“Take him to Watcher. Maybe she can figure out something to do with him,” his mother snarls as she throws him out the door of the bakery. He looks up in time to see his father standing behind her, wringing his hands like an old woman would while a crowd gathers behind him.
Mayor Undersee steps forward and helps Peeta to his feet. “Are you sure about this, Mrs. Mellark? She still has to make her choice, whether someone volunteers or not.”
His mother almost spits when she says, “Do you not understand me? He is a useless boy who can hardly take the bread out of the oven. Even then his brothers have to help him or he will drop the loaves because of his worthless leg. Take him to your house, leave him in the community house, let that monster in the woods have him. I don’t care! I don’t want him anymore.”
Peeta stumbles against the mayor. His daughter Madge steps forward to help him. She whispers, “I’ll go get your cane in a minute, ok?”
He shakes his head. “She will punish you. I’ll be alright,” he mutters back. His mother screams again, and they both look up to see his father pushing past her. In Mr. Mellark’s hands he carries the cane he carved for his son just last month to replace the old one that he outgrew. He gives it to Peeta, unable to look into his eyes.
Madge lets go when he finds his footing. He tries not to look back at his mother, but when he does, she is gone. The empty doorway gapes open like the hole in his heart.
He glances up, and there in their bedroom window is Bram and Rye. Bram wrestles the window open, and Rye leans out, mouthing the words, “Is she gone?”
He nods, knowing that she hasn’t come back and won’t, not until the crowd behind him is gone. Rye disappears and Madge murmurs, “What are they doing?”
When he hushes her, the bundle that he recognizes as his pillow case comes flying down. He manages to catch it with one arm, and Bram leans back out. Madge whispers what his lips are forming, “I’ll bring your paints over tonight.”
Peeta nods at his brothers and they quickly disappear. “Is it ok if I come to your house?” He meekly asks Madge.
It’s her father who answers, “Of course it is. The choosing isn’t for a couple of days yet. You can stay with us until it’s over, then—” He trails off not knowing what to say. The mayor takes a deep breath, and says to the people still surrounding them, “The boy is fine now. Go back to your work and your homes.” He turns back to Madge and Peeta. He glances at the bakery door and sighs. “Peeta can you make bread?”
Peeta swallows hard and his voice is shaky, “Yes sir. Mother—“ he stops and starts again, “Yes sir. I can make any loaf you want.”
Mr. Undersee nods and gives a tired smile. “Good. You need to teach my cook because it will be a cold day in hell before I go back into that shop.”
“You know it’s your turn to choose this year,” He says behind her.
She doesn’t even turn around, but keeps on walking to her lake. “Yes, I know.”
“Are you going to keep them, or eat them?”
She stops on the path and scowls at him over her shoulder. “We don’t eat them. Ever. At least I don’t throw them in the ocean to see how long they can swim.”
He smirks. “It was that one brat. I still can’t believe I chose him. That was over five hundred years ago. You can let it go now.”
She grins and rolls her eyes. “Never. I will never let you forget.”
“When are you going to choose it?”
“They are male and female, just like we are. I think they are expecting my mockingjay in a
couple of days.”
“Why don’t you go yourself to pick it out?”
She doesn’t even bother correcting him again, knowing that he is teasing her like he usually does. She glances down at her natural appearance. “You know I’m not what they expect. Its better to stay hidden here in this district.”
He clears his throat. “Well just don’t forget to tell father that you accepted the sacrifice so he can tell the Titan.”
“I know, I know.” Before she can say anything else, they hear the bells ringing, signaling that another one of them needs help. Her brother closes his eyes, and presses his fingertips to his temple while his eyes drift shut. He nods once, and says out loud, “Yes, little sister. I will be there as soon as the rain-soak wind blows me there.” He pauses for a moment. “I will tell her.”
He opens his eyes, and glances back at her. As always, he forgets the connection she has with the youngest of them. “She is attending the sick in the village and needs your cool rains to come and ease their suffering?”
He gives her a smirk, and dives into her lake on his way to their sister. After watching him a moment, she gets a chill and hugs herself, all of sudden feeling very alone. She hears familiar chirping, and smiles. Her faithful companion lands on her shoulder. “Come along, Aurora Fawkes. You have a choosing to get ready for.”
“Peeta, sit down dear,” Mrs. Undersee motions towards the chair beside Madge. He’s only seen her a couple of times in his short sixteen years and he is struck by how beautiful she is. Pale blonde hair frames her face, and kind dark blue eyes look at him with a kindness he isn’t used to.
“Thank you. Can I get you anything before I sit down?”
