's not Katniss, though.
"Mom? Where's Katniss?" Prim asks, a bit warily. Mrs. Everdeen lifts her head.
"She's not here," she utters, weakly, before returning to her lethargy. Prim just shrugs. "C'mon then," she urges me.
We walk for a few minutes in silence. "Ah, here she is," I finally hear Prim say. I look up. Katniss is here, in the Meadow, just crawling under the usually electrified fence that separates District Twelve from the wilderness beyond. It doesn't look like she was hunting. She doesn't have the burlap sack she uses for game and her loose hair looks damp. Maybe she went swimming. Perhaps there is a lake out there, in the woods. She would know. I momentarily freeze. Was Hawthorne with her in the woods? Not that I'm jealous or anything, I would just prefer it if I could talk to her without knowing he's somewhere around, waiting to hang me upside down with one of his snares. I immediately relax when I remember I saw him after the bell rung, looking sullen and intimidating.
"Hey, Katniss," Prim shouts.
"You've got a visitor!" she snickers before running back home. Well, thanks? Katniss is startled at first. Her face is essentially a mask of shock.
"Peeta," she simply acknowledges my presence.
"Prim told me you weren't feeling too well," I tell her. Katniss squints her eyes in suspicion. "Why would she tell you that?"
I shrug. "She mentioned something along the lines of you feeling bad about the way you talked to me."
She arches an eyebrow. "Is that so?" she asks sardonically.
"You gotta admit it. You treated me pretty shitty and all I did was to give you a gift," I say.
"The cookies were for Prim."
I chuckle. "C'mon, Katniss. You can have some if you want to," I tease her.
"I just don't like when people . . . they feel like they have to . . . " she falters.
"I can assure you that I meant no disrespect whatsoever with my gift." She smiles at me. Genuinely smiles.
"It's not about respect. I just don't want people to think I'm weak just because I live in the Seam."
"I know that," I reassure her.
"Okay. I have to go now. Make lunch for Prim and mom. I'll see you on Monday, 'kay?"
Mother is especially crabby when I return home. Surprise, surprise, someone — I assume it's the "florist's wife" — has once again informed her on my whereabouts. Frankly, I couldn't care less. Because Katniss wasn't her usual sullen and hostile self. She even smiled at me. I hold on to that thought while mother reminds me of how much I've embarrassed her and how opportunist these "Seam brats" are and how I shouldn't let them fool me with their promiscuous ways.
Yeah, I don't even know either.
Saturday, March 29
I feel light, as if a weight has been lifted off me.
Of course, my "relationship" with an Everdeen — if only — was the main topic of conversation between mother and Finn. Emmett, the eldest of the Mellark brothers, and father simply groan when mother brings up the subject during lunch. Finn, as per usual, immediately chimes in, interrupting her lecture on the bastardization of our District by the dirty "Seam brats".
I tune out most of it, avoiding the sympathetic glances from my father and older brother, trying to hold on to what pleasant memories I can recall from yesterday.
Of course, that doesn't work.
"That Everdeen girl is persistent," she says in her usual judgmental tone.
"I happen to disagree," I demur, focusing on my plate in a meager attempt to control my anger.
"Oh, Peeta, never change," she upbraids.
"Oh, mother," I begin. "Please shut up." Mother opens her mouth, apparently ready to bark some crude insult at me, while Emmett and father are snickering.
"Watch out, we have a badass over here," Finn says sarcastically. It would have been a good comeback, had it been a different occasion and, obviously, had it been used by anyone else but Finn.
"Watch out, we have a smart-ass over here," I retort, causing my father and eldest brother shamelessly break out laughing.
And so, I restore some faith in my family.
Monday, March 31
I should never have taken Finn's warnings lightly.
Katniss and Prim aren't waiting for me at our spot. I sigh. What now? I thought things were going well between us. Perhaps, though, I should stop being so self-centered. Given our status difference, a relationship between us would be perceived, how? A merchant boy taking advantage of an innocent Seam girl? Or, maybe, a Seam slut trying to seduce a naive merchant boy? And how would her mother react?
Okay. Let's pretend for a moment that the voice I just heard doesn't belong to a certain someone named Gale Hawthorne. I take a deep breath.
Here goes nothing.
"What?" I groan, turning abruptly.
I glance up and down, searching for a hunting knife. His hands are empty, though, simply clenched into fists.
Gale Hawthorne might be unarmed but he looks pissed off. And I sense I am the cause.
"Gale Hawthorne," he says, extending his hand. I tentatively shake it.
I look around, trying — and failing — to hide my apprehension. "They're not coming," I hear him say. What?
"What do you want?" I query.
"I think we should talk."
"Talk about what exactly?"
"Quit playing dumb with me, Mellark," he says.
"I'm not playing dumb, Hawthorne," I hedge.
His eyes squint suspiciously at me. "What do you want from Katniss, Peeta?" he finally asks. Huh?
"I want to be her friend," I reply vaguely.
"Why do you want to be her friend?"
That's it. I don't know how to answer. Because I've been in love with her ever since I was six? No, that won't do.
"If you're screwing with her — " he continues, completely ignoring my silence, but I immediately interject. "I'm not."
"Yeah, yeah. Just know that whatever plan you had in mind — " Plan?
"What plan?" I ask furiously.
He looks at me, perplexed. "I've been hearing things," he allows.
"Is that so?"
"There's always truth to the gossip," he mutters.
So, people do know. I can't say I'm surprised.
Suddenly, I feel a wave of anger rising inside me. Gale is Katniss best, if not only, friend. He is the only one she trusts. Despite the connection we've created over the past couple of weeks, I can't say I've earned her trust. A paper bag of cookies for Prim and my reassuring words won't suffice. So why would Gale doubt Katniss? Because I'm certain they've discussed about us.
He, who claims to know her better than anyone, doesn't trust her?
"Well, let me tell you this. Whatever gossip you've heard, it's bullshit. Don't you know Katniss at all? I thought you were supposed to be her closest friend. I get why you wouldn't trust me, of all people, but how dare you question her?" I ask in disgust.
He stares at me for a few moments.
"I haven't talked to her about it," he admits.
