The glow from the bonfire against the darkening sky is the first thing Katniss Everdeen sees as she walks through the back door of the large, waterfront property owned by her friend, Finnick. As she juggles the paper bag in her arms, she scans the scene for someone she knows.
“I told you we should have left earlier.” Katniss's attention is broken by the voice of her fifteen year old sister, Prim.
“Yeah, yeah.” Katniss keeps her gaze on the people, but rolls her eyes at Prim. “But we still had to stop by Grayson’s on the way. Plus, we had to wait for my check to go through.”
“Uh huh,” Prim scoffs, adjusting her own bag in her arms, “We're here now. Can I go yet? I don't want to waste another second. I’ve got Rory waiting on me, and it's the bash of the year. Where's Finnick?”
“I'm not sure,” Katniss says as she looks around. “Maybe check by the—"
“There you are!” Long, purple hair sways behind one of her friends, Madge Undersee, as she jogs up to them, “We were wondering if you were ever going to make it.”
“You know I wouldn't miss this,” Katniss says.
The end of summer doesn't mean much for Katniss Everdeen, but for the small town of South Haven, Michigan, it means the bonfire. Which means the crowded backyard and splashing by the beach, and the smell of punch and smoke permeating the air behind her friend Finnick’s house. It's been a tradition for the students of South Haven High since Katniss and her friends were freshmen, since the first year Finnick’s parents left him home while they took a last-minute vacation to the Bahamas. And now, two years later, the party is both comforting and expected. Everyone loves spending time with friends or making new ones. That includes Katniss.
“So, where's the gang hanging at?” she asks Madge, who takes the paper bag from Prim before her sister slinks off to her friends.
Madge nods her head toward the garage. “Over here. We've got a fire going in the pit.”
“Great.” Katniss follows Madge through the crowds to the corner between the two-story house and the built-in garage, where they find the rest of their group sat on logs around the fire pit: Finnick Odair, the host of the party, with his clear green eyes and boisterous laugh, then Madge’s adopted sister Johanna Undersee... and finally Peeta Mellark, the newest member of their group since he moved to South Haven in the middle of their freshman year, and who Katniss hasn’t seen since the end of June a month and a half ago. She smiles as she sees him.
As Katniss and Madge approach, Katniss notices that Peeta looks different than when she saw him last—his hair has been cut, his blond waves no longer falling into his eyes but instead resting at just above his eyebrows, and he’s lost the baby fat he had during sophomore year. Now, he’s lanky but lean, in an old summer camp T-shirt that he’s cut the sleeves off of. He doesn’t see her staring because he’s caught up in a conversation with Johanna and Finnick.
Katniss feels a nudge at her side and startles, looking toward Madge. The purple-haired girl gives her a smirk and a knowing look.
“Hey, guys! Look who I found wandering by the front gate!” Madge’s voice is a little too loud announcing their presence, and Katniss turns her face into a friendly grin toward the group.
“Hey, brainless,” Johanna deadpans the same time Finnick waves and says nonchalantly, “Hi, Kat.”
Katniss catches Peeta’s eye and the smile he sends her from across the fire.
“ Hey ,” he mouths to her.
“Hey,” she says to him and the group, as she and Madge take their seats on the logs around the fire, with Madge next to Finnick and Katniss next to Peeta. “What did I miss?”
“Oh, nothing much,” Finnick says, “Peeta here was just telling us about the girl he met up north at his uncle’s farm. Right, Peeta?” His attention turns to Katniss and the bag she holds. “What’s in the bag?”
Katniss hands the bag over to Finnick, who immediately starts rummaging through it and yells, “S’mores!” when he pulls out a package of marshmallows and chocolate. The group laughs, Katniss included, and then Katniss turns to Peeta.
“A girl, huh?” she asks, teasing in her tone. She can’t tell if it’s a trick of the light or if Peeta’s ears actually turn pink at the question.