She shakes her head. “I think I have everything.” She unfolds her napkin, laying it across her
lap. Peeta and Madge both copy her. “Mr. Undersee had some business in the Seam, but I feel a headache coming. Maybe if we eat, that will help.”
He picks up his spoon, and gingerly brings some soup up to his mouth. The rich flavors of the butternut squash explode in his mouth. He doesn’t realize that he moans out loud until Madge giggles beside him. His face explodes in embarrassment, and Mrs. Undersee smiles. “I’ll tell Cook that you liked her soup.”
He nods, then he has the horrid thought that he better enjoy the soup, because his days could be numbered. The Undersee ladies jump in surprise when his spoon clangs against the ceramic bowl. He mutters, “Sorry, about that.”
Neither Madge or her mother don’t say anything, while he tells himself to eat as much as he can. He might need his strength if Watcher chooses him. He gingerly picks his spoon back up, and tries to finish the bowl of soup without his tears falling into it.
“Why don’t you come with me Peeta? It will be good to hang out with everyone.”
Peeta doesn’t say anything, instead continues to look out the window at the people he went to school with before he hurt his leg and Mother wouldn’t let him go anymore. He is about to say no, when he sees Bram at the edge of the small crowd. Peeta grabs his cane, and turns to Madge. With a nervous nod, and a shaky breath, he says, “Alright, lets go.”
Madge goes on before him, and not for the first time, he wonders if she has forgotten that he can’t keep up with her, especially on stairs. She does stop at the bottom for him. It’s the beginning of summer, so they don’t need their coats, besides, the witch wouldn’t give his to him anyway.
He follows Madge to the kitchen door. She goes on out to the small courtyard behind the mayoral house. the town’s people at various times of the day meet out here. The older ones claim it in the mornings, meeting there to exchange gossip. The families claim it around noon as the rush from shop to shop running their errands. Then when dusk comes, that is when some of the youngest gather. Many a courtship, then wedding has been planned among these old flagstones.
Peeta knows these people. These are the ones who come in to buy the bread his mother said he couldn’t make. He even sees some of the poorest from the Seam. He snorts at the irony, if they only knew how many of the merchants are as poor as they are.
His leg is tired, so he has to lean heavily on his cane as he looks for Bram. Finally, he sees his brother standing off to the side talking to their old friend Delly Cartwright. Delly sees him first, and waves him over.
Slowly, the crowd sees that its him who Delly waved at. Peeta’s face flushes red, and he wants nothing more that to run back inside as they all grow silent when he approaches them. Delly walks to him, and says to the crowd around them, “It’s just Peeta! You know she never let him out because she was ashamed of him.” She stops in front of him as the others start talking again. Delly throws her arms around his neck and whispers in his ear, “You can come to my house. you know Daddy won’t care.”
“He won’t, but mother will know.” It’s a bitter chuckle that escapes his mouth, “Besides, Watcher might want me after all.”
Delly pulls away, and says, “Stop that! Its bad enough that Bram talks about himself like he is nothing, I can’t bear to hear you do it too.” His heart tightens when he sees his best friend’s eye’s fill with tears. “Watcher won’t want you. The bird will choose someone else.”
He knows better than try to explain to her how he feels. Bram interrupts his thoughts when he slaps him on the back and shoves a package into his hands. “I hid your paints before she had the chance to destroy them.”
He doesn’t have to ask what Bram means when he says it like that. “Thank you,” he wants to go back in, but he also wants to stay. When Rye comes up behind Bram, that makes up his mind. The Mellark brothers, for the first time in their short years together, even if its just for an evening, finally feel safe enough to talk freely. No one notices the old beggar man sitting in the alley watching them or the fiery streak that crosses the night sky.
The next morning finds Peeta waking before the dawn. It takes him a moment to remember where he is and that he doesn’t have to be downstairs banking the fires before Mother gets downstairs.
At first, he rolls over, wanting to get some more rest, but after years of his body getting up at this same time, he can’t go back to sleep. besides his leg has been still for far too long, and his muscles demand to be moved. He throws back the covers and while he stretches he watches the sun chase away the darkness.
He’s never been given this small luxury of his time, being his to do what he will with it, so he reaches for his paints. He gets lost in the hypnotic movement of his own brush revealing to him the hidden picture on his page.
He hears movement in the hallway, so he gets ready for what might be his last day in his village. He finally makes it downstairs, and finds Madge waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs. “Oh no! have you been waiting for me?”
She smiles, and he feels a little better. “No, well yes. Come on. Daddy is waiting for you.”
“Is everything ok?” He asks, trying not to let the familiar dread wash over him, as she keeps pace with his hobble.