"Oh. So you just come here trying to intimidate me, in hopes of convincing me to stay away from her? Well, that's not going to happen," I state.
"Fair enough," he concedes. "Just know that the moment she asks you to leave her alone — "
"I am not an idiot," I cut him off for the third time.
Gale Hawthorne simply nods.
I might have stood up for myself, not letting my fear show and all, but right now I know that I'm screwed. Because Hawthorne now has his eye on me and, given Katniss' frequent mood swings, I sense that my optimism and persistence will come to bite me in the ass.
Tuesday, April 1
I am waiting at our spot, as per usual. So far, no sign of Katniss. No sign of Hawthorne, either, which is probably a good thing.
I'm beginning to feel the full effect of the drowsiness inflicted by seven otiose hours of shameless propaganda and the general transmission of useless information, when I see Katniss reluctantly walking in my direction, her hand almost defensively dragging little Primrose Everdeen.
"Hi," Katniss mumbles, managing a small smile. Okay.
Prim is her usual bubbly, hyperactive self, skipping all the way to the edge of town, leaving Katniss and myself in an awkward silence.
"So, Gale talked to you," she says finally.
"Did he tell you?" I ask gingerly.
"I assumed," she concedes. "He didn't deny it."
Prim giggles in the distance. I glance at Katniss. "I told him all I want from you is to be your friend," I say.
She nods. "Did he threaten you to leave me alone?"
"Something like that."
We both laugh. "He's just overprotective like that," she comments. Yeah, I think I've already figured that one out.
"You're not dating him, are you?" I ask impulsively.
Katniss eyes me for a moment, in disbelief. "Um . . . " She shakes her head. "I don't . . . I don't date," she hedges. Huh.
"You don't date," I repeat. A small triumphant voice inside me cackles, "You should have given up a long time ago, pal." Okay, that was not a "small triumphant voice". It was the voice of reason and I should have listened to it when I was six. Now is too late.
I search for a reason to dispute her reply as absurd, but I know it's not. Dating would require feelings and commitment and these are things Katniss can't afford. Such feelings are too petty and completely unnecessary and would only distract her from taking care of Prim and Mrs. Everdeen — the only people she truly loves.
"I don't want to be the cause of any more pain," Katniss murmurs in the smallest of voices, yet managing to entirely grasp my attention.
"What do you mean?" I inquire, perplexed.
"I just don't want anyone else to have to go through the same shit as me!" she exclaims and, suddenly, I get it. She isn't talking about the possibility of hurting a boyfriend.
"Dating doesn't imply having kids," I remark.
Katniss simply shakes her head.
We've reached the Seam. Katniss sighs. "I'll see you tomorrow, Peeta."
I nod. "Bye, Katniss."
Once I'm home, to my immense pleasure, I find Finn practicing the craft of being a pain in the ass.
"Walking with Everdeen again, I see. You are five minutes late," he says smugly, glancing at his watch and snickering.
"Bite me," I mutter. I don't need this right now.
"I heard Hawthorne kicked your ass yesterday," he declares as soon as he sees I am hell bent on ignoring him. Fuck. I look around nervously, expecting a demeaning comment from mother. Thankfully, I remember she's still at the bakery, emotionally torturing some poor customer.
"What are you talking about, idiot?" I snap.
Finn shrugs indifferently. "You were seen."
"Yeah. Seen doing what, exactly? 'Cause I remember having a regular conversation, not a wrestling match," I retort.
"Did he threaten you?" he quips.
"Oh, fuck you, Finn," I declaim, exasperated.
"Come on, little brother," he presses. "You can tell me."
"Why? So you can rat me out to mother, as per usual?" I exclaim.g
That takes him aback. His eyes turn into slits. "You're bluffing," he mutters. "You're just making shit up."
"Whatever. Just leave me alone," I warn. Thankfully, he has enough sense to keep his mouth shut.
Wednesday, April 2
At school, I'm all smiles, like the love-smitten teenager that I am, as Dave, one of my good friends, observes.
"What's up, man?" he half-asks, half-whispers during History. "I sense a girl is behind all this," he jokes, making a circular gesture with his hands.
I chuckle. "Maybe," I say cryptically.
Dave raises one eyebrow. "Who is it, then?" he inquires impatiently.
I roll my eyes; I highly doubt he hasn't heard already. You know, from the "florist's wife".
"What? You don't catch up with the town gossip?" I retort.
"Jeez, man," he scowls, but doesn't insist.
I doodle absently in my book, while the teacher glorifies another massacre against the "vicious" rebels, but my mind is elsewhere. People have been talking and I am well aware of that. I mean, District Twelve is essentially a small town and, when your mind isn't bothered by petty worries, such as survival, you easily get bored. A favorite topic of conversation is, usually, the desperation that reeks from a relationship between a girl from the Seam and a boy from the town.
I breathe a sigh of relief when I hear the redeeming ring of the final bell. I practically jettison from my uncomfortable chair and run to our spot.
Prim's not with her.
But Hawthorne is.
Shit, shit, shit. I have to avoid this. I have to avoid this. Hey, this is a random door, I should probably go in there lock myself up.
"Hey, Mellark," a surprisingly friendly, if not slightly exasperated, voice calls. Dammit. I turn around.
Here they are, Hawthorne looking . . . slightly less lethal than usual, Katniss looking rather sullen. Alert the presses.
I reluctantly walk in their direction. "Hey, Katniss. Hawthorne," I say cheerfully.
Katniss and Hawthorne scowl in unison.
"So . . . " Act cool, Peeta. "Where's Prim — "
"She went home. Alone," Katniss interjects, clearly displeased with this turn of events.
"Well, I should probably go then," I muse.
Hawthorne's lips turn up ever so slightly. "Aw, c'mon, Mellark. No need to be in such a hurry," he jokes, but I sense the threat in his voice.
"Or I could walk with you guys. Providing Katniss doesn't mind, of course." Poof, the smile is wiped off his pretty face. Katniss shrugs indifferently. "Sure, why not?"
As we walk through the town square, I feel, for the first time, several pairs of eyes fixated on me and my companions. In fact, I actually catch the florist's wife eying suspiciously the three of us, then leaning and whispering something to the grocer's wife's, a fellow newsmonger's, ear. They both cackle mischievously, reminding me of mother. A flock of schoolgirls — merchant girls — passes by; their giggles and flirting attempts are pathetic. I hear Hawthorne snort in contempt. Katniss remains silent.