“She’s nobody,” he mumbles, shooting a look Finnick’s way before he continues, louder, “I mean, yeah, her name was Clove and she was cute,” he glances toward Katniss with a grin, “but she was also twenty one and way out of my league.”
Katniss tries to quell the relief she feels when he delivers the second half of his sentence—not that she was concerned about a girl Peeta met over the summer, of course. They’re just friends. Really good friends. That’s the way it’s always been.
She also tries to ignore the flutter she gets when Peeta looks at her after like they share a secret.
“Twenty one?” Finnick asks around a mouthful of marshmallow. He chews, swallows and says, “Jesus, Peeta, of course she’s out of your league.”
“That’s why you should have let me finish before you jumped to conclusions,” Peeta replies pointedly. He laughs. “She liked me, and she thought I was eighteen.”
“There’s no way you pass for eighteen, Mellark,” Johanna pipes up from her spot next to Finnick. “No way.” She reaches over him for the bag of marshmallows, but he swipes it out of her reach. "Hey!"
"Yeah, with those dimples, you look thirteen at best," Finnick says, standing to avoid Johanna's scrambling hands. "Sorry, dude."
Katniss, Madge and Peeta all share a quiet bout of laughter as they watch Johanna get up and start chasing Finnick around the fire.
"Come on, Odair! Share!" she yells, drawing the attention of some of the people around them. But this is normal; Johanna and Finnick are always chasing each other and yelling about something, especially here. Those who turn don’t stare for long.
"And they're the ones talking to us about acting our age," Peeta murmurs, leaning back against his hands on the log.
Katniss can't help the laugh that bubbles out of her. She looks across Peeta at Madge, and catches the other girl's sly grin at watching them.
Katniss rolls her eyes and turns her attention back to Peeta.
“What do you think,” she replies, “Are they thirteen or twelve?”
Peeta chuckles, then turns to watch their friends for a long moment. The fading sunlight hits him just so, and Katniss takes the opportunity to really look at him. At the quirk of his lips while he thinks. The way the fire reflects off his hair a russet gold, the way he shines soft sunlit orange next to her between the fire and the twilight sky.
Then she startles as he moves, hoping she isn’t caught.
What am I doing? She shakes her head to clear her daze.
“Hmm,” Peeta says, “Definitely twelve.”
They share a look. A grin. A breath that ends in a chuckle. Katniss feels her cheeks tighten while she smiles.
“So,” Peeta continues, “How was your summer?”
Katniss clears her throat and leans back against the log next to him. She shrugs. “It was fine. I played way too much Halo with Prim, and I worked a ton. What about you?"
Peeta stares into the flames. "Honestly? My uncle put me to work on nailing in a new fence. Then, the week after that, we repainted the barn."
"Yikes." Katniss cringes. "So, a lot of manual labor?"
"A lot," Peeta echoes. “But I learned a ton. And I had a lot of time to think.” He turns back toward her, his eyes glinting orange. "I missed you, though."
“Me, too," Katniss says without thinking, then wants to facepalm herself. "About you. I mean, without you, I didn’t have anyone to...” What? She doesn’t have anyone to… what? Now it’s Katniss’s turn to stare into the fire. She glances at him for only a second, “The group wasn’t the same without you.”
“Of course,” Peeta says immediately, “The group…” Katniss can feel his eyes on her, and she grins.
“I mean, I missed you too, Mellark,” she tells him, “Just don’t let it inflate your ego too much.”
“Of course not.” Peeta puffs out his chest as though inflating his ego is exactly what happened. “I wouldn’t let the news that Katniss Everdeen missed me go to my head,” He dramatically taps his temple, raising an eyebrow to her, “Never.”
Katniss shakes her head at him, fighting to suppress another laugh. She leans over and shoves him softly with her shoulder.
“Hey!” He rubs his bicep, like he always does when she pushes him, then stops. “I mean, that didn’t hurt… at all. I’m strong. I can lift a hundred pound bag of feed over my head, you know.”