She loops her hand through his arm. “Yes, silly,” she scolds him playfully. She leads him to the door of the dinning room where Mr. Undersee is seated with his newspapers scattered around him.
The sight makes Peeta pause, since he’s never seen a newspaper up close. Madge tugs on his arm, and then goes to her seat. The mayor looks at them, and gives Peeta the same friendly smile he did yesterday. “Come and sit. Madge, can you fix Peeta a cup of tea? Or would you like to try coffee?”
He shakes his head, all of a sudden nervous for even accepting what he has. “Tea sounds great, Sir.” Peeta watches him, while Madge fetches them both a plate, and tea.
Peeta waits for Mr. Undersee to dig in, before he starts. They eat in silence for a moment before the mayor says, “You know you aren’t going to be chosen tomorrow. How would you like a job?”
Peeta chokes, and coughs for a moment. “Are you sure, sir?”
“Cook is very impressed with the way you handled yourself in the kitchens yesterday. So you could go help her or I know several jobs at the Justice Building. It’s your choice really.”
He looks down at his plate not knowing what to say. He gives Mr. Undersee a humble, “Thank you.” Knowing that the little mockingjay that comes out of the woods tomorrow may very well land on his head.
Its Madge who says, “Oh Peeta! Stop worrying about tomorrow. We don’t know who she is going to choose, it could be anyone.” She gives a bitter laugh. “Hell, it could be me!”
Mr. Undersee sits up straighter and Peeta doesn’t miss the look he gives his daughter. Peeta braces himself, waiting for the shouting, but instead the mayor says, “Now, Madge—“
“Well it’s true, Daddy. We don’t know who that stupid little bird will choose.”
Peeta sets his fork down, his hunger gone. He wants to say something to comfort her, and well, comfort himself too. Mr. Undersee instead sets his napkin down on the table, and stands up. “It seems that I have lost my appetite. Would you two like to join me?”
Both of them stand, Madge walks around the table and after he has his cane, Peeta brings up the rear. They follow the mayor to his library, and once Peeta is in the room, Madge closes the door behind them.
Mr. Undersee finds his seat and Madge motions for him to sit beside her in one of the fancy chairs. Mr. Undersee sighs and opens his top drawer pulling out a pack of cigarettes. He takes one out, and strikes his lighter. Before he can inhale, Madge says, “Now, Daddy. You know that Mama doesn’t like it when you smoke.”
The mayor watches them as he inhales, lighting up the cigarette. The sweet smell of tobacco fills the office, reminding Peeta of his dad. After he exhales, he looks at the teens sitting in front of him. Instead of acknowledging what his daughter just said, he begins, “Once upon a time—“
“Daddy? Seriously, what are you doing?” Madge asks, clearly annoyed.
He flicks the ashes into the ash tray. “Once upon a time, your Aunt Maysilee—“
Madge interrupts him when she says, “Dad—“ while she grabs a tissue from the box on the desk. Peeta watches her wipe her eyes and sighs, “Ok, dad. The only reason I’m sitting here is because Peeta doesn’t know.”
The mayor exhales, and nods. “Your Aunt Maysilee was chosen by the bird. Yes, it broke your mother’s heart. But I have noticed something since I’ve been mayor. When it’s this village’s turn to offer a sacrifice, the bird never picks from a family it has picked from before.”
“Oh, crap,” Peeta whispers.
Madge grabs his hand. “Think Peeta! Someone has to have been chosen before in your family!”
He tries to smile, but his lips won’t cooperate. “Peeta?” the mayor asks. “I’m thinking you had an uncle that was chosen when we were teenagers.”
He shrugs. “Mother and Father never said anything.”
Madge squeezes his hand. “That’s good, Peeta. That’s really good. I mean if you had a uncle who was chosen, that is. That means you will be safe.”
He glances at her, and sees the hope in her eyes. A smile finds its way to his face. “It’s really good.”
Mr. Undersee sits back and snuffs out his cigarette. “Well, now what are you two going to do today?”
Madge shrugs, and says, “I might do some errands for Mama. What about you Peeta?”
In his sixteen years, he’s never had a day to do with what he will. He wants to go to the one place he hasn’t been since he was pulled from school. “The meadow. I want to go to the meadow and paint.”
With his paints and a packed lunch Cook pressed into his hands, in a borrowed knap sack, Peeta leaves the mansion. He could go the short way that passes in front of the bakery, but after the scene yesterday, he sets off in the other direction. Soon he is walking through the Seam part of town. He’s never been through here before, and the artist part of him wants to capture the run down houses with the children who are playing among them. He is used to being ignored, and now, he is content to just watch.