We leave the square, with its bored housewives and flirty teenage girls, behind, approaching, now, the edge of town.
No one speaks.
By the time we reach the Seam, I have regretted my decision to follow them. Not only did I not get the chance to speak with Katniss, but Hawthorne is being a nuisance as well.
Katniss pauses momentarily. "Gale, do you mind leaving us alone for a few minutes?" Seeing his unstrung expression, she repeats, "Just for a few minutes." Hawthorne halfheartedly complies. I can see him glaring at me from a few feet away.
"What's wrong?" I ask anxiously.
Katniss concentrates on the dirt on her boots. "Prim," she begins, and I can sense the despair in her trembling voice.
"Is she okay?" I begin to think something terrible has happened.
"Yeah. I mean . . . " She struggles for a while, trying to find the right words. "Prim wants to . . . She wants to sign up for tesserae," she eventually admits. Her confession leaves me aghast.
"I can't let her do it, I can't!" She is shouting now, desperate, desolate. I can't stand to see her like this; I enclose her quivering with sobs body in my arms. She lets me.
"Shh, it's okay," I attempt, feebly, to reassure her. Katniss softly pushes me away.
"Can you help me, Peeta? Talk her out of it?" she pleads.
I take a risk by gently wiping the tears from her bloodshot eyes. "Sure," I say. "Sure," I repeat, louder this time. Her lips curl up in a smile.
"Thanks." She lets out a sigh of relief. "I'll . . . I'll see you around." She turns around and continues her hike back home. Hawthorne ; I barely suppress a smug smile, when I notice his scowl. No, Peeta. Keep it classy. Instead, I cheerfully wave at both of them.
While walking back to the town square, I think. I think of the Everdeen sisters. Katniss, deprived of her childhood, forced by circumstance into a tragic fate. Little Primrose Everdeen, at only twelve, barely holding on to some innocence.
It's not fair. To any of us.
Thursday, April 3
I can't believe this is happening to me.
The things I do for love. If mother finds out what a sucker I've become, she'll never let me live it down.
I muster what courage I can, suck a deep breath and walk towards little Primrose Everdeen.
A bright smile appears on her childish face — God, she's only a child. "Hello, Peeta Mellark," she greets cheerfully.
"Hey, Prim," I say. Casting a glance to my right, I see Katniss - barely visible, as she is hiding behind the corner, carefully observing us.
Prim looks around as well. "Katniss is late," she finally says.
"Well, she has to catch up on . . . something. Don't worry, though. We'll wait for her together," I reassure her. Prim nods.
"I'd like that very much." I wish I could say the same, Prim.
"Katniss said something to me yesterday, something I did not like at all," I begin reluctantly.
Prim eyes me gingerly. "Oh. She told you about the tesserae?" she inquires.
I nod. "Why did you ever think of signing up?"
Prim casts her eyes on the dirty floor. "I . . . I wanted to help," she allows, a few tears glinting in her blue eyes. "I didn't want Katniss to do this all by herself. She's risked enough." When she looks up, I no longer see a frail twelve-year old. Primrose Everdeen is a girl brave and compassionate beyond her years, loyal, willing to take every risk imaginable, sacrifice her own life for the sake of her family. But, really, she is only a child.
"Katniss loves you, Prim. She . . . she doesn't want you to get hurt. She . . . she will blame herself if . . . if anything happens to you," I falter.
"I don't want that," she whispers tearfully. Shit, I made her cry.
"Hey, hey, don't cry. You did nothing wrong. You just . . . you just care for your sister," I reassure her. "But . . . see, she loves you too much to let you get hurt. Just . . . do me this favor and say you won't sign up for tesserae." Prim bites her lip. "Promise?"
She nods. "Promise."
I look up; Katniss is still there, gingerly watching us, biting her nails like there's no tomorrow. I nod ever so slightly.
As Katniss heads in our direction, I lean in and whisper in her ear, "Hey, make sure you don't tell her about my involvement." She raises an eyebrow.
"You mean, she didn't ask you to do this?" Smart girl.
"Nope," I lie smoothly.
A crease forms between Prim's eyebrows, but she doesn't get the chance to question me.
"Hey, Katniss!" I shout, as she reluctantly approaches us.
"Hey, little duck. Hey, Peeta." I answer her questioning glance with a cheerful smile; I probably look like my usual self around her, but this smile holds a different meaning for both of us now.
"Is Peeta walking with us today?" Prim inquires, a little impatiently. Katniss eyes me, then — with no hesitation, may I add — nods.
The square is crowded place to be today. At first, I am worried that Katniss might not want to be seen with me on such a busy day, but, much to my surprise, she looks . . . happy. Still, it's silent and tense.
I am struggling to find something to say, when I notice Prim slowing down her pace, then coming to a halt. She's staring into the window of the draper. Plush fabrics on display glare at us; they are as inaccessible as they are offensive. Who would give a damn about red velvet and white satin when they are on the brink of starvation? Not even the more well-off families in the town can afford most of the goods. Only Mayor Undersee is a regular customer; he likes to pick up nice things for his daughter, Madge.
"Can I look at them for a while?" she asks timidly. Katniss scowls. "Please? They're so pretty."
Katniss sighs in resignation. "Okay, little duck. Not for too long, though, hmm?" Prim nods happily.
I lean in against the concrete wall of the shop. A few passersby glance at us, warily. "So . . . " I drawl.
Katniss glances at her little sister, palms and face pressed on the glass window, then says, "Thanks, Peeta. I really appreciate what you did." She smiles. Is that a blush on her cheeks?
"You're welcome. Now, what do I get in return?" I jest. I don't take long to realize my mistake; Katniss' grateful expression shifts into confusion, at first, then rage.
"How dare you?" she barks.
"I . . . I didn't," I falter, shaking my head violently. "Shit, Katniss. I didn't mean it like that. I just," I slap my forehead for effect, "didn't think through. I'm sorry. I'm so, so, so sorry."
Katniss immediately relaxes. "Oh. Damn it, I'm sorry, Peeta. I overreacted. I just — "
"I understand," I say. Katniss looks at her feet, never breaking eye contact with her faded leather boots.
"Is Hawthorne, um, Gale mad that you're . . . walking with me?" I ask on impulse.
"As a matter of fact, yes, he is," Katniss chuckles. "Don't worry! It's not personal." Yeah, right. "It's just . . . he's been hearing things," she allows, frowning.
"Don't you care about what people think of you?" I inquire.
Katniss shrugs. "Eh. I've grown tired of caring about what they think. Their opinions are insignificant," she says, her voice reeking of contempt. "Do you honestly believe people weren't talking before?" Huh?
"What do you mean?"
Katniss smiles crookedly. "Gale has always been quite the lady killer," she says. Oh. "People always assumed that something was going on between us. Eh, you know how gossip travels here."
"Tell me something I don't already know," I banter, and we both burst into laughter. Our faces are only inches apart.
"Hey, Katniss?" a small voice asks. Prim. How the hell did I forget Prim was with us?
"Yeah, Prim?" Katniss asks wearily.
"Look at that." She points at a bolt of fabric. Violet silk, I think.
"Hmph, it's really pretty," Katniss says halfheartedly. It is apparent that she hates the soft, valuable fabric. That all she sees in it is bread, meat, money that would last for months. Behind her contempt for material goods, I see her hatred for everything that reminds her of the Capitol. The things she must say when she's in the woods with Hawthorne . . .
"Too bad we can't afford it," she whispers sorrowfully. If I were Katniss, I'd run into the shop and gladly give up the few coins I have in the pocket of my jeans, just to see little Primrose Everdeen lighten up. If I didn't know her, I'd think her to be a master of manipulation.
"I'm sorry, Prim. We can barely afford basic stuff; I can't bother to care for fabric," Katniss says, eying me warily. Prim pouts, but nods.
"Okay. Let's go now, shall we, little duck?"
We leave the crowded square behind. Katniss doesn't say much during our course. She lets Prim talk about her day, a poem she wrote about a cat named Buttercup — to which Katniss snorts — and Max, a boy she is smitten with. Can't say I don't empathize.
"Hey, Peeta," a smug, familiar — albeit a little hoarse — voice calls from behind me. Shit.
"Peeta," the voice insists, louder this time, when I try to ignore it. I turn around, only to face a dick I call my brother.
"How's it going, little brother?" He eyes Katniss and Prim in contempt. "Who are your friends?" he inquires.
"What do you want, Finn?" I ask wearily.
Finn shrugs indifferently. "Just wanted to see my little brother."
"You can see him at home," I interject. He raises an eyebrow. "Okay, then. Bye, Everdeen and . . . small Everdeen," he half-says, half-sneers. Moron.
"Ugh, what a jerk," Prim snorts. I can't help but smile. Prim is a good judge of characters.
"Sorry, Peeta, but I agree with Prim on this one," says Katniss.
"That makes the three of us," I chuckle.
As we cross the intelligible line that separates the Seam from the town, the difference is immediate. It's like the air is a little more unbearable on the other side.
"Do you want to walk with us all the way, Peeta?" Katniss abruptly asks. Yes. YES. YES!
"Sorry, they're waiting for me at home. Don't want to piss of the shrew, do I?" I mutter.
"They're waiting for me at home," I hedge, more clearly this time.
"Oh. Too bad," she says and genuinely sounds disappointed. "Guess I'll see you tomorrow?" she asks hopefully.
Whoa, there. This is Peeta Mellark working his magic. "Sure thing. Bye, Katniss. Bye, Prim."
"Bye, Peeta," they croon in unison.
All I have to do now is go home and kick Finn's ass.
Friday, April 4
Well, yeah. Today sucks.
Wait, do I seem upset? That's because I am. I thought that things were finally beginning to look up, dammit, that, you know, fate would stop shitting all over me and my optimism. Well, no.
I am now covered in heavy blankets, coughing all over the notebook I am writing on. Who would've thought? It's April, for heaven's sake. Who catches a cold in April? I mean, it's not as if I was dancing in my underwear in the pouring rain last night.
I suppose I'll sleep and dream of what could have happened if Finn hadn't decided to trade spoons yesterday.
I revoke my previous declaration of hatred for this day.
I also revoke everything rude I've ever said to Finn. Ever. Breaking his nose? That was me being an asshole. Telling the girl he liked that he had a crush on Hawthorne? A lame joke. Putting dough in his shoes when we were ten? An immature prank.
You are probably wondering what the hell I'm talking about. Well, the little question mark above your head can be erased by a simply sentence: Finn Mellark just told me that Katniss Everdeen asked him to ask me to meet her at the Meadow tomorrow, at noon.
Ten years of waiting and hoping, nearly a month of awkward conversations, unappreciated gifts, and feuds with potential love interests, they have paid off. What was that? You're impressed?
Finn, however, seems to be much less impressed. Or just bitter.
When he opens my bedroom door, I seriously contemplate throwing something — a preferably sharp object — in his direction. He is here in peace, though, which is perplexing.
"What?" I snap at him. I would probably sound more intimidating if it weren't for the coughing.
"Well," he begins. "Everdeen asked me about you today."
Gawky, dead from the neck up, dumb as a post, daft as a brush, all brawn and no brains brother, say what? "Is that so?" I ask, with as much composure I can muster.
"Yeah. She asked if you were okay, or whatever. And," he hesitates. "She asked me to ask you to meet her at the Meadow tomorrow, at noon – provided you won't cough up phlegm all over her pretty little face," he says with a sly grin. Fuck you, Finn.
"Yeah, don't worry so much, Finn. I'll be — " My loud coughing cuts me off. "I'll be just fine."
"Yeah, I can see that," he sneers.
You know what? I don't even come up with a witty retort this time. In fact, I spend the rest of the day drinking half a gallon of tea and blowing my nose.
Saturday, April 5
I wake up feeling surprisingly fine. I mean, no snot, no quinsy, no annoying, unforeseen sneezing.
I hastily put a pair of jeans and a shirt on, wear my timeworn sneakers, and climb down the stairs like there's tomorrow. The wooden clock on the wall tells me it's eleven thirty. Mother is nowhere to be found — thank the heavens for that — and I assume that my older brothers are snoring out in their shared bedroom. Father is most likely with mother, perhaps taking over at the register, making sure no poor customers are tortured today.
It's rush hour; it feels as if every merchant family is hear, doing their shopping for the week, catching up on the latest town gossip. I pass the draper's — a family of three is inside, the little girl pulling her mother's hand, showing the rows of bolts of fabric; velvet, silk, satin. The mother scowls at her daughter, who pouts and crosses her thin arms over her chest.
I walk by a group of children are playing marbles — their mothers are sitting on a nearby bench, chatting, boasting, giggling.
No familiar faces so far. Good.
The paved street slowly becomes a dirt road and the crowds of people seem more and more sparse. In the distance, I spot the occasional mine worker; most of them are three hundred feet below the surface at this time of the day.
It's different here, on the other side. I've been in the Seam, what? A couple of times? Yet, the contrast is tangible. I spot no cheery children, no gushy housewives g here, the stifling scent of desperation replaces the sounds of marbles hitting the ground and the loud laughter of a well-fed child.
I think I hear the desolate moan of a dying man and run.
I breathe a sigh of relief as I pass the last of the rundown, unkempt houses. The Meadow comes into view, breaking the pattern of ugliness and despair. The large chain-link fence is the last boundary between District Twelve and whatever lies beyond.
I envy Katniss for getting a taste of freedom.
There she is, Katniss. She crawls under the fence, a burlap sack hanging from her shoulder. She hasn't seen me yet. When her eyed do meet mine, though, her lips turn up in a smile.
"You came," she says breathlessly — I will assume it is because she's excited to see me and not because she spent the morning hunting squirrels.
"Hey, Katniss" I say, grinning — or, at least, I would, if I had a voice. Katniss looks at me in confusion.
What is going on? I open my mouth — in vain; no sound comes out. Remember when I told you that fate will not stop shitting all over me and my optimism? Huh, I guess I am right.
"Peeta?" Katniss asks warily.
I think I lost my voice, I mouth. She winces. "Aw, that's too bad," she says. "I wanted to show you the lake," she explains.
The lake? Oh, I remember now. The first time I came to the Meadow, Katniss' hair looked wet, as if she had been swimming.
The la — I cough, scaring away a young mockingjay. " — ke? Yeah, I'd love to see that. I'm fine. Just voice — " Hey, I can hear myself again. "Yeah, I'm fine," I hedge.
Katniss considers it for a moment. "How much time do you have?" she asks, finally.
"I, um . . . " I think about it for a while. "All day long, really," I say with a smile.
"Excellent. Perhaps, then, I should show you the Hob first." The Hob? Does she mean the black market? I pause for a moment, consider my options. The Hob is a place where no townie would ever go. Not only because they can afford most of the goods at the actual market, but also — and this is the main reason — townies don't affiliate with people from the Seam. Intermarriages have happened, but they are rare. And, really, what would the Hob crowd think of a "privileged, blue-eyed" boy walking into the old coal warehouse with a girl from the Seam?
Katniss must have been reading my thoughts, because she reassures, "Don't worry, Peeta. It's not as bad as people make it seem. You won't find any criminals there – just poor, hungry people."
I smile. "Okay, then," I say hoarsely, barely making a sound at all.
Katniss chuckles. "Maybe you shouldn't talk for a while," she suggests.
She was right. The Hob isn't as bad as people make it seem. I suppose this is because these people are . . . well, townspeople. Really, though, I can see why Katniss likes being there so much. Dicey nature aside, this place is teeming with the realest people you'll ever meet. Take Greasy Sae, for example. She's a bony old woman, who makes a living out of selling hot soup from a large kettle. Or Ripper, a one-armed woman who sells white liquor. She used to be a miner, too, but apparently believes "selling booze" is much better. I suspect a certain drunk mentor has a lot to do with this.
I am surprised to see our Peacekeepers here as well. Darius, Purnia, even old Cray seem to be frequent customers. At least that's what I get when Darius banters, "My offer is still valid, Katniss." I notice her blush when she retorts in the same light tone, "And my answer is still no."
We sit on a bench, sipping root soup. "You were right," I tell her. "Mother always described the Hob as a joint, home of every lowlife scum in the District." Speak of the devil. Haymitch Abernathy stumbles on his own feet, grumbles something incoherent, and staggers toward Ripper's stand. Katniss chuckles. This is obviously not an uncommon sighting.
"The thing is, Peeta . . . Look at these people," she says, her voice dropping an octave. "They are starving. I know it's hard for you to picture how it is to go without food for several weeks, but people here die in the streets. They just lay there, begging for crumbs, but no one has crumbs to give them. This place reeks of despair and desolation." I am certain this comment doesn't only apply to the Hob.
"I . . . I don't know what to say," I falter.
"Oh, Peeta, lighten up," Katniss urges. "Look, I think you are one of the most understanding and kind people I know. This isn't your fault."
Around noon, we head back to the Meadow. Katniss warily approaches the electric fence, then simply crawls under it. I watch her cautiously. "Are you sure this is safe?" I ask.
Katniss, now on the other side, turns around to face me. "Really, Peeta? Didn't you just see me go under the fence?"
If the Seam reeks of despair and desolation, the woods are exhilarating. It must be great, being here. It must provide some brief sense of freedom. I tell her so and she agrees.
"Sometimes I think of it," she says. "Leaving Twelve, running off. I think I could make it."
"I know you would make it," I tell her. She smiles.
"And what will happen to Prim? What will happen to mother?" She shakes her head. "I can't do it. I can't afford to be selfish."
Katniss heads for a felled log, reaches into its hollow to extract a long, slender wooden bow and a leather sheath of arrows. "Just in case we encounter dinner," she says with a grin.
We walk in silence for about an hour — sweat is dripping down the side of my face, and my vision is hazy. The very moment I croak, "Are we close?", a tranquil, shimmering body of water — which, I assume, is the lake — comes into view. It's beautiful. The closest thing to it I'd encountered before, was my bathtub, but the murky, gleaming with light lake is a horse of another color.
Katniss tugs me along the water's edge. "What do you say?" she asks. "You up for a dip?"
