"Caught in Fire"
The last thing I wanted to do is come back home and have to give explanations. Having Katniss telling me she didn't really know how she feels about me while I thought my life from this point onward was going to be peaceful and by her side, left me in simple words, torn apart. And now that I'm back home, I'll have no other option than to put on the masks I know so well and be Panem's charming baker boy from District 12 once more. They will be expecting some kisses. Heartbreaking reunions with our families too, no doubt. I wonder if they'll bring in Gale Hawthorne to receive Katniss as part of her family. I remember what she told me back in the cave, that I didn't have any competition. What a joke. Suddenly, I find myself calculating how much time it'll take her before I become a complete stranger.
The train stops and I feel my heart race, but I choose to ignore it. Pull it together, Mellark, I think. That phrase was my wrestling instructor's choice words for me. But it's also a phrase that helped me survive in the Games when my last resort of defense became, yes, icing. He used to yell that at me when I started slacking off at training. And during the Games, while someone chased me, when I was very scared or hungry, I pretended he was right behind me yelling "Pull it together, Mellark! It's already bad enough you like to bake cakes, man up!" But right now, my imagination is far from able to conceive him yelling at me to man up, that it's already bad I'm in love with a girl that hunts on a daily basis while I just bake cookies.
Before the doors slide open I extend my hand to Katniss, wipe my voice from any feeling and say "One more time? For the audience?"
She takes my hand and squeezes it tightly. I unsuccessfully try to convince myself she's just nervous, not longing for me.
The doors swoosh open and a thunder of flashes and questions pours on us. Thankfully, the Capitol assistants make a sort of shield in front of us so we can walk toward the podium that has been set for our welcome-back interviews. But as the reporters start asking us how we feel about coming back, if we're eager to start our new life together, and if we could please kiss in front of the camera, I start wishing this could all end fast. Not only because the ritual feels downright literal when I say it's pouring lemon on my wounds, but because I find that every answer, joke, touch and staged kiss burns through me with the acidic truth: none of it is real.
As if I wasn't uncomfortable enough yet, the reporters arrive to the topic that I've made a point of to evade throughout the whole Hunger Games; my family.
"Peeta, how are you feeling about seeing your family again?" A reporter asks me. Terrible, I feel like answering, considering the only member of my family who thought I could win told me to stick with Katniss so I could last longer.
As I'm about to answer, the make-shift projectors show an image of my family, standing somewhere in the middle of the crowd. I try and not to look at the panel for too long, so I just answer "I feel enormously blessed. I really missed my family and I'm glad I have the opportunity to see them again."
"What is the first thing you two are going to do now you're back home?" Some other reporter asks.
"You mean besides sleep?" I ask with a smirk on my face that causes everyone to chuckle, even Katniss, who laughs right on cue. "No, really, we just want to rest. Settle down, go back to normal. Everything else can wait." I answer, snaking my arm around Katniss' waist, in the hope that she gets my message. That I'm not going to rush her, she can take as long as she wants. I'm willing to wait.
"Katniss, who are you more eager to see?"
"My sister Prim," Katniss immediately answers with a smile. "I missed her a lot."
"And you Peeta?"
The cameras train on me but I take a while to answer. The truth is I didn't exactly miss my life as a baker. All I was looking forward to after winning the Games was finally spending time with Katniss, teaching her how to sketch, maybe I could convince her of taking me to the woods, coax a song out of her and see if the birds really fell silent, helping each other to forget the awful memories of all of those could've-been friends in the arena. Just entering her life; staying with her always.
"My father," I say, deciding to answer this as close as the truth as possible knowing this would save me later guilt. "He's my role model. I really missed him." That´s not entirely false, so it´s good enough for me.
Cameras keep flashing at us for the next ten minutes or so, but I feel every second passing is an eternity. I feel weary, keeping masks up is no easy task. Although I wasn't pretending on my love for Katniss, probably everything else I did in the Games was just as ephemeral as Katniss' love for me. Finally, the moment that I've been dreading all day arrives; meeting up with my family again. Just the thought of seeing my mother, who coldheartedly bid me farewell before I was taken away for the Hunger Games, makes my hands start sweating. I think Katniss notices because she glances in my direction with a puzzled look. I only smile shyly because I´m really not in the mood to amuse her with an explanation.
Little by little the camera crews start emptying the train station, clearing my path towards my family. The four of them stand still as ice, unable to believe their eyes as I approach them. The first to come down crumbling is my brother Rye, who could've volunteered for me in the reaping just like Katniss did for Prim. He is also my best friend. Before he starts what I think must have been a much rehearsed apology I hugged him with abruptness.
"I'm sorry, Peeta." It's all he says.
"It's okay. I'm back." I answer him.
Next, my eldest brother, Hesper, joins the both of us followed by my father and lastly but incredibly, my mother. I feel my father's tears moistening my cheek and Hesper's tight grip around me. The scene must be real touching, I bet, because cameras start flashing again. We break apart since I´m about to shoo them off, but to my surprise, someone already is backing me up; drunken Haymitch and Katniss telling the cameras we only want to be left alone. Haymitch just has vomited upon a Capitol cameraman's shoes, when I catch a glimpse of Katniss' eyes locking with mine. Just like that time with the bread. It only lasts seconds though, but that was all I need to gain some peace of mind. I nod her way in thankfulness and she twisted her lips into a would-be smile before hopping onto a Capitol van with her family.
"It's time to go." I say with an edge of finiteness, hoping my family didn't notice the altercation with Katniss. But just as I was born with that way with words, my family is ridiculously talented to pick up on subtle things, an art I've learned over time too.
"What was that about?" Rye asks a little confused. "Are you two okay?"
It's only when I see Gale Hawthorne hopping onto Katniss' van that all hopes of me getting her back vanish, leaving a very painful feeling in my stomach. But I answer "We're just tired. Come on, I want to go home." But little did I know, I'd never set foot in my old merchant house again.
To my bad fortune, I arrive in sync with Katniss' van to Victor's Village, which only makes the thing altogether more awkward. Picture this: You've been nationally broadcasted making out with the girl of your dreams for a little more than three weeks. Then you learn she didn't actually love you, although everyone else thinks she does. And now you're expected to bear that on top of the fact you'll be her mother's neighbor. Plus there's also Katniss' little "cousin", Gale.
They´re unloading a truck with the Everdeen's belongings, which only included some boxes, when I catