It’s almost too easy.
I crouch in the shadows at the side of Cornercopia, a shitty little grocery store on the outskirts of the city. The parking lot is almost empty at this time of night, but contains three cars:
A silver Toyota Camry, rusted around the wheels, with a sticker over the bumper.
A blue Ford truck, 2003 make, plate number GRC 4857.
And then, gleaming under the streetlights and wholly out of place in this neighbourhood, a shiny, brand-new Audi.
It’s parked about fifteen meters away. I watched the owner walk into the store about ten minutes ago, and it’s only a matter of time before he returns. When he does, I’ll be ready.
My legs are beginning to cramp after being in this position for so long, as are my fingers, curled around the gun hidden in the pocket of my jacket. I glance around to ensure there are no prying eyes, and then quickly stretch my limbs out, not wanting to have what I’m about to do compromised by a sticky leg or locked fingers.
Mr Audi finally makes an appearance, dressed in a suit and carrying a few items under his arm. I stand. He looks around as he steps out of the store, but doesn’t spot me. He unlocks his car as he quickly walks towards it, the lights flashing an obnoxious orange. I begin to walk forward. He pulls open the door and slides inside. I’m about five meters away when the engine starts, a low, satisfying purr, and I dart forward, yanking open the passenger door and diving into the vehicle, pulling the gun out and pressing it against the side of his blond head, all in one motion.
He freezes, his entire body going rigid in his seat. His eyes widen. He takes in a breath. He starts to raise his hands as if to show that he’s harmless, stuttering out words.
“Don’t look at me,” I snap, slamming the door shut behind me. “Drive,” I order, looking behind me at the store. No one has noticed yet, but if we don’t get out of here stat, someone will. I can’t let that happen, can’t leave a path for them to follow.
I can feel my heart racing, feel my paranoia building as Mr Audi freaks out.
“I– I– I’m no one,” he gasps out. “I’m P–”
“I know who you are,” I lie, keeping my voice steady. “Now put your hands back on the goddamn wheel before I blow your fucking head off.”
His hands hastily make contact with the wheel. “What do you want from me?” he asks.
“I want you to drive,” I respond, low and threatening. He doesn’t move. His fingers twitch. I unlock the gun from safety mode. The click is loud, filling the small space we’re in. His response is visceral. I can practically feel his blood turning to ice.
“Drive,” I order. “Or sitting here will be the last thing you’ll do.”
He shifts gears and backs out of the parking space. I keep low, pressed back against the smooth leather of the seat, looking out of the windows to see if anyone is watching. The street is deserted. I’m safe, for now.
“Drive normally,” I tell him, sliding the gun back into safety. I don’t want to accidentally blow anyone’s brains out, especially the brains of the person controlling the ton of metal I’m currently sat in. “Don’t speak. Take me onto the highway. And then the interstate.”
He’s silent as he pulls out into the street. At the corner, he licks his lips. “Which way?” he asks.
“You don’t know how to get to the highway?” I say, incredulous. Of all the people in this city, I manage to pick up the one who doesn’t know their way around it?
“No- no. I mean, which way out of the city?”
I narrow my eyes. “North.”
He says nothing else.
The car is tense as we travel. I listen to his attempts at slowing his breathing. He tries to hide his fear but it’s impossible. A bead of sweat rolls down his temple and he winces every time we go over a bump in the road, causing the gun in my hand to bump against his head. He isn't used to the bite of a gun, to the aching chill of the barrel pressed against your skin. Nevertheless, he stays silent.
I don’t speak either. That’s what unsettles people the most. They want me to say something. To yell at them. To threaten them. But it’s much more effective when I’m silent. It builds the tension. It makes my actions unpredictable. This way, people are more likely to do as they’re told.
He pulls out onto the highway. It’s not too busy, thank god, and I secure my seatbelt, sitting back properly. This is a nice car. Clean, tidy. A pine air freshener hangs from the mirror. A Sat-nav is stuck to the dashboard. There’s no trash anywhere.
It still smells new.
I think of my car. A rusted piece of shit handed down to me after a half century of use, remade again and again until it became Frankenstein’s motor. I got rid of it last night, dousing it in petrol, tossing in a lighter, and sending it careening off the road into the trees. It should be enough to throw them off my tracks for a little while. Enough to buy me the time I need to get out of the city.
Ten minutes pass, agonisingly slow for the both of us, though I assume for different reasons. We stop once or twice and each time I keep on the lookout for potential threats while trying to stay inconspicuous. Mr Audi doesn’t look my way. He’s tense, arms rigid, shoulders tight. I can see his mind racing as he tries to figure out how the hell he’s going to get out of this.
He’s cute. Not the kind I’d usually find myself with, but that’s a good thing. When I was a kid, I always had a thing for blonds, crushing on the kids at school who had angelic yellow curls. ‘S funny how the first time I’m alone with a blond in six or seven years is when I’m holding a gun to their head.
His hair is soft-looking, and glows in the darkness of the car, a riotous ocean of golden waves. His eyes, from what I can see in his profile, are blue, piercingly so. The kind that I’d be unable to look away from if only I allowed him to face me. His nose is straight and his lips pink and inviting. His jaw is chiselled, like the ones on the guys I’ve seen in ads for underwear and cologne. He’s clearly the kind of guy who looks after himself, too, his crisp, pressed shirt tight over his broad shoulders and chest, stretched over his biceps. He doesn’t seem to be particularly tall, but I’m not bothered by it. If I’d met this man elsewhere, I’d be all over him. I’d ride him like a horse and he’d thank me for it.
But the current situation is not suitable for that. I shouldn’t even be thinking in that way, not when there’s more pressing matters, like the fact that I’m holding him hostage in order to escape this place.
For a second, I feel a pang of regret, but I quickly push it away. I know nothing about him. For all I know, Mr-Tight-Shirt-and-Shiny-Car could be a nasty corporate snake, who spends his days in a pristine glass office stealing from people like me and never once losing sleep over it.
Regardless of who he is, we’d never be together. Not in this life, and not in any others. I will always be Katniss Everdeen, short, skinny, and dark, born into crime and about as pleasant as a slug. Those aren’t even my words, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t true.
Mr Audi? He’s probably got a beautiful fiancé at home. Mrs Audi is white as milk, with golden hair, sky blue eyes, and a perfect hourglass figure. She’s smart, funny, and kind. She does yoga, works for a non-profit, and is fucking fantastic in bed. They live in a perfect house at 123 Perfect Boulevard, Perfectville, with a cute little dog named Rufus and a clipped green lawn.
My life is so entirely different to his. The only similarities we share is that we live in Panem, and even that connection is a tenuous one.
A loud, obnoxious ringing fills the air. I jump, but he almost passes out at the wheel. Light floods through the cab. Mr Audi twitches, and his eyes dart down at the same time as mine to see his cell phone, sat between us. It’s ringing, vibrating against the cup holder it’s sat in.
He curses. “Shit.”
I frown at his reaction and pick the cell up. The caller ID is of a smiling woman named as ‘Madge-work’, who fits how I imagined she’d be. Blonde, beautiful, busty. Mrs Audi.
I can’t help it. I laugh. Mr Audi looks freaked out by my reaction and he’s gutsy enough to actually try to reach for the phone, though his hand quickly retreats when I push the barrel against his head.
