I try to tighten my hold around my sobbing two-year-old son as we make our way to the rundown shack at the edge of the Seam. With our blonde heads, fair complexions, and clean clothes, we stand out like sore thumbs, and the glaring eyes that stare at us from broken windows make sure to remind me of how much of a bad idea this could possibly be.
The merchant class avoids the Seam like the plague. It is surprising, and also inexplicably sad in my eyes, that even in a district as small as ours, already fenced and segregated to the edges of Panem, its inhabitants have decided to increase the unnecessary divide by pushing its poorer dwellers, united equally in their misery and colouring, to the outskirts. In District 12, the Seamers are doomed to their mines and to the grey dust surrounding their forgotten streets, but I’m one of the very few members of the merchant class that has limited interaction with them. This is of course due to the absolute necessity of my wares. They hate me just as the rest of my class, but I help in keeping them fed, and possibly that is one of the reasons why their reaction to me brazenly walking towards the Everdeen shack is limited only to suspicious looks without any physical demonstration.
At the moment however, as my son clings tightly to my neck, and the blood pours out of the side of his head, I would have been ready to pick a fight, and win it, hands down, in order to get to the healer of this area. “We’re almost there, Peeta,” I whisper soothingly. “Mrs Everdeen will make your head all better,” I tell him, as I knock on the cracked wooden door.
May Everdeen opens the door and only takes one look at Peeta before setting aside any emotions that my surprise visit, after all these years, may have generated. She steps back and lets me in without a word, before unlatching my son gently from my neck and setting him on the kitchen table.
“I’m so sorry for intruding like this,” I begin. “The apothecary in Town has been taken ill and there was so much blood - ” I stop suddenly when she looks at me in alarm.
Of course, the apothecary is her father, you moron.
“What’s wrong with him?” she asks quickly, and the sharp tone in her voice shows me that, for now at least, she is asking about the old apothecary.
“Just a cold, don’t worry May,” I respond, trying to reassure her while willing her with my eyes to turn her attention towards Peeta, who is still hiccuping in his tears.
“I was made to stop worrying years ago, Wheaton,” she replies with a wry smile and a nod, “but I’m glad that it’s nothing serious. Let’s look at this little man now,” she adds, directing a warm smile towards my son.
“He was at the bakery with me, he slipped off his stool and hit his head with the corner of the counter,” I explain, trying to keep the panic and guilt off my voice. “I didn’t know what to do, he was crying so much…”
May examines his cut and looks at me carefully. “Is it really that, Wheaton? Did she-“
“No!” I interrupt before she can go further, and wince at how widespread and well known my home situation seems to be. “He’s so young, and small, I would never let her…No, May, as long as I can keep him away from her, I do,” I admit sadly. As tragic as it may sound, it is true though. I do keep my two year old son away from his mother, even though I cannot understand how anyone could possibly want any harm to befall on him. His brothers had not needed such protection when they were his age, Naan had been strongly desired by both of us, and serious and well behaved as he always was, he was the pride of his mother. Barley was also planned, and though not the girl Leila had wished, he was such a cheerful daredevil that as soon as he could walk, he pretty much forgot all about his parents as he rushed all over the place, on his secret expeditions and fanciful missions. We couldn’t keep up with him, so we let him be, other than trying to get him to reach adulthood in one piece.
When Leila became pregnant again, she was absolutely certain that it was going to be a girl. A sweet little girl who would share her green eyes, her love for sewing, and who would want to spend her time with her while I work my long hours at the bakery. She spent her whole pregnancy thinking of girl names, asking me to paint flowers on the crib, and already imagining what her life with her new daughter would be like. I feel terribly guilty about indulging her fantasies in that way. I should have known better, and should have reminded her that we couldn’t be sure, and that there was still a fifty percent chance that we would be having another boy. I let myself enjoy her enthusiasm, and allowed myself the peace of mind of seeing her at her happiest in those nine months preceding Peeta’s birth. Then our youngest son was born, blue eyed and blonde like his brothers and me, and my wife shut him out of her life in bitter disappointment.
Peeta stopped yearning for his mother’s attention very early in his young life. His strength and sense of preservation seem to have developed as rapidly as his sweetness.