One little girl who looks to be about five, runs up to him. “HimynameisPosyandI’mplayingwithmybrothers,” she pauses to get a breath before she continues, “andyoucancomeandplaytoowhatisinyourbagandwhydoyouhaveastick?”
He chuckles nervously. “My name is Peeta and I’m on my way to go paint.”
“Get back over here Posy!” A boy, who is a little bigger than Posy yells. “He’s too busy for you!”
She turns to the boy. “Wait just a minute Vick!” She looks back to Peeta, and bites her little lip. “I gotta go. Will you come back? I want to see your paints.”
“I can do that. Go play and I’ll see you later.” He watches her skip back to the boy and she leaves him with a smile on his face. He continues on down the lane, his shuffle quickening when he sees the rolling green of the field.
He pauses when he gets to the edge and just breathes. The grass almost reaches his knees, and little yellow and blue wildflowers dance along with the breeze blowing through with the forest, beckoning to him. It’s all so beautiful and such a wonderful sight to his tired eyes. He hates to even walk through the meadow, so he staggers along the uneven ground right on the edge until he reaches the trees.
When he spies the same rock he crawled on many years ago, his weak step speeds up. He sets down the knap sack and while he looks for the changes that have taken place, he tries to rub the soreness out of his protesting muscles. He hums happily when he sees everything as it was, as if he had never stopped visiting his spot. Renewed hope in his future makes the hop easy, and soon he is settled, sketching away.
No one ever taught him how to draw, but he starts with the trees first. Their shapes come through quickly, followed by the details. He glances up and meets another set of eyes hidden among the trees. His breath catches and he is so surprised that he drops his pencil in the dirt. He is unable to look away, mesmerized by the flashes of silver.
The eyes blink slowly and he can feel their gaze raking over him. He supposes that he should be afraid, but instead there is a certain peace and curiosity. His eyes scan the bushes around the eyes trying to make out whom or what is watching him.
The eyes blink once, twice, then the third time they are gone. Peeta stares at the spot so long, trying and willing for them to come back so he can see them again. He isn’t sure how long he sits there, but a little mockingjay flying by singing her sweet song startles him out of his trance. It’s now his turn to blink fast, feeling lost, more lost than he ever has before.
He looks down at his paper, and even though he doesn’t want to draw anymore, he picks his pencil up and adds the silver eyes before he starts to cry at the loss of something wonderful.
After sitting for a while thinking about everything, but not really anything at all, he finally notices that the sun has started its descent. As fast as his leg will allow, he eases himself up and gathers his stuff. He shoulders his bag, and traces his footsteps back the way he came.
He pauses at the end of the lane leading into the Seam and looks for the same children who were out playing. His heart falls a little when he doesn’t see anyone, so he heads on to the merchant section of town.
“Peeta!” He looks up to see Delly headed for him. He waves back, and she reaches him, a little breathless. “You need to come with me.”
She doesn’t even wait for him to nod, before she is dragging him towards the alley behind her parent’s shoe store. Peeta is not at all surprised to see Bram standing there. He doesn’t expect to see their father standing behind his brother. “Dad? What are you doing here?”
“I was worried about you. I’m trying to get your mother to let you come back—“
“No, Dad. Mr. Undersee offered me a job at the mansion, or even the Justice Building if I want it. You don’t have to worry about me.” Even he can hear the pride that he’s never heard before in his voice.
“A job at the Justice Building?” Bram asks, “If you don’t want that one, can I have it? That way Delly and I can go ahead—“
She interrupts him with a squeak, and then a prompt slap on the arm. Then, through gritted teeth, she murmurs, “Daddy said that you can apprentice here.”
Mr. Mellark blink at the young people surrounding him. “Well then. I guess Rye will inherit the bakery.”
Peeta and Bram exchange a quizzical look. “Are you sure about that Dad?” Bram starts.
Peeta asks, “Does Rye even want it?”
“No matter. One of you must take it, and if Watcher choses one of you—“
“Oh that won’t happen,” Peeta boasts.
“Why do you say that?” Mr. Mellark asks.
“Because a Mellark has already been chosen.”
Mr. Mellark’s face falls. “Oh no. A Mellark has never been chosen. I’m not sure where you heard that.”
“I thought you—“ Bram stutters out.
Delly grabs his arm. “it will be ok. Watcher will choose someone else.”
Bram grabs her and pulls her into a hug that is so sweet and so sorrowful that Peeta has to look away.
His dad looks nervous for a moment before he throws his arms around Peeta. “It will be ok, son. It will be ok.”