"What the hell, let's do this!" I exclaim, despite my exhaustion. I hastily remove my shirt, leaving my undershirt off, and slip off my shoes and stand there lamely, remembering I can't swim.
"Don't worry, the water's not that deep," she reassures me with a mischievous grin as she removes her hunting jacket and shirt. I find in less than gentlemanly disappointment that she is wearing an undershirt also.
Katniss walks with small, tentative steps into the crystal clear lake water — she barely suppresses a squeal when the cold water come in contact with the exposed skin of her feet. Instead of moving further, she just closes her eyes and takes a deep breath.
"I didn't use to come here very often," she allows tentatively.
I eye her cautiously. "Why?" I whisper, even though I know the answer.
Katniss opens her eyes to look at me. "My dad used to bring me here when I was little," she confesses. "I've never shared it with anyone. Not even Gale," she continues, her voice cracking.
"Katniss," I begin, unsure of what to say. I can't empathize. "Thank you for showing it to me."
She smiles weakly. "I'm going in," she says, pulling the rubber band that was keeping her braid intact. The sight of her loose hair leaves me breathless.
With small steps, she moves further and further into the cold water until it reaches her thighs. Then, she throws her arms over her head and lunges into the water, leaving a single ripple behind. I stare at the still water in disbelief, waiting for her to emerge. She doesn't.
Thirty seconds pass. I decide to plunge into the water as well — but you can't swim, idiot — when Katniss' head pokes out of the water, a few feet away. Her faced is flushed and she's taking long, deep breaths.
"Damn it, Katniss!" I shout at her.
She casts a mischievous glance. "What? I can swim," she quips. I roll my eyes. "Come on, Peeta," she says impatiently.
With a sigh of reluctance, I slide off the bank and into the cold water.
"See? Wasn't so bad after all, was it?"
I'm still wary, only sloshing out near the bank, jerkily hoping when my toes touch the underwater floor, while Katniss swims into deeper waters. "It's better if you just put your head under and get it over with," she shouts. Which is what I do. The cold is almost unbearable at first, and, even though it's only been mere seconds, my lungs are aching for oxygen. I emerge from the water, coughing, desperately gasping for air.
I blink a few times, trying to regain the ability to see. When my vision does clear, Katniss is nowhere to be found. I do think I can spot her, though, once the rush of water slams me in the face. There she is, standing right in front of me, grinning from ear to ear.
"You're going to regret that."
We spend the next hour splashing water at each other, tripping and flopping into the water and jerking away from the soggy stuff on the lake bottom — well, I, anyway — until we climb out shivering.
We lay down on a sizable rock nearby. I steal a glance at Katniss; she is beaming. I don't realize I am staring, until she casts a questioning glance at me.
"What?" she queries.
"Nothing," I say, unconvincingly.
Katniss bites her lower lip. "I want to know," she says after a while.
Now it's my turn to ask. "Know what?"
"I want to know the reason you took a beating for me when we were little. The reason you walked with Prim and me. The reason you've been so . . . " She struggles for a moment, searches for the right words. "unduly nice to me. The real reason," she demands.
I rack my brains. Why is this so hard?
"Remember the first day of school?" I finally ask.
Katniss ponders this for a moment, then nods.
"Well, there you were, in your red plaid dress, your hair in two braids instead of one," I say. "I remember my father pointing you out when we were waiting to line up."
"Yeah. I think . . . I think he was going to marry your mother 'before she ran off with a coal miner'", I admit.
"What? No way!" she exclaims.
"Nope," I say, popping the 'p'. "I wondered, why would she choose a coal miner, if she had you. And he said, 'Because when he sings . . . even the birds stop to listen.'"
Katniss looks at the murky lake. "It's true. They did," she says in the smallest of voices. "Go on," she urges weakly.
"So, that day, in music assembly, the teacher asked who knew the valley song. Your hand shot right up in the air. She stood you up on a stool and had you sing it for us. And, I swear, every bird outside fell silent."
Katniss casts a glance of disbelief with the corner of her eye. "Yeah, right."
"It's true, though," I assert. "I knew, right then, that I was a goner — like your mother."
"So, let me guess. All these years, you've been trying to work up the nerve to talk to me?" she inquires, a smile playing on the corners of her lips. I nod, ever so slightly. "Without success," she adds.
"Without success," I confirm.
"You have a . . . remarkable memory," she says haltingly.
"Not really. I just remember everything about you," I say. I expect a scrunched up glare from her, but, instead, she just grins.
"I've never had the chance you pay you back," she whispers.
"What? For the bread? Come on, Katniss, that's ancient history now. I'm just glad . . . I'm just glad you're here," I allow, thinking of the horrific possibility where she wasn't. And I don't mean here, next to me, in the woods outside Twelve.
Katniss shakes her head. "I've been kind of," — she pauses, contemplates — "not the nicest person to you, don't you think?" she remarks. I cock my head to the right, raising an eyebrow. "I mean, you've essentially saved my life. You were kind to me and Prim. You even tolerated Gale, I'll give you that. All I've been to you is sullen and hostile," she explains.
"That's the girl I've loved," I confess unwittingly.
"Wh — what?" she stammers.
Wait, what? Oh, Peeta. You keep blaming fate shitting all over you and your optimism. Boy, you keep shitting all over you and your optimism.
"What I meant was — what I really meant — " I falter.
I don't get the chance to finish my sentence, though. Because I get cut off by Katniss' soft hands cupping each side of my face, her trembling lips gently brushing mine.
"I suppose all of this waiting was worth it," I whisper before draw myself to the kiss.
The bright banners hanging from the buildings fal to erase the grimness of the day.
A child crying. A young woman sobbing in the arms of her husband. Two teenage girls enfolding each other in a tight embrace. A little girl, no older than five, grasping the hand of her older brother.
The town square is packed today. This would be uncommon for any Wednesday of the year — District Twelve's entire population of eight thousand gathered before the Justice Building — but not today.
Just as the town clock strikes two, Mayor Undersee steps up to the podium and begins to recite — I don't listen; it's the same story every year and I can't bear to hear it.