“Who is she?” I ask.
“P-please,” he says, taking a deep breath. “She’ll keep calling otherwise.”
“Who is she?” I repeat.
“A friend. She’ll get suspicious if I don’t reply.”
“Clingy,” I comment. He doesn’t respond. I tut. “She calls you when you’re driving?”
“I usually pull over.”
I snort. “Well, that’s not happening anytime soon. What’s she gonna ask you?”
“What is she likely to be calling about?”
His words are fast, clipped. “Uh… I was meant to call her. She’ll think I’m in trouble if I don’t pick up.”
I narrow my eyes. What kind of trouble? I want to ask, but I stop myself. I don’t care. I can’t care. The less I know about him, the better. I don’t want to get involved in anyone else’s shit ever again.
“You’re gonna answer, and you’re gonna tell her that you’re okay. That you’ll be driving so she shouldn’t call you.”
“Is that clear?” I ask him, twisting the gun. He nods. “And if you try anything, you’re dead. Got it?”
He nods again.
I slide my thumb across the phone to engage the call, and hold it gingerly against his ear. My fingertips brush his cheek. His skin is soft. I bump the gun again, prompting him to answer.
“Hello–?” He chokes, clears his throat, and starts again. “Hello?”
I listen closely but I can’t really pick up on what Mrs Audi is saying. So I listen to his answer instead, and try to piece together the conversation.
“Hi. Yes. Yes. I know, I’m sorry. No, I’m fine. No, I just got, uh, caught up at work. I, uh, well, uh, there was an, uh, a data file that needed amending. Yeah. No, no, everything is fine. Yes, it’s done. Okay. I’ll be driving though so don’t worry if – if I don’t pick up. Yes. I’ll be there soon. I will. I promise. Okay, okay. See you, bye.”
I pull the phone away, end the call. The screen goes dark.
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” I tell him, dropping the phone back into the cup holder. He releases a shaky breath.
Five minutes of silence follow, apart from my one direction to exit onto interstate.
Then, ten minutes of quiet. The car hums. Mr Audi breathes. I watch a police helicopter fly past, skimming the tops of the skyscrapers and tower blocks. He’ll be looking for me. They all will. I need to stay hidden, out of sight. Ensure there’s no chance of breadcrumbs to follow.
Something bounces against my foot. I look down into the footwell. It’s Mr Audi’s Cornercopia purchases. An energy drink, a candy bar, a loaf of sliced white bread, and two disposable phones, still in their packaging. I frown. Mr Audi doesn’t appear to be the kind of guy who would need burners. I glance at him. He’s still staring straight ahead, barely moving.
I reach down and pick up the energy drink, holding it between my thighs and unscrewing it one handed. I take a sip, and offer him some, but he shakes his head. I offer him the candy bar, too, but he refuses once again.
“You bought all this crap and not you’re even gonna eat it?” I ask.
“I’m not hungry anymore,” he mumbles, so I rip open the wrapper with my teeth and take a bite. He looks uncomfortable, but says nothing. I keep the gun against his head, and focus on the road around us. If we don’t hit traffic, I’ll be out of the city within a half hour, and well on my way to the mountains, to a place where I can fade into obscurity.
He summons the courage to speak again. “Are you – are you going to kill me?”
I twirl the candy bar. “Not if you do as I ask.”
My answer, though not at all satisfactory, seems to be enough for now. He falls silent again.
For a while after that, neither of us speak. His phone lights up several times, but his privacy settings are so high that the messages he’s receiving display nothing but the contact ID on his lock screen.
After the sixth message, I get frustrated, snatching up the device. “Why the fuck does ‘Dee’ want you so badly?”
Mr Audi’s mouth opens and closes. He stutters out some syllables.
“Is she sending you nudes?” I ask.
“Is he sending you nudes?”
I raise an eyebrow. “Why’re your privacy settings so high?”
“I don’t like people reading my messages.”
“No one has their phone set like that. No one 'cept maybe the president. What are you trying to hide?”
He furrows his brow. “Nothing.”
“What’s your password?”
“It doesn’t matter. She can wait. It’s nothing,” he blurts out, but I remind him of the gun and he mumbles out the code. “1-2-7-4.”
I type it in. Dee’s messages appear.
where r u xxxxx
ur food is here and its getting coldxxx
pull over and answer me please x
helloo r u fucking dead??
R u still at work babe?
Ur not with that bitch again r u?
r u cheating on me bc if u r I’m going to fucking end u!
I raise my eyebrows.
“Are you cheating on Dee?”
“What? No.” Mr Audi shakes his head.
“She thinks you are.” I read out the messages. Mr Audi curses again.
“I’m not cheating on her. She’s just – she has a lot of ideas about the people I work with.”
I think of ‘Madge-work’. “Why’s she called ‘Dee’?”
“It’s a nickname.”
“What about Madge?”
“The call from earlier. That was from Madge.”
“She’s a co-worker.”
“Is that who Dee thinks you’re with?”
I frown. “Are you going to reply?”
He hesitates. He shakes his head.
“Good,” I say, as we reach the bridge. I tell him to drive in the outer lane and open the window, before tossing the device out into the black of the night. It sails over the edge of the bridge, disappearing out of sight.
“Hey! What the fuck?!” Mr Audi yells, and I smack the gun against him, causing him to jerk back, wincing.
“You got two other phones,” I snap, and he tightens his grip on the wheel. “Burners?” I ask. After a moment he nods, chewing on his bottom lip. I feel my heart skip a beat, my stomach swoosh with a sudden sickening thought. Perhaps Mr Audi isn’t the person I thought he was. Perhaps there’s something sinister about him beyond his corporate job. “Why?” I ask. If he’s – if he’s one of them – I’m going to have to kill him. There’ll be no other way about it.
He’s heavy-breathing again. He looks at me, and I retreat into my jacket hood.
“Are you with Coin?” he asks. I’m utterly confused by the question.
“Are you asking me for fucking money?” I exclaim, lip curling.
“No!” he splutters, eyes wide. “No. No. Never mind.”
He gulps, then, and stares ahead at the interstate. Is he… is he relieved? I can’t tell. I look out through the glass, at the passing cars and buildings. I just want to get out of here, and this guy with his psycho girlfriend and illicit office romance and two burner phones isn’t making me feel like things are going to be okay.
He moves, and I watch him, wary that he’s going to do something stupid. All he does, though, is pull back the cuff of his shirt to check his watch. It’s shiny, glinting in the light, and is probably more expensive than anything I’ve ever owned. He lets the cuff fall back against his wrist and drums his fingers on the wheel in agitation. He’s restless, and it’s making me anxious.
He does this three more times until I can’t take it anymore.
“What the hell are you doing?” I snap, and he jumps.
“Checkin’ the time. What are you waiting for?”
Mr Audi looks at me. I feel my palm growing sweaty against the gun.
“I- I did something. Something… bad. And if it’s traced back to me, I’m dead.”
This is so totally unexpected that I actually remove the gun from his head for a moment, before coming to my senses and returning it. I eye Mr Audi. Suddenly his pristine clothing and angelic appearance seem to make him threatening, rather than the easy target I figured he’d be when he arrived at Cornercopia.