Katniss rolls her eyes again. Then squints at him. She shoves him again. “Sure. Keep telling yourself that, bud.”
As she turns to look for what happened to Johanna and Finnick, she catches Madge looking at her. There’s an unmistakable twinkle in her eyes that wasn’t there earlier. Katniss isn’t sure what to do with it.
Later, the bonfire has reduced to glowing embers, the package of marshmallows is empty except for the lone one found between Finnick’s fingers, and everyone has left the party, save for Katniss, Prim, Madge, Johanna, Finnick, and Peeta.
Finnick poises the marshmallow in front of his mouth, his arm a high arc above his head, and says, “Well, I think that was a success.” He drops the marshmallow into his mouth, then chews about as obnoxiously as someone can chew a marshmallow; that is, quietly but very open-mouthed.
Johanna barks out a laugh. “You think, Odair? Look at this mess.” She gestures with one arm towards the backyard, where cups and discarded paper plates lay strewn on the grass. “This is going to take forever to clean up.”
“It always does,” pipes in Madge from her spot on the log next to Peeta.
“Katniss,” Prim’s voice comes quietly, a low murmur, “Can we go yet? I’m tired.” She sits on the log next to her sister, her head resting on Katniss’s shoulder, her smile content and fingers sticky from the night of fun.
Katniss checks the time on her phone. It’s almost midnight. Prim’s right, they should be heading home, with school starting on Monday and tomorrow being the last day of summer vacation.
“Yeah, Prim,” Katniss sighs, shooting an apologetic look towards the group, “We can head out. Do you guys think you’ll be able to handle clean-up without us?”
Johanna waves a hand, scoffing. “Nice, brainless is smart enough to get out of helping.” But she laughs after, and Katniss knows she’s just trying to mess with her.
“We’ll be fine,” Madge says, shooting a pointed look Johanna’s way. “Are you still coming down to the lake tomorrow? My dad said we could give you a ride.”
“We’ll see,” Katniss replies, standing. Prim sits up in her absence. “I’ll text you tomorrow about it.”
“Let’s go, little duck.” Katniss offers a hand to Prim, who takes it and stands. A few minutes later, after they’ve said their goodbyes, and Katniss and Prim have made it to the gate, Peeta jogs up behind them. He opens the gate and holds it for them.
“I wanted to walk you out,” he explains, closing the gate behind them. Then he turns to Prim. “Hey, duckie, want a piggyback ride to the car? I know you guys parked down the street.”
Prim smiles sleepily at him, and nods. Peeta turns his back to her and crouches so she can jump on. “Up you go, Duckie.”
Prim jumps, Peeta catches her legs with his hands and adjusts her. Prim latches her arms around his neck and nuzzles her face between his shoulder blades.
Katniss doesn’t try to suppress her grin at the sight of the two of them. Peeta has always cared for Prim as if she were his own sister, ever since the first time he met her two years ago. She knows that if anything were to ever happen to her, Peeta would feel the loss as acutely as her. Because he’s kind and has such a big heart—two truths that have rooted themselves inside her while knowing him.
“She’s getting too old for that, isn’t she?” Katniss whispers as she and Peeta, along with a sleepy ride along Prim, start to walk down the driveway.
“Nah,” Peeta says, “She barely weighs anything. It’s like putting a wet blanket over my shoulder.” He looks at her in the yellow haze from the streetlight above them, and Katniss feels her cheeks tighten with a smile and warmth settle there.
They turn onto the street and stay close to the curb.
“So,” Peeta begins. He hoists Prim up his back as they walk.
“So,” Katniss echoes, waiting for the rest of his thought.
“Are you ready for junior year?”
“No,” Katniss answers, “Are you?”
“I wish summer could last forever,” Peeta says. The idea is idyllic, but not one that Katniss enjoys.
She scrunches her nose up in response, and asks, “Why? What could you possibly do with all those hot, sticky days? I think I’d get bored after the first week. Or maybe crawl out of my skin because of the heat.”
Peeta laughs, then shakes his head at her. “Well, I’d like to think I could help you enjoy an endless summer.”
There is something in his eyes then—something Katniss can’t put a name to. It’s soft, comforting, and she finds she can’t look away from it.
“Yeah?” Her voice comes out quiet. “What would you do with an endless summer?”
They’ve reached the car, and before Peeta can answer, Katniss's phone buzzes in her pocket. She frowns as Prim slides off Peeta's back and curls up in the passenger seat of the car, then digs her phone out of her pocket.
It's a text from her mother.
Where are you? Clearly she's forgotten that the party was tonight, the same party Katniss has gone to for two years. And that can only mean one thing.
She types back, Party at Finnick's. On our way home now, then hits send.
Katniss sighs and looks up at Peeta. "I have to go," she says to his curious expression.
"Is everything okay?" he asks.
Katniss nods, turning her lips into a smile to reassure him. "Yeah, everything's fine. Mom is just wondering where we are." And, she could be wrong. There isn't any reason to concern Peeta over what is, really, only a possibility.
"Okay." Peeta doesn't question her further. Instead, in a move that she doesn't expect, he takes her hand, squeezes, and says, "I really did miss you."
"I missed you, too," Katniss replies, voice barely above a whisper. She turns and looks at Prim. "I have to go."
"I know." It is then Peeta drops her hand, and steps back, while Katniss climbs into the car. She rolls down the window when Peeta knocks on it.
"Text me when you get home," he says, and Katniss nods, putting her key into the ignition. When the engine fires up, Peeta backs away and waves.
And in a moment where she hardly feels like herself, Katniss waves back. Then she settles both hands on the wheel and hits the gas pedal.
Her eyes linger on the reflection of Peeta's form in her rearview mirror as she drives away. And Katniss doesn't know why, but she can't bring it in her to look away until she has to turn the corner.
When Katniss turns down their street, she nudges Prim in the passenger seat. "Hey, Duck, we're home."
Prim scrunches her nose in the semi-darkness and gives a sleepy groan while Katniss finds a place to park as they near their house. The streetlight in front of their house is burned out again, so she settles for parking across the street from the neighbor's. Since they usually don't have any visitors, Katniss doubts they'll mind.
Katniss nudges Prim again when she takes the key out of the ignition. "Prim, wake up. We're home."
"M'mkay," her sister mumbles, slowly opening her eyes. She stretches, and when her gaze focuses on Katniss, she grins lazily.
Katniss's eyebrows knit together at the dopey expression on her little sister's face. "What's that look for?"
Prim pushes herself up, the grin still intact. "Rory kissed me tonight," she says, her cheeks going pink.
"What?" Katniss doesn't know how she feels about that. Rory Hawthorne and Prim have been friends since the fifth grade, and neither has ever expressed romantic interest in the other, before now. But a kiss ? That seems like it could be moving in a direction Katniss isn't ready for.
Her sister growing up. Tonight, she had her first kiss.
Prim nods. "He asked me if I'd go to homecoming with him, and when I asked him why he wanted to ask me instead of some other girl, he just… leaned in and kissed me. Then he said he'd been wanting to do that for a while, and I said…"
"Okay, okay," Katniss interrupts, opening her car door and stepping out, "I think I've heard enough."
Prim giggles, and gets out of the car. She meets Katniss on the other side and asks, "Why? Because it makes you feel weird?"
"Yes," Katniss says as they start walking toward the house, "It makes me feel very weird to think about my sister kissing boys and going on dates."
"Because you haven't done that?" Prim asks, and Katniss stops.
There is a familiar red truck sitting behind their mother's silver Honda in the driveway. Only now does the faint strain of voices reach them from the open window on the first floor.
Katniss puts an arm out to stop Prim from walking any further. "Prim, get behind me," she tells her sister.
Prim squints where Katniss is looking, and doesn't protest. She does as her sister asks.
"Is that…" she begins in a whisper.
"Yes," Katniss whispers back, "Now, when we get inside, I need you to go straight to your room. Understand?"