Effie Trinket trots to the podium. Her shrill voice, with its ridiculous Capitol accent, booming through the crowded square, does little to capsize my lack of interest. "The time has come to select one courageous young man and woman for the honor of representing District Twelve in the 74th annual Hunger Games."
I look away in disgust. How honorific is it really, to die for the sole purpose of entertaining the spoiled Capitol bunch? Through the crowd, standing in a clump of sixteens from the Seam, I spot Katniss, in her light blue dress that compliments her shiny dark tresses — I eagerly take in her sight, afraid the unthinkable will happen and I will lose her forever. I want to pull her away from the crowded square. Her eyes scan the section of twelves, find Prim. Then me — she offers a ghost of her rare, sunny smiles I've come to love so much. Oh, how fervently I want to run to her side, hold her in my reassuring embrace, wipe the emerging tears off her face.
I notice someone else observing me too; Hawthorne, a look of desolation in his grey eyes. And next to him, my brother, Finn — his face an emotionless mask.
"Ladies first!" bright and bubbly Effie, with her pink hair and extravagant clothes, croons in excitement, and my attention returns to the stage. Effie crosses to the bowl with the girls' names. She reaches in and randomly picks a piece of neatly folded paper.
The crowd draws in a collective breath, as Effie crosses back to the podium.
"How exciting!" she croons in her silly accent. She slowly, dramatically unfolds the slip of paper and I stop breathing — the waiting is agonizing.
"Katniss Everdeen!" she reads out, the words slipping out of her mouth in false cheeriness, and I know my life has ended.
My heart plummets to my feet, when, on the television screen that was set up especially for the occasion, I see Katniss walking with slow, determined steps towards the stage. Her hands are clenched into fists, her shoulders are squared. If it weren't for her blanched face and terrified eyes, blinking wildly at the harsh lights and the grinning face of Effie Trinket, you'd think she had already accepted her precocious death.
I hear a strangled cry of despair; I don't have to look to see that it's Prim. Sweet, tiny Prim. I cast a quick glance at her; she is curled into a half-fetal crouch on the ground, making choked, sobbing noises, her face blotchy with tears.
I feel a sympathetic pat on my shoulder. I turn, only to see my friend, Dave, his eyes filled with pity. I focus my gaze to Hawthorne, who desperately tries to appear uncaring; I know he is dying on the inside as well. With long, swift strides, he runs to Prim's side, his arms circling around her in a protective embrace.
A nightmare. Please, let this be a nightmare.
My movements are mechanical today.
I put on my good clothes; a plain white shirt, tawny pants. I wonder if the pigs and lambs, herded in a corral, waiting to be slaughtered, have to look pretty. Then again, there are no cameras trained on their terrified faces, recording their horror and despair.
Breakfast is a quiet affair. Finn is fumbling with the collar of his shirt, barely touching his food. All blood has drained from his face; my erstwhile cocky brother is nothing more than a terrified child.
Mother is unusually silent. Father's expression is unreadable. Emmett is torn; no longer eligible for the Games, but with two brothers, possible victims of the Capitol's bloodthirst.
I remember the 73rd Games with a shudder. Both of the District Twelve tributes died a gruesome death within the first two days of the Games. I stare at the slice of stale bread on my plate.
What if Katniss is reaped?
I stare at the clock on the wall. Almost noon.
I leave my plate as I found it, run for my bedroom, curl myself in a fetal position, seeking for a sanctuary.
Creak. Days, hours, or mere minutes later, I hear my bedroom door open. Steps echo on the wooden floor, and there is a slump next to me, on the bed.
"Nervous?" I hear Finn ask. It's more of a rhetorical question, really. As if I could forget the fact that these could be my last moments in District Twelve.
Something unintelligible, between a croak and a moan, comes out.
"Sorry for being an asshole," he allows. I chuckle; apologies to your loved ones are a Reaping Day ritual.
"Well, don't worry about it," I say. "Sorry for breaking your nose, I suppose," I concede. "And that, ahem, Violet situation."
Now it is his turn to laugh. "Oh, please. Bygones are bygones, water under the bridge," he shrugs. "I mean what I said, though," he continues after a while. "I was being unjust. I was being . . . well, I was being mother." True that.
"Don't worry about it, Finn," I murmur unconvincingly. "We will — " A lump in my throat makes it difficult for me to continue. "We will be here, throwing tirades at each other in a few hours. Like we always do." My voice is barely audible now.
"Okay, but . . . I want you to know that, whatever I said to you, I didn't mean to be . . . I didn't mean . . . " he stammers out.
I make it easier for him. "I know, Finn. I know." He nods, staring at his hands resting on his lap. "Can you give me a moment? Please," I implore.
As soon as the door is closed and I am left alone, I think of the last couple of months.
They were the happiest of my life and I'm not exaggerating.
After that day at the lake, there wasn't a dramatic, overnight change in my relationship with Katniss. It was more of a shift — a tangible one, nonetheless.
She tells me she never smiled except in the woods. She smiles a lot more now.
I fondly remember the time she taught me — or, rather, tried — how to use a bow and arrow. It was an absolute disaster.
It was after she had killed a squirrel — a clean shot through the eye — that I asked her if I could try it.
With no hesitation at all, she held it out for me. "It was my father's," she said deferentially.
"I can't — I don't want to break it," I said.
Katniss simply grinned. "Don't worry. You won't break it," she told me.
"Are you insinuating I'm weak, Katniss Everdeen?" I bantered. Katniss answered with a sly grin.
I pulled the bowstring and —
— the arrow fell lamely on my feet.
Katniss covered her mouth with her palms — still, her muffled laughs are perfectly audible.
"Humor the rookie, Katniss," I protest.
Katniss stoops and pinches the arrow between her index and middle fingers — she waves it playfully in front of my face.
"As if this hasn't happened to you," I mutter in false anger through gritted teeth.
"Nope. Not even when I was ten." I scoff.
"Well, at least I can bake." Katniss remained unimpressed. "How about we forget this," I say, waving my hands in a circular gesture. "ever happened."
I am convinced Prim and every person she's ever talked to have heard of this.
Then, there was that one time when we tried to study History together. And I say 'tried', because what we did, certainly didn't qualify as studying. It was more of an in-depth analysis of all the bullshit we've been fed all of these years of futile education.