“What the fuck?” I growl, and he makes a weird, panicky sound that mirrors how I feel. “What the fuck are you talking about? You ‘did something bad’? Like what? What did you do?”
“I can’t – I can’t tell you.”
“I’m holding a fucking gun to your head – the hell you can’t tell me!” I dig the gun into his temple when he doesn’t answer. “You think I have time for your bullshit?”
“You think I have time for yours?” he counters, exhaling angrily.
He screws his eyes shut. He almost drifts into another lane before righting it. A Fiat to our left honks at us.
“Look– I figure that you’re involved in some shit too, yeah?” he asks, and I’m stunned by his sudden boldness, no matter the underlying emotions that are fuelling it. “The fact that you’ve taken somebody hostage just to get out of the city makes it pretty clear that you’ve got someone or something you’re running from! But my shit has nothing to do with you and I should be at my fucking apartment right now, not here!” He curses under his breath, and then, quietly to himself: “This isn’t how it was meant to go.”
I’m speechless, staring at him with wide eyes.
“Police car,” he then mutters, and I look through the wing mirror, terror flooding through me at his words. He’s right. A cruiser is approaching, lights off. I didn’t even notice. “Put the gun down,” Mr Audi says, and I do as he says, placing it instead against his side, out of sight of the cruiser. I watch the cops approaching. There’s a tense ten seconds where we both sit there, Mr Audi with a white-knuckle grip on the wheel, and me sliding down in my seat and hiding my face with my hand.
The cruiser passes by without incident.
“What the fuck, man?” I say, once the cops are far enough out of sight. His head whips around so he can make eye contact with me and I jerk back like he’s the one with a weapon.
“Do you really think that I’m going to try and escape right now?!” he asks, looking down at the weapon in my hand. “You can put the gun away!”
“I can’t fucking trust you,” I spit, trying to regain control over this absurd situation. “So the gun stays.”
Mr Audi doesn’t even appear to be scared anymore when he groans and says: “I just told you to hide the gun as a cop car went past. If I wanted help – if I wanted the cops’ attention, I’d have driven into them, done something.”
I stare at him. His gaze flickers from me to the road. I can see fear in his eyes, but also anger and annoyance. I’m sure mine are just as conflicted. My brain is in overdrive. What the hell is going on? Who the hell is this man?
He answers my silent question before I even have a chance to ask.
“Open the glove compartment,” he says. When I don’t move, he repeats himself, adding: “My wallet is in there. Find out who the fuck I am. I’m not going to shoot you or hurt you. I will get you out of the city as you asked and then I’m going home, where I should’ve been–” He checks his watch, slams his hand against the wheel. “Forty-five minutes ago.”
I can feel myself starting to panic at how quickly everything seems to be spiralling, and force myself to breathe, to keep my head on straight. Okay, so this guy isn’t the average Joe I’d assumed he’d be, but hope is not lost, not yet. I can still get out of the city. My plan doesn’t have to change just because this guy is crazy.
“Check my driver’s licence,” Mr Audi echoes. I look at him. His stare is hard. I pull my gun away from his side and do as he says, rifling through the glove compartment and pulling out his wallet.
It’s filled with the usual crap- receipts, notes, a gift card or two, and sat there behind the clear partition, is his licence. I blink, reading it.
“My name is Peeta Mellark,” Mr Audi says as I stare at his smiling portrait. “I’m twenty five years old, I was born on October 8th, and I live at 75 York Street.”
He takes my silence as a cue to go on, to give more proof that he is who he says he is. “I work at Coin Securities as a data bank analyst and I have done for the last four years and–”
I hold my hand up. He stops talking.
“I believe you,” I mumble.
“I’m nobody,” he insists. “I don’t want any trouble. I’ll do as you ask and that will be the end of it.”
I don’t reply, and thankfully he falls silent. I place his wallet back into the glove compartment, and look ahead at the road. Peeta Mellark isn’t at all who I thought he’d be. I mean, sure, his job and his licence paint him to be a pretty normal guy, but there are things that aren’t sitting right with me. The two phones, for example. His reactions to Dee and ‘Madge-work’. His constant checking of the time. His sudden brazenness. He’s as unpredictable as I’m trying to be, and that makes me feel weak.
When I spotted him walking into the store, I’d hoped he’d be some dumb desk jockey who’d be too scared to do anything but sit there in silence. I’d say drive, and he’d say where to? I’d imagined that we’ve leave the city, and I’d vanish into the night with no trace, no paper trail, and he’d have a damn good story to tell, of the nameless woman who held him at gunpoint.
I have a feeling, now, deep in my gut, that it’s not going to be as simple as that. Peeta Mellark is hiding something, and it’s not a small secret. My heart pounds. This is getting messy, fast. I don’t want to know – don’t want to be involved in whatever shit he’s wrapped himself up in, but part of me understands that whatever he’s done or doing could be the one thing that causes all my plans to fall apart.
We’re out of the main bulk of the city, now, the bright lights receding into the distance, replaced by the warehouses, apartments, and multi-story parking garages that separate the inner city with the suburbs.
“Exit here,” I tell him, and he does as I say. I look in the side-mirror. We aren’t followed, but I don’t let my guard down.
“Where are we–?” Peeta begins, but I cut him off.
“In there,” I point to a garage. “Go to the third floor.”
“What are we doing?” he whispers. I unbuckle my belt as he steers up the ramp, round and round until we reach the third level. It’s still got a few cars in it, even at this hour, and I eye the ones we pass. They're empty. I hide the gun in the pocket of my jacket and pull my hood over my head.
“Park here,” I say. He does. I hand him his wallet and his purchases from Cornercopia. “What else do you have in this car?” I ask him.
“Uh, a… a briefcase in the backseat. And my jacket.”
“Anything else?” I ask, reaching back to grab them. I hand them to him and he juggles the items in his arms.
And then I climb out of the car and make my way round to his side, pulling open his door.
“Get out,” I order. He does so, albeit slower than I’d like. I grab the keys and lock the car behind him, and then pull my pocketknife from my sleeve. Peeta’s face pales at the sight of the blade.
“If I was going to kill you, it wouldn’t be here, and it wouldn’t be with this,” I say, before driving the blade into the side of one of his tires. The air hisses as it escapes and with a hand against his back, I push him towards an old red sedan parked several spaces away. “We’re changing cars,” I say, looking around in the empty lot. It’s dark, shadowy, and deserted.
“You burst my tire!”
“Are you kidding me right now?” I hiss, fixing him with a look. He frowns but knows to move on. “Watch out for people,” I instruct, and he looks over his shoulder. I reach down, into my boot, and pull out a single silver key, sliding it into the lock. The car pops open and I breathe a sigh of relief. I’ve had this car waiting here for two months, just in case. It’s an older model, but it’s inconspicuous, which is what I need.
“You’re stealing it?” Peeta asks, and I wave the key at him.
“Get in,” I say, and he does, watching me as I walk around to the passenger’s side. He dumps his stuff in the backseat as I climb in, shutting the door tightly behind me. I hand him the key. “Start the engine. I’m not done with you yet.”
The car starts – I’d feared it wouldn’t – and Peeta drives it back down to the street-level, and heads back for the highway.
“This is your car?” he asks me.