"But—" Prim starts to say, but Katniss cuts her off.
"No buts, you're just going to go straight to your room. Okay?"
The two girls walk quietly along the driveway until they reach the porch. Their motion-sensored porch light flicks on as they step up to the door.
"I need to hear you say it, Prim," Katniss says, fumbling for her house key. "You go straight up to your room. Okay?"
When she inserts the key into the lock, her sister says, "Okay."
Katniss sighs in relief. "Good." She twists the key in the lock, and opens the door. "Now go."
Prim slinks up the stairs on near-silent feet, and Katniss allows herself a second to exhale before the rasp of her mother’s voice calls for her.
“Katniss? Is that you?”
Katniss smells the acrid smoke as she closes the door behind her, the scent wafting from the living room where she knows she’ll find him sitting on their threadbare couch. Feet up on the scuffed coffee table, a joint between his fingers. Beard long and scraggly, clothes wrinkled. A hard stare in his eyes that zeroes in on her as soon as she enters the room.
“There she is.” His voice sends ice slithering down Katniss’s spine, an involuntary shiver jolting her from where she stands in the entranceway. “Out late tonight, aren’t you, girl?”
“Sorry,” Katniss mumbles toward her mother, who lounges in the rocking chair by the window, eyes glassy and a lazy smile on her lips. Then, to him: “Cray.” The name buzzes around like static in her brain, white noise that does nothing to numb her from what she knows comes next.
“Where’s the little one? Polly, is that her name?”
“Prim,” Katniss says. “She went straight to bed. Fell asleep on the way home. I practically had to carry her up the stairs.”
“How cute,” Cray says.
“Yeah.” Katniss lets the word hang in the air, at a loss for what to say to him.
“You got my money?” Cray puffs through a cloud of smoke.
The question has Katniss standing straighter, her back rigid as the realization sinks in. He wants money. Money that Katniss doesn’t have. She spent the last of her paycheck today on school supplies for her and Prim… and the bag of snacks she took to the party.
She knew it was a risk to splurge like that, but at the time it seemed okay. Cray hadn’t been around for a while, and her mother had been doing… better.
“No,” Katniss says quietly, barely a breath behind the sound. “I don’t.”
Katniss swallows hard and resists the urge to gag.
“I spent it.” That and she didn’t know she’d be paying her mother’s end today. Because she’d thought that Cray was out the picture. Or so she’d hoped.
But she’d been wrong. Of course, she’d been wrong. She always is.
“Spent it? On what?”
“School supplies,” Katniss answers. She decides to leave out the part about the bag of snacks; it will only make him angrier. “We go back Monday.”
“Monday, eh? Oh, well, isn’t that… unfortunate,” Cray scratches roughly at the stubble on his chin as he stands, the couch creaking when he pushes himself off it. He walks over to Katniss, and she stares into his dark brown eyes, the pupils fat. Mouth curled around the joint. He plucks it from his lips with two fingers and taps ash onto the carpet. Katniss watches the dry flakes float down, before her gaze is wrenched up by the force of Cray’s hand on her chin. Bony fingers press into her jaw, tight and painful.
“You’re not getting off that easy,” he says. “Mommy said you’d pay. And you will .”
Katniss says nothing, unwilling to give him the satisfaction of a response. She holds her breath and steels herself, waiting.
Her head whips to the left, cheek flushing from the impact of Cray’s palm. But it only hurts for a moment. She feels the tension at her scalp when he fists her braid in his hand.
“When’s your next paycheck, huh?” He yanks her onto her tip toes.
“Next week,” she says tightly.
Cray lets go, and Katniss relishes in the solid floor beneath her, stumbling backward. She nearly trips, but manages to steady herself on wobbly knees. He’s done worse, she thinks. At least Prim is upstairs. Safe.
That’s all that matters.
Her cheek feels warm, her jaw stiff, and she hates herself for not being able to fight back. But that would bring no good for anyone, least of all herself. Cray is bigger and stronger than she is.