And, yeah, there was some kissing too.
And who could forget her attempts at helping me recover from my cold?
"No, Peeta, we can't go to the lake until you stop sneezing . . . Maybe I should try some herbs . . . I'll get Greasy Sae make you soup."
"You're no healer, Katniss," I informed her, thinking of all the delicious delicacies Sae's soups usually contain. Let's see; mice or wild dog meat?
"Well, I doubt you'd fare any better without me, so — " she retorted before I interrupted her with a kiss. When I leaned back, a scarlet blush was staining her cheeks.
"Shut up and drink your tea," she instructed.
I nearly laugh out loud, when I remember Katniss' first visit to my house.
It wasn't one of those "meet the parents" situations. In fact, I had assumed we'd be alone. Don't get me wrong — I certainly didn't intend to take advantage of the situation. I, however, had hoped to show Katniss my personal space, my favorite book, a new drawing of mine.
As you can imagine, awkwardness ensued, when we found mother scolding Emmett and father for, Lord knows what. I assume it was for reasons.
"What is she doing here?" she asked, her bark-y voice sounding surprisingly shrill.
"I . . . I . . . I invited her, mother," I stammered out.
Emmett and father smiled knowingly at each other. Thanks, Finn.
"I don't remember giving you permission to do that!" she bellowed.
Katniss grimaced. "It's okay, we can —"
"I don't remember Finn asking for permission, when he brought home that Violet chick!" I divulged.
"What?" two voices shrieked in unison. I am surprised Finn actually let that one slide.
However, I can safely say that the Buttercup Incident is far more a disaster than an accidentally-meet-the-parents situation.
The day I met Katniss and Prim's infamous, invincible cat will be forever imprinted on my mind — and my forearm. Because when it comes to people, Primrose Everdeen is a great judge — animals, though? Not quite.
I think of Katniss, now. Clad in pretty clothes, reaping clothes, holding her little sister's quivering body. Prim.
A knock on the door.
It must be one o'clock. I haltingly get up.
If this is the last time I am writing to you, so long.
A Friday (after)
The door of my new house at the Victor's Village smacks against the wall so loudly, that I almost fall off my chair to the floor.
"What. Happened. To my liquor?" Haymitch Abernathy hollers at me in almost comical rage. If he were twenty or so years younger, he would be the spitting image of Cato, the District Two Career tribute and epitome of all brawn and no
"I've gotten rid of it, Haymitch," I say indifferently, if not with a hint of exasperation.
"You what?" he barks, spitting in the process.
"I've. Gotten. Rid of it," I repeat, not bothering to look up.
"Why on earth would you to do that?" he demands, suppressing a hiccup. Damn, I thought I'd found all of it.
"Oh, I don't know, Haymitch," I retort. "Maybe it has something to do with you getting my girlfriend drunk!"
Haymitch tilts his head in confusion. "Wha — oh."
He spends the next five minutes guffawing and stumbling on everything within reach.
"Boy, your girlfriend came to find me. It's not my fault she can appreciate good alcohol," he says with a grin that clearly shows the results of said "good alcohol" appreciation. "So, give her a break, son," he continues. "She spent two weeks in that godforsaken arena."
"We both did," I contend. "You don't see me running around, vomiting and yelling nonsense."
"Then I suppose it's not my fault then," Haymitch says as he slumps down onto a chair beside me.
I hastily crumple the piece of paper I was drawing, and put down my charcoal pencil in defeat. "What do you want, Haymitch?" I inquire.
"I just want my liquor," he replies. "Come on, son. You know how it feels. The nightmares, the screaming . . . we all have different ways of dealing with it. You have Katniss. I have my white liquor. When someone takes my white liquor, I get pissed off. And trust me, son, you prefer drunk Haymitch to pissed off Haymitch."
I sigh. "There's a bottle in the bottom cabinet," I tell him, pointing behind me.
"See, boy?" he sneers, leaning closer — his breath reeks of decay. "You're not all that better."
And the truth is, I'm not.
After Haymitch shuts the door behind him and staggers off to his house down the road, I remember the pleading screams of that girl I killed on the first night. I remember the boy from District Ten — the one with the crippled leg — the one I stabbed during my days of dehydration, camouflaged by mud and leaves, laying on the bank where Katniss found me.
And, finally, I remember Cato and his tragic, excruciatingly slow death.
And I understand Haymitch, who simply wants to forget.
A soft knock on the door pulls me back from my thoughts.
"Come in — unless you're Haymitch," I say.
The door slowly opens and the sound of steps approaching breaks the silence.
"Are you mad at me?" a voice calls from behind me.
"Are you going to get drunk and vomit all over my shirt again?"
"I don't think so," Katniss replies with a laugh. "It was far too awful."
"Glad we agree."
She sits across from me on the round kitchen table.
"I'm scared," she admits.
"Why? We made it. We're alive. We're safe," I say, avoiding her eyes.
Katniss shakes her head. "But Haymitch said — "
"Don't listen to Haymitch," I implore. "After all, what are his words? The words of a sot. Listen to me, Katniss. Katniss? Listen to me. We aren't in the Games anymore. We're together — "
"They don't buy it, Peeta. Our act of . . . of desperation was considered an act of rebellion. We were foolish."
I extend my hand over the table to grasp tightly her own. "The Capitol bought it," I reassure her. "Why wouldn't they, after all? We just wanted to live." I slowly get up from my chair, walk up to her side.
Katniss tugs my hand. "I have to go now. Can't have Prim invite Haymitch over for lunch. Again," she groans.
"He was here before. I gave him the last bottle of white liquor — I reckon he'll be busy," I say, barely suppressing a smirk. I gently brush my mouth over hers.
For a few, painfully short moments, we feel safe.
But we're not. As much as I'd like to convince Katniss — and myself — that they won't come after us, that we have convinced Snow, that the Capitol won't retaliate, I know that my reassuring words are nothing but lies.
Yes, we did want to live. But our defiance of the Games' vital rule was abetted by more than our star crossed lovers façade. It was abetted by our will to live, and that, in the Games, is the ultimate act of rebellion.
But it doesn't matter. Because as long as we're together, we're fearless.