“Why do you have a car waiting for you?” he asks after a minute, and I tighten my grip on my gun.
“It doesn’t matter,” I mumble, and he’s smart enough drop the subject.
A little while later, I ask him why he has burner phones. Instantly he tenses up, becoming secretive, and it only makes me more curious and more afraid.
“Tell me,” I say. “’Cus a guy like you shouldn’t need one.”
“What do you mean ‘a guy like me’?”
I scoff. “Shiny new car, suit and tie? Coin Securities job as a – what was it – a data tracker?”
“Data bank analyst,” he corrects and I laugh in his face.
“People like me have burners. Not people like you. And trust me, there’s a difference.”
He narrows his eyes at me. “Is there?”
“You're making all these assumptions about me yet you won’t even tell me your name,” he says, and when I glare: “You ask me all these questions and then don’t like me doing the same?”
“I’m the one holding you hostage.”
“Forgive me for being curious as to why,” he mutters. My eyebrows shoot up my forehead. I watch him roll his neck, and grimace at the sound of his bones cracking.
“Why do you have burners?” I repeat, keeping my voice low and neutral.
Peeta fidgets. “I don’t know. I guess I thought I needed one.”
“Because you did something bad?” I ask, echoing his words even though they make me feel like I’m talking to a child. He nods, shifting in his seat. I lean back in my own. I can’t figure out what it is he’s done. It definitely isn’t as bad as the things I’ve done in the past twenty-four hours, but I figure it must be enough, in order to make him this jumpy.
“Is Madge involved?” I ask.
“Do you think you’re gonna get caught?” He visibly bristles. “Ah,” I say. “I guess I really threw a spanner in the works then, huh?”
Peeta barks out a humourless laugh. I spot a police helicopter circling over the city through the rear-view and feel tension shoot down my spine. He’s not the only one fearful of getting caught, though I doubt his life could really be in the balance like mine is. Besides, what’s the worse a guy like him could do? It’s a question I’m anxious to ask, fearing and anticipating the answer.
He’s the first to speak, though.
“If you won’t tell me who you are, at least tell me who or what you’re running from. People don’t hold other people at gunpoint in order to escape the city just because of something small like parking tickets.” He looks over at me, and under his gaze I feel small, and guilty. I hate that feeling, so look away, though I can still sense his eyes burning into me. “You must have done something pretty bad,” he murmurs. “Or perhaps it’s the people you’re running from who are the bad guys?”
I feel the gun burning a hole into my thigh, my knife, searing hot against my palm, and his words, fogging my brain like smoke.
“You’d be a fool to want to know the answer,” I reply, words subdued. “And you’d be dead if you did.”
He doesn’t say anything else. We exit the city, heading through the outskirts, where the traffic picks up a little as people rush to leave, flooding towards the suburbs, or hurrying in for a night in the city.
I know what I promised him. That he was to drive me out of the city, and then we’d part ways, so I can’t help but feel bad. Whatever it is he’s done, he’s obviously antsy as a result, and I doubt getting dumped at the side of the road is what he wants. But he has no other choice. I’m headed north, out of the state, into the mountains. From there, I can make it on my own. I have to. How Peeta Mellark gets home tonight is not my problem.
“We’re low on gas,” he says.
I peer at the dash and spot the glowing yellow symbol beside the speedometer. He’s right, and if we run out of gas, we’ll be in trouble. More specifically, I’d be in trouble. I have to keep moving, have to stay out of sight, until the city is nothing but a bad taste in my mouth. I’ve made too many promises and hurt too many people to let everything be ruined by car troubles.
I yank open the glove compartment. It’s filled with rubbish; receipts, old tickets, gum wrappers and more. I left them in here when I purchased the car and had it moved to the parking garage, figuring that if anyone found the car they would see the names and card numbers on the items left behind and assume it had nothing to do with me. I bought it under a fake name, too, and sent the money across over fourteen wire transfers to cover my tracks.
I find an old pair of scratched-up sunglasses and take them out. Then, I twist in my seat and rummage around in the pockets on the backs of my chair and Peeta’s. I pull out a baseball cap. Peeta will be fine if he’s spotted on CCTV – the only person coming after him with a gun is me – but I need a disguise, no matter how small.
He watches me as I stuff as much hair as I can manage under the cap, pulling it low over my face.
“Take off your tie,” I tell him.
“Can it wait?” he asks, motioning to the wheel. I loosen his tie myself, choking him intentionally as I do so, and roughly yanking it over his head. “What are you doing?” he asks, when I shrug out of my jacket. It’s big and bulky and I chose it simply so it could obscure me even better, but it seems that tonight it’s proving its worth past my own needs.
“Pull over at the next gas station,” I tell him. “And put this on.” I place my jacket in his lap.
“That’s why you’ve got the cap?” he asks.
“If I go into the store dressed in jeans, a hoodie, sunglasses, and a baseball cap, while you’re beside me in a shirt and tie, I’ll stand out. Besides, I’m not particularly eager to have my face on camera.”
Peeta nods slowly, before returning his attention to the road.
The sigh for the Perkins Pit Stop glows a bright green from the roadside, like the lure of a bioluminescent deep-water fish. It promises my freedom, but is also a threat. So far, Peeta and I have been alone, together in one car or another, without being followed. I intend to keep it that way.
Peeta pulls up to a pump but doesn’t move.
“I don’t know what you want me to do,” he says, glancing at me and then at the store glowing brightly behind me. I see the light reflected in his eyes, and can’t help but wonder if he sees this place as his chance to get away, as freedom from me.
I slide my sunglasses on. They’re a shitty, cheap pair from the boardwalk, and it still makes it a little hard to see given the fact that it’s so late at night. Still, it’s nice that I’m not so exposed to Peeta's oh-so-innocent gaze anymore. The sunglasses are a welcome barrier.
“What do you mean?” I ask him, confused.
“Well, do you want me to get out? Or are you? How’d you know I’m not going to run for it?”
I narrow my eyes, unamused by his words whether they’re a joke or not. “Give me the key,” I tell him, holding out my hand. He places them in my palm. “Fill the car. I’ll be right behind you.”
He climbs out and I jump out after him, keeping the gun out of sight by hiding it against the waistband of my jeans. I sidle up beside him as he pumps gas, looking over my shoulder and around before moving the gun from where it’s hidden and sliding it and my hand up the back of his shirt. I feel the muscles of his lower back tense beneath his hot skin and look up at him. He looks down at me.
“Just a reminder,” I tell him, placing my other hand over his stomach, as if we were simply a loved-up couple holding each other close. I’ve done this kind of thing before, playing the part of someone I’m not, but this time it feels different. Peeta is all muscle and floppy hair and bright blue eyes and yet I’m the one in control. I’m doing the intimidation for once, not the other way around.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he says in a low voice, and I pull my gaze from his.
“That’s enough,” I tell him, looking at the numbers flipping by on the gas counter. He puts the pump back in its holder and we walk to the store.
“You’re going to walk this close to me the entire time?” he asks.
“You could at least put your arm around me,” I say, and he laughs, slinging his arm around my waist. I feel my body warm at the feeling. I don’t feel crowded in or vulnerable, but like he’s there to protect me, to watch my six whatever happens. I haven’t felt that before. That feeling of safety and reassurance. How twisted is it that my very own hostage is the one to make me feel this way?