Cray interrupts her thoughts by gripping her wrist and pulling her back to him.
“I’ll be back, and I expect every last penny.” Smoke clogs every syllable he speaks. “You got it?”
Katniss nods. Blinks back tears from his proximity and the stench.
“Say it,” Cray orders.
“Every last penny,” Katniss chokes out, “Yours.”
“Good girl.” Finally he releases her. “Don’t forget.”
I won’t, Katniss thinks, heart hammering in her chest, How could I?
And then, as suddenly as he appears, Cray gathers himself, pecks her mother on the cheek, and leaves.
When the door shuts behind him, Katniss wishes she could change the locks. But she knows it would do no good. He would just break the door down like he did last time, when her mother swore on sobriety, when she promised she wouldn’t go back to him.
One of many broken promises.
Katniss has since learned not to convince herself that the inevitable won’t come. That Cray won’t return expecting his share. That her mother will be the parent she should be when she’s sober, that she’ll want to be better instead of coming up with an endless amount of excuses.
Cheek throbbing, Katniss finds her way upstairs. She startles, finding Prim sitting behind the railing at the top.
“He didn’t see me,” she explains, standing. She goes to Katniss, her hand towards her face. “It was worse this time.”
“No, it wasn’t,” Katniss says. She’s had worse.
“Let me go get you something for your face,” Prim says.
Katniss shakes her head. “Don’t.”
“Katniss, he’s gone.”
“He could come back. I don’t want you going downstairs until morning.”
“No, Prim.” Katniss’s jaw aches forming the words. “I’ll be fine. Just get me a washcloth from the bathroom. I don’t need anything else.”
“If it were me you’d get me a bag of peas from the kitchen,” Prim grumbles. She disappears into the bathroom for a moment and comes back bearing a dripping washcloth.
“It’s not you,” Katniss snaps back, taking the cloth, “It’s never going to be you. I’ll make sure of it.” She presses the cold rag against the angry red skin on her cheek, then exhales as the pain dissipates.
“Because you’re my little sister, Prim.”
“Only by a year,” Prim argues, “I’m almost as tall as you.”
“Still.” Katniss doesn’t want to talk about it now. She just wants to sleep. “Can we just drop it, Prim?”
“No. It isn’t fair, Katniss.”
A lot of things aren’t fair, Katniss wants to point out, but she doesn’t have the fight in her. “Prim...”
“If Dad were still here, none of this would be happening.”
Katniss sighs at that. Of course, her sister brings up their dad. Their dad who abandoned them when Prim was four. Her little sister doesn’t get that it doesn’t make a difference. Sometimes the universe hands you bad things even when you do everything right. Like their mother did. Sure, she had a few drinks and didn’t wait until she was married, but she never did anything bad. Never did anything to deserve her husband walking out on her with two young daughters waiting at home. But sometimes that’s what happens. And sometimes you do things to cope. Like their mother did.
And she’d rather not have a dad than have a relationship full of resentment to look up to. Katniss has seen her fair share of that, too. Felt it, watching her mother with Cray. Wondering how life would be different.
But nothing is going to change. Not until her mother wants it. Not ever, maybe.
“Go to bed, Prim.”
“I mean it,” Katniss says. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Go to bed.”
Prim sighs, but Katniss is glad when she casts a last look her way before going back to her room. She doesn’t like to think about her dad. Because when she thinks about the possibilities of how things could be different, it gives her hope. Hope she can’t afford.
Hope that in some alternate universe, she gets to come home to dinner on the stove, laughter in the kitchen, and love in her mother’s eyes. But the reality puts that picture up in smoke.
Katniss makes her way to her bed in the darkness, holding her cheek.
She's so tired. The hoping gets exhausting after a while.
Because even if her dad is out there, he’s never coming back. He would have done so by now if he wanted to.
There’s no alternative to the life they’ve been dealt.
Katniss knows the universe would never be that kind.