He sits at May’s table now, and slowly calms down as she washes away the cut with warm water and some natural concoction that she brewed in the few minutes that we’ve been in her kitchen. His tiny fingers clutch the torn, threadbare blanket that he loves so much, and his big, innocent eyes look out to me in gratitude. He’s still at an age where he thinks that I’m his everything, and I can’t even bear to think of the day where he will realise just how much I have failed him, by not being able to convince his mother to love him, as all little boys his age deserve. He sighs as May gently brushes away his hair from his temple with her fingers, and my heart breaks when I see his head instinctively lean towards her touch. I wince inwardly when I realise just how starved of love my youngest son is.
“It’s just a small cut, it won’t need any stitches,” May remarks with a smile. “Cuts in the head bleed a lot, but he should be fine in no time. Just indulge him a little today, give him an extra hug or two,” she suggests, smiling at Peeta warmly.
He grins back at her and stretches his little arms at her. “Hugs?” he asks hopefully.
May looks at me and asks for permission with her eyes, before I nod. She hugs him gingerly and calls him a brave brave boy¸ before we are joined by a little girl with dark hair and grey eyes, all Seam. She looks at the scene with a serious, unreadable expression in her solemn face before clutching at May’s skirt possessively.
“Your girl?” I ask rather redundantly.
“Yes,” she replies with a small smile, “this is Katniss, she came to check on our visitors, haven’t you little girl?”
Katniss does not reply, but does not seem to be very happy at our intrusion either. Unlike Peeta, I don’t believe that she gets to be very much around people, or at least, definitely not strange men with blonde hair and their sons. She just glares at us with steely eyes and scrunches her dark nose in distaste.
From his perch at the kitchen table, Peeta looks at the girl closely before piping out, “Sad? Want Blankie?” As I watch him offer his beloved blanket to the girl, I can’t help thinking how tough life is going to be for my youngest son if he doesn’t learn how to stop being so giving and selfless all the time. My thoughts are confirmed when Katniss ignores his proferred blanket and runs off to hide behind the couch, staring at us suspiciously, without blinking.
Peeta turns his face towards me, hurt and confused, his eyes brimming with tears of rejection. “Oh Peeta, don’t mind Katniss,” May tells him soothingly, “she’s not as friendly as you, and doesn’t have many children to play with,” she explains, looking at me apologetically.
I shrug sympathetically and pick up my son, who buries his head into my shoulder. “Sometimes he’s more sensitive than his own good,” I reply, “he’ll get over it,” I add with a grin.
After thanking May, and giving her a bag of freshly baked buns that I had had the good sense of bringing with me, I make my way out of the door to take the road that would lead me out of the Seam. Just as I’m a few steps away from the shack however, I hear a tiny voice cry “bye Peeta!”, and I turn to see little Katniss standing on the doorstep, waving at us.
My son jumps in my arms and nearly topples over my shoulder to be able to wave back. “Bye Kadnish!!” he yells, digging his knees in my chest in his enthusiasm.
“Bye!” she replies hopping on her tiny feet as she waves madly.
“Bye!” he answers again, waving with both arms.
This back and forth of happy waves and screaming of goodbyes between the two toddlers continues until we’re out of sight of the Everdeens’ home, and when Peeta can’t see Katniss any longer, he deflates slightly and snuggles back into my arms. “Thank you, Papa,” he whispers softly, “head better,” he adds, yawning sleepily.
“I’m glad to hear it Little One,” I reply with a kiss on his bruised forehead. “So did you like Katniss?” I tease.
Peeta burrows his head into my neck shyly and whispers “pretty” but refuses to say more. I know that this was not a good idea, and I know that I will have to make sure that my son doesn’t say anything about our excursion to anyone, especially his mother, but I’m not too worried about that. It’s not the first time that he has managed to keep things from her but I know that I should be worried about the interest that he showed for May Everdeen’s daughter, in view of our history together, and especially because of Leila’s reaction to it.
I keep silent, however, and let my son enjoy his first encounter with a pretty girl. They will not see each other again before starting school in a few years’ time, and I highly doubt that their life will give them much opportunity to interact. He’s from Town, and she’s from the Seam. There is not much in our life and District that could possibly overcome that divide.