“So we’re a couple?” Peeta asks, and I glare at him. I can’t believe how he’s acting, considering how wrong this could go. If I’m found here on CCTV, they’ll track Peeta down just to get to me. They’ll kill him for it. I’ve endangered him simply by having him in close proximity to my person. Peeta keeps up the act, oblivious to my inner turmoil. “Well then, honey, I’d recommend you smile. I don't want my reputation as an excellent boyfriend to be tarnished.”
I scoff. “Dee wouldn’t think so.”
“Ouch,” Peeta replies as we enter the store, but he doesn’t seem genuinely hurt. I half push, half pull him down one of the aisles, incredibly wary of the security cameras above our heads and of the cashier and customers at the counter.
“I want snacks,” I tell him, thinking of the long journey I have ahead. I want to stop as little as possible, and don’t want to be caught out because I’m starving.
“What kind, my love?” Peeta replies and I bite down on my tongue. I can’t understand why he’s acting this way. I’m holding him at gunpoint for god’s sake. How can he be like this? Perhaps the stress of the past hour has shaken him to his core, and this is the only way he can compensate.
I pluck some items from the shelves, all the while keeping my grip on Peeta. He doesn’t try anything though, keeping one arm around me the entire time. It’s nice, in a weird way. He smells good too which is a welcomed plus. We’re by far the most fucked-up couple in the state, I’m sure; me, holding a gun against his back, on the run, and he my helpless companion for the evening, but it works.
Everything is going so well, so smoothly, until we join the line to pay. I’m keeping my head low but still trying to act casual. I’m holding my snacks in one hand and Peeta is pulling some bills from his wallet to pay with and no one is paying us any attention and I’m thinking holy shit, I think I’m gonna get out of here unseen and then–
“We have two breaking news stories for you tonight, the first of which is a notice for the public to be on the lookout for a suspect in connection with a double homicide.” I look up at the tiny television sat above the cashier’s head, and feel my blood run cold at the sight of my very own mugshot looking down on me. Beside me, Peeta grows tense, his arm tightening like a vice. I don’t dare look at him, but I know what he’s thinking, how he feels to find out that he’s in the presence of a monster.
Above our heads, the peppy news reporter continues on with the story.
“Authorities are searching for Seam county native Katniss Everdeen after the bodies of nineteen year old Rory Hawthorne and thirty one year old Cato Evans were found in a property in downtown Panem in the early hours of this morning.”
Peeta looks down at me and I dig the gun into his back. No, god, no. My heart is pounding. The cashier glances up at the television. The customer he’s serving shakes her head. “Horrible,” she says, and the cashier nods in agreement.
“Ms. Everdeen is described as twenty-two years old, with olive skin, long black hair, and a slight build. She is five foot six inches tall and was last seen wearing a black leather jacket at the corner of Romero and West. Police advise that she is dangerous and potentially armed and that members of the public do not approach the suspect, but report any sightings to the police.”
The line moves on, and Peeta and I step forward. I can feel myself crushing the bag of chips in my hand and Peeta is as stiff as a board.
This isn’t how I wanted him to find out. I never wanted him to find out.
God, I think I’m going to throw up.
The news program soldiers on.
“The second story of the night is a recent development in relation to Panem-based conglomerate Coin Securities.” Beside me, Peeta’s head whips up, and my own attention is piqued too, at the mention of his place of work. “Thresh Dayo is here with the update. Thresh?”
“Thank you, Caesar. Yes, I am standing outside the headquarters of international brokerage firm Coin Securities where the company has been put into lockdown after a huge security breach was detected just a few hours ago. Although the details as to what exactly has happened here tonight are currently unclear, it is believed that data from the company was accessed and leaked onto the internet. Millions of files have been dumped by a currently unknown hacker, who is also accusing the company of insider trading.
“Coin Securities is viewed by many as a shining beacon of the financial sector and employs over two thousand people in the Panem area alone, and transacts over ninety-billion dollars’ worth of stocks each year. While CEO and founder Alma Coin is yet to comment on the leak or on the accusations placed against her and her company, what is certain is that an FBI investigation into the hacking and the accusations will be underway.
“It is unknown how or why Coin Securities was targeted today, and the hacker or hackers responsible are yet to be identified. Regardless, Coin Securities stocks have plummeted over thirty percent in the last few hours, costing the company billions. I’ll keep you updated on this story as it unfolds. This is Thresh Dayo, outside the headquarters of Coin Securities. Back to you, Caesar.”
“Can you believe it?” the cashier says. I blink. I didn’t even realise Peeta and I were next, I was so absorbed by the reporter’s story. “This city is run by crime. Murders on one street, insider trading on another? It’s crazy.”
“It is,” Peeta replies, being the only one out of the two of us who is capable of speech. He pays for the gas and the snacks, thanks the cashier, who’s already distracted by the TV, and we duck out of the store and into the car. Peeta revs the engine and speeds away, joining the highway and leaving the station far behind. Neither of us speak. I can’t stop thinking. I never expected what I did to be splashed all over the news, for my mugshot to be broadcast city-wide. This never happens. And yet, here I am, a wanted woman on the eleven o’clock news.
And then there’s Peeta. I’m smart enough to realise that he’s somewhat responsible for the Coin Securities hacking, that Madge is involved too. Though it’s nothing compared to being hunted down for a double homicide, it’s still a fucking big deal, and I get why he’s been so anxious, beyond the reaction expected by a hostage victim.
The car suddenly lurches and I grip onto the dashboard as Peeta speeds off the highway and below the overpass, pulling over into the dark and shadowy place where people come to get high or sleep rough. He jerks the car into park and before I can even think about telling him to stay put he’s out, stumbling onto the gravel. I lean over and turn off the engine, slipping the key into my boot. I pull off my sunglasses and my cap. Even with my head spinning like it is, at what a fucking disaster everything is turning out to be, I’m able to think fast, to survive.
I tumble out of the car, gun forgotten. Peeta is pacing, gravel crunching under his shiny black shoes, his head in his hands. I approach him, slowly, warily, and jump when he spins, turning on me.
“What the fuck?” he spits. His eyes are wide, furious. I recoil. He looks just like Gale did, whenever he’d get mad or drunk or high, when he’d point a gun at me or my sister and threaten to bury us somewhere we’d never be found.
“Peeta–” I say, looking around. We’re utterly alone down here, with the traffic thundering past overhead, but I’m forever paranoid of Snow and his men. He has eyes and ears everywhere, and I can't be sure that I'm safe even in a place like this.
“I figured you’d did something you weren’t proud of but shit – murder? You killed two people!”
“Keep your voice down!” I hiss, and he laughs in disbelief, but does as I ask him, pointing an accusatory finger at me.
“You killed a nineteen year old? A kid! How the hell do you get to that point? How?”
I can feel tears welling up in my eyes but blink them away. I hate how ashamed I feel under his gaze.
“You’ve gotta listen to me,” I say, coming up to him and trying to grab his wrist. He wrenches himself free, walking backward, putting space between us. “Peeta, please, let me explain.”
“We’re outside the city,” he says, shaking his head. “I did as you asked. You can just leave me here. Go, I don’t care. Take all my shit with you. I’ll get a ride back home and hope to fucking god that this night doesn’t get any worse.”
“No, no, you’ve got to be quiet, please. Just stand still, Peeta. Listen to me.”
“I’m done listening to you.”
Suddenly I’m mad, furious that someone I don’t even know could judge me like this, could label me a monster when they have no clue what I’ve been through to lead me to do these things.
"Peeta!" I shout, but he doesn't listen, doesn't look at me. I do it again but it's the same. He just stands there, muttering, shaking his head, and pacing back and forth. I pull the gun from my waistband. "Peeta, look at me," I say, and he does, his face growing slack as I point the gun straight at him.
"Woah, woah," he says, holding his arms out, palms facing me. "Wait a minute- what are you doing?"
"Please, just listen to me," I beg him. He eyes the gun. I drop it, kick it a few feet away. He breathes out, one hand pressed against his forehead. And then he rips off my jacket, tossing it to the ground. He shoves his fist into his mouth and bites down. His entire body seems to be vibrating with rage or fear or shock, I don’t know, but he doesn’t speak, and I see it as my chance to explain.
“I killed those two men for a good reason. They deserved it, okay? They did. I got involved with the wrong crowd, Peeta. My father died and my mom killed herself and I had nowhere else to go. No one to turn to so Gale took me in. He and his brothers – Rory was one of them – they did the dirty work for Snow. He’s rich enough to do what he wants and has men and women working for him all across the country and if he wants you dead, you’ll spend the rest of your life running unless you want to end up rotting in an unmarked grave. He can make people disappear if he wants to, no questions asked.
“I thought I could just hang around with them, get through high school, you know. Never get involved. But then my sister – she wanted to go to medical school and I couldn’t afford it alone. Snow wouldn’t pay for it, so I joined with Gale and his brothers, selling drugs, robbing places, getting rid of people. I’m not proud of it. I didn’t want to do what I did but I did it. And Prim, she got to go to school.”
Peeta’s nostril’s flare as he stares me down. I look over my shoulder again, but we’re still alone.
“Last year she came back to the city to visit me and… and–” my voice breaks and my chest seizes as I try to get the words out. “And we went out for drinks. Rory slipped her something. He said he’d take her home and I stayed out but something didn’t feel right so I went back to our place and he was there, with her. Cato, too. They’d raped her and when I got there they threatened to kill her unless I stayed silent so I did and then a week later she died in a hit and run anyway and I knew it was them. I fucking knew it.
“I didn’t say anything, didn’t mention it. I knew they’d kill me for knowing. And then, last week, I found out that Gale’d orchestrated the whole thing. He’d meant to drug me, too, but Rory took everything he had and used it on my sister. So, I got a gun and went to see Rory and Gale. They were meant to be at the garage, stripping cars, but Gale wasn’t there. Cato was instead and when I confronted him about he tried to attack me so I shot him. And then I found Rory, and I shot him too.
“I left right after that. Hid. I knew I needed to get out of Panem but Snow has men everywhere, Peeta. Everywhere. So I knew I needed to use someone to get out. I never planned to hurt anyone else. I didn’t mean for this. For you to find out who I was or what I did.”
Peeta stares at me. I can’t interpret his expression. He just stares.
“I’m sorry,” I mumble. “I’m sorry.”
“This is insane,” he exhales, scrubbing his face with his hands.
An eternity passes, of me standing there, waiting for what? Peeta’s forgiveness? No. Not that. I want nothing from him. Peeta swears, the sound harsh, and he looks away from a moment, thinking. Finally, he approaches me.
“Are you going to kill me as well?” he asks, and it takes me a few seconds to answer. I wasn’t expecting that to be his first question.
“Even though I know your name and what you did?”
“You’d have found out anyway. I’m on the news.”
Peeta raises an eyebrow. “So am I.”
I wrap my arms around myself as the night air begins to bite. “Why’d you do it?” I ask him.
“Leak all that data?”
“Yeah. I assume you were working with Madge. That it’s the reason why you’ve been checking the time and why she called you and why you have a burner phone. Is – is that why you got it? Did you think you’d have to skip town?”
“I wasn’t sure,” Peeta admits. “I wasn’t thinking. We don’t plan on getting caught but I thought it was best to be prepared.”
“You’ve cost them billions,” I say. “Is it worth it?”
“Alma Coin is evil. She’s taken money from people and profited. She’s ruined lives and I figured it was about time someone did something about ruining hers. We wanted to expose the truth and this was the only way.”
I frown. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.”
“You’re surprised I didn’t instantly confess my sins when you leapt into my car and threatened me with a handgun?”
I can’t help but smile at this. It helps to loosen the tightness in my chest.
“We’re both criminals,” Peeta says, as if we’d ever be equal.
“I’m much worse than you."
“You did what you did to survive. That doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t dictate who you are.”
“But I still did it.”
“Katniss, no,” he says, his voice softer than I could’ve imagined, sliding over each syllable like butter in a hot pan. My stomach swoops at my name on his lips. “I understand why you did those things.”
I furrow my brow. “I didn’t think they’d report it to the cops,” I mumble. “They never do. Not with business-related incidents like this. Normally Snow sorts it out himself. His people, his mess. I’m sure he’s got Gale and all his other men out there looking for me right now. Trying to flush me out.”
“That’s why you’ve got the backup car?”
“Yeah. I knew I’d need to disappear afterwards. Forever. I’ll never come back here if I make it out alive.”
Peeta swallows. I see his throat bob in the headlights of my car. “We should probably get going, then.”
I kick at the ground, unable to meet his gaze. “You can leave now, if you want.”
“No, I’ll come with you. At least for a while.”
“I don’t want to involve you in this any further.”
“Hey, I just helped cause one of the biggest companies in the world to crash. I think staying under the radar for a little longer is for the best.”
“You call sitting in a car with a murderer ‘staying under the radar’?”
He steps forward, takes my hand in his, and squeezes. “Let’s go.”
I pick up my jacket and the gun from the floor. We climb into the car. Peeta starts the engine, and we re-join the highway, speeding away from the city, from the outskirts, towards my only chance of freedom.
The car eats up the miles but we don’t speak. Peeta turns to me. His hand reaches across, and rests on my knee. I don’t feel a threat, and neither does he. The gun stays in the glove compartment. He drives of his own volition.
“Hey,” he says softly. I look over to him. He glows blue under the dashboard lights.
“What?” I ask.
“I’m sorry all those things happened to you,” he whispers, unwilling to speak any louder in the quiet cabin. I feel a sharp ache in my chest at his words. It’s the first time anyone has apologised for these past few years. “I’m sorry for yelling. I don’t blame you for what you did. I understand. But still, I’m sorry.”
I fight the urge to blow him off, to tell him I don’t need his pity. But his expression is so earnest, kind, and genuine, that I simply smile at him instead.
“Coin’d do anything to get those stocks. All she wanted was to know which stocks would do well and she’d snap them up before they’d even hit the market. She made billions and didn’t care how many people she screwed over.”
“How long have you known about it?” I ask. “About the insider trading.”
“A year or two. But I never said anything. Never brought it up until Madge realised I’d spotted a discrepancy in a data bank and that I’d figured it out. She kind of blackmailed me into joining her cause. She and a few others run it. Not all of us work directly for Coin, some in off-shoots of the company, some completely remotely. We helped each other out. They brought everything together, and all I had to do was bring the system down from the inside out.”
“So they left you behind?”
His words are without doubt. “No. I volunteered.”
Peeta drives for hours, then. He’s exhausted, I know, so am I, but we’re in this together now, at least until I drop him off and head for the mountains.
I pass out sometime around half one, and awake to an empty car. We’re at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. I peek through the window, and spot Peeta stood in line.
When he returns, I’m panicked.
“Did you pay with cash?”
“Did I tell the cashier I was being held against my will? Obviously. Did you need to hold a gun on me? No.” He slides into his seat, handing me a cup of steaming hot coffee. “Drink up,” he says, smiling. “We got a while to go yet.”
I don't even think to ask him where we're going.
I wake with a jolt. We’re still moving. Peeta is devouring a candy bar, followed by an energy drink.
“Hope you don’t mind,” he says. I shake my head, uncurl myself from the seat, and grab the bottle to get some much-needed sugar.
I pick up the disposable phone from the floor. “Hope you don’t mind?” He shakes his head no and I rip open the packaging and send a message to the one person I can trust in this world. Haymitch.
on way 2 u. am OK
Then I look to Peeta. I guess I can trust him, too.
“Anyone you want to message or call?”
He thinks for a moment, and then replies. “Madge.”
“You know her number?”
He recites it for me. I type it in. He dictates a message to me.
lost my phone! Hectic night trying to find it. i’ll see you in the morning. xx
“Two kisses?” I ask, smiling.
Peeta jabs me in the side. “I wouldn’t consider it overkill since she's my partner in crime."
By four o’clock, I convince Peeta to get some rest. We follow a track marked as the route towards the Cecil Fishing Lakes, pull over at the side of the road, and lower the seats until they’re as flat as they can go.
I’m anxious, listening to the silence of the desert around us, watching the stars blinking down from the night sky, and can’t get to sleep for a while. Peeta is out within minutes, huddled up the best he can in the cramped seat.
I rest my cheek on my hands and watch him. He looks calmer, now. I regret to have put him under so much pressure, but I’m glad that he’s here.
I curl up under my jacket. He gave it back to me, saying that he runs hot, and now it smells really good. I bury my nose in the soft fabric, and close my eyes.
I’m out within minutes.
I wake to my phone ringing. I’m groggy, in desperate need of more sleep, but when I see the number of the person calling, I pick up straightaway.
“Haymitch,” I croak, and Peeta stirs.
“Sweetheart,” he responds. “Where are you?”
“I stopped off to rest at, uh, the Cecil Fishing Lakes. I’m okay, I promise. I’ll be there by tonight.”
In the background of the call, I hear geese honking, and smile. Peeta sits up, rubbing his eyes, and groans. “Who’re you talking to?” he asks, voice gravely and low.
“Are you with a boy?” Haymitch asks, sounding scandalised for a man dating a woman twenty years his junior.
“A friend,” I tell him, my cheeks reddening.
"Is he coming with you?"
"No," I say. “I’ve gotta go, Haymitch.”
“Tell your friend to use protection.”
“Okay, jesus,” I splutter, and hear Haymitch’s laughter fracture into thick, hacking coughs. “Goodbye,” I say, and then hang up.
We sit by the side of the road in a small town of just over four thousand people called Dillard, eating breakfast. Peeta walked ten minutes down the road and picked up some water and nutrient bars, claiming I’d die if I didn’t eat something more nourishing.
The sun rises slowly over the desert, slowly baking the road, making the horizon shimmer, pushing away the chill of the night. Peeta turns on the radio. Sings badly to the corny music playing on the local station.
“How’re you going to get back?” I ask him, watching a distant car approaching. We’re about two hundred and fifty miles from the city now, which is far enough to dim that tension that’s plagued me ever since I realised I needed to get out of Panem, but also far enough to cause Peeta some problems. He isn’t just outside of the city limits anymore.
“Dillard has a garage. I’ll buy or hire a car or find another way to get back home.”
“You’ll just buy a car, all casual?”
“Coin Securities pays well,” he says, shooting me a look. “Even when they lose billions overnight.”
“Sorry,” I say, feeling bad to have inconvenienced him even further.
“It’s not a big deal. Though I do recall someone slashing the tires of my Audi. That is a big deal.”
“I slashed one tire,” I retort. “And it was more bursting than slashing.”
“When I make a claim will you give that much detail in your defence statement?”
“It’s fine,” Peeta says, looking out of the window. He spins the half-empty water bottle in his wide hands. “It was a company car, anyway.”
“Coin Securities pays for your entire life and this is how you thank them,” I say, shaking my head. “You were living the dream.”
“Well, I woke myself up,” he muses. “By sinking the company that pays my salary.”
“You’ll find another job soon enough,” I say. “I wouldn’t sweat it.”
Peeta smiles. “Are you going to be okay?” he asks me, and I’m struck by the genuine concern in his voice.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’ll be alright.”
“You’re not worried Snow will find you?”
It’s a sobering reminder of my reality. “Of course I am. But I don’t want to talk about it. Not right now.” Peeta nods, and I change the subject. “What about you, hacker-man?” I ask him.
“What about me?”
“What if you get caught?”
“I counting on my team that I won’t.”
“But if I am, I have a perfect alibi.”
“The truth. That I was held at gunpoint and was forced to drive a complete stranger out of the city.”
I throw a chip at him.
“That sounds ridiculous.”
“I know. It is.”
“That doesn’t clear you, though. You were still there when the hack happened. Madge even called you because you were later than you should’ve been.”
“Hundreds of people were working there when the leak happened. I’m in the clear. Besides, I was with Coin’s right-hand man, Seneca Crane, when the security breach happened.”
“Yeah. I really was held up late, even before you entered the picture. He asked me to clear his name from an old data bank file. So, a) I was in the presence of someone who have known if I was hacking the system in front of their very eyes, and b) I was illegally erasing his name for him. If he surrenders me, I can do the exact same thing, and cite harassment from my boss- something he’s well known for doing.”
“Sounds like you've got this all figured out.”
“We’ve been planning this for a long time. We didn’t want any leaks but for the one we orchestrated. I’ll be fine.”
“You know, I think I’m going to give you some unsolicited advice.”
He stretches in his seat, groaning. “This ought to be good.”
“Dump Dee. She’s a psycho bitch. Marry Madge. Have blonde hacker babies. Rule the world.”
Peeta laughs. “Madge is already happily married,” he says wryly. I grin. “But I might take you up on that first bit of advice.”
“That’s all I ask,” I reply. “And I haven’t asked you for much.”
We both laugh, then. At the absurdity of everything, of the past few hours, of what will follow this moment.
We fall quiet again. I know we’re both stalling, which is really the last thing I want when I need to be in the mountains and he needs to be back in the city, pretending like he has no idea what’s happened to Coin Securities.
“I don’t think I’m going to see you again,” I say after a while, watching how the early morning sunlight spills over his face. “So, I just want to thank you. And to apologise for everything. For putting a gun against your head and dragging you around on this ride from hell.”
Peeta smiles. He takes my hand, rubbing his thumb over my knuckles in a soothing gesture. He shrugs. “I don’t know. It was scary at first, but I kind of had fun.”
“You’re kidding me, right?” I ask him, raising an eyebrow.
“Partly,” he laughs at my expression. “Okay, fine, never do this to me again. I almost shit myself thinking that Coin had somehow ordered for a hitman- a hitwoman – to kill me. But despite everything… I can see that you’re a good person, Katniss. Bad things have happened to you, but you’re still good. And once I convinced you to put away the gun, these past few hours have been okay."
"Wow," I say, shaking my head.
"I guess being on the run really brings people together."
I flip my hand over and take his in both of mine. “That’s the sweetest thing anyone has ever said to me.”
He shrugs. “I’m a regular ol’ Romeo.”
“I hope not,” I grimace. “Or we’ll both end up dead.”
Peeta smiles. I smile back. There’s a moment, then, where we both stare at each other, and then I’m leaning in and he is too and his nose is brushing against my cheek and we both smell of chips and of adrenalin but I don’t care because he’s kissing me and I’m kissing him back, soft and slow and heated.
It’s stupid, dumb, and doesn’t really make sense, but I can’t find it in myself to care. I can allow myself to have this.
I pull away first. I need to cut ties with the city, and that includes all my ties to Peeta Mellark.
“Katniss…” he breathes, and I feel it all the way down to my toes.
“Peeta,” I reply. He sighs. His cheek is rough against mine.
“I wish we had more time,” he says. I swallow the lump in my throat.
“I need to go,” I whisper. He nods. It’s the way it has to be, if we both want to live.
He collects his things and I sit in the driver’s seat of this car for the first time in my life. I watch Peeta walk away, jacket on, tie looped around his neck, briefcase in his hand. He disappears over the hill. I exhale. I close my eyes, and hold onto the feeling of his lips pressing against mine. I will never have that again. I need to preserve it.
The desert sweeps up in front of me as I drive through Dillard a few minutes later, sunglasses on, hair tied back. I see Peeta walking by the side of the road, towards the town’s only garage. As I approach, slowing just slightly, he looks back and waves. His smile is blinding.
I raise my hand in response, and watch his rapidly receding figure in the rear-view mirror until the haze engulfs him and he vanishes from sight.
Cricket chirps fill the air. I sit out on Haymitch’s deck with a beer in my hand, and watch the TV he has sat on an old crate as the sun sets around me. The old man himself is out with Effie, and I promised to look after his place (read: his geese) while he was gone.
Effie’s dog, a huge but graceful Doberman named Tulip, lopes up to me and drinks nosily from his water bowl, so loudly that I have to turn up the sound on the TV to be able to hear a thing.
Thresh Dayo, from the same channel that broke the story of my being wanted for murder and of Coin Securities collapsing from the inside out is speaking on the screen, and I lean forward to listen.
“Today court proceedings against Coin Securities CEO and founder Alma Coin continued, with witnesses from across the country testifying against Ms. Coin and her associates. From employees to old friends, this case has proved to be one of the largest fraud investigations in FBI history, which was prompted by the release of millions of data files by a hacker group only recently identified as the Mockingjay."
I watch as Thresh, alongside a hundred others, yells questions at a tall, thin, severe-looking woman with a sharp grey bob who hurries down the steps of the courthouse, surrounded by body guards, only to vanish into an awaiting car.
“Ms. Coin was originally accused of insider trading among other crimes,” he continues. “But as this case has developed over the past year, it has become clear that this is not an isolated incident, but rather part of a larger, global network dedicated to controlling the stock markets. A document filed to the courts just last night indicates that Ms. Coin’s company may have been involved in several oil price crashes in the Middle East, and also suggests evidence of collusion with foreign bodies.”
I shake my head. Peeta and his friends really didn’t know what they were doing when they opened Pandora’s Box to the world.
“In another shocking twist in this already outrageous case, the home of secretive billionaire Coriolanus J. Snow has also been raided in connection to the investigation. FBI officers have also seized sixteen other properties belonging to Mr Snow, and have so far arrested over one hundred people thought to have worked with him in the Panem city district alone, and indirectly with Alma Coin in international trades. At least fifty two other suspects are wanted by the FBI, and there are no doubts here that this number will only continue to rise.”
I stare, shocked, at the television screen. I knew Snow was a shady bastard, but this – this is unexpected. I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised. He was involved with everyone and everyone was involved with him, but I never thought he’d be caught, especially at this level, and with so many of his people being taken down with him.
Tulip nudges her nose against my leg and I rub her ears, cooing at her. She wags her tail and I smile, before standing to turn off the TV and head inside to start on dinner. Out here in the desert, the high daytime temperatures can quickly plummet once the sun has set, so I close the screen door and, once Tulip is left occupied in the kitchen with a chew-toy, I look through Haymitch’s spare room (my room, for the time being) and find a jacket.
I’m pulling it on and am almost out of the room when I hear a buzzing sound. I frown. Haymitch got me a phone a while back, though I don’t have many contacts, given that I’m in hiding. The only other phone I have is Peeta’s burner, from what feels like a lifetime ago. I couldn’t bring myself to dump it, so kept it hidden in the bottom drawer of my desk, and forgot about it soon enough.
My heart skips a beat, and I stop at the threshold to the room. I wait, I listen.
Again. Buzz, buzz, the sound of a phone vibrating against wood panelling.
I sift through the junk in that drawer and pull out the device. Four messages. Unknown number. I open the texts.
couldn’t resist when I heard the news about snow. so glad the bastard’s going down with coin.
i made Madge promise not to give me your number to protect you but i havent seen you on the news so figured you were alive and that a text would be much appreciated
i get flashbacks driving past cornercopia still but that’s not always a bad thing. Hope youre doing okay, wherever u are - peeta xx
we’re partners in crime, see. 2 kisses is highly appropriate.
I stare at the texts until my eyes water. I smile. I inhale shakily, and wipe at my eyes with my palms. I pocket the phone and head into the kitchen, were I make a simple meal to eat and do so at the kitchen table. Then, with the dishes scrubbed and left out to dry, I clip a leash onto Tulip, grab a flashlight, and step out into the wilderness surrounding Haymitch’s property.
We walk for twenty minutes. Tulip is happy to sniff around and I let her go free, following her down a worn path over the sandstone to a small lake. I stare out at the barren landscape as the sun dies, melting over the horizon, and wonder what Peeta’s doing right now. If he dumped Dee. If he'll ever get found out for what he did to Coin Securities. If he hates me for what I did to him. If he’s happy.
I fish the phone out. I flip it open and read through the messages until my vision blurs.
My hands shake as I type out a reply.
thank you, peeta. Im sorry things couldn’t have been different for us. maybe in another life. katniss xx
And then, I press send, and once the message has sent, flip the phone closed, and in one smooth movement, send it flying through the air, to the middle of the lake. It hits the water with a small splash, and is instantly gone.
This is the one thing I can give Peeta. Anything more or less would be dangerous for the both of us. This is what is necessary to keep him safe. Tragedy and circumstance brought us together that fateful night in the Cornercopia parking lot, and it’s what has ultimately separated us, too.
It’s the way it has to be. To save everyone left that I love, I have to vanish. I have to disappear. No matter how much it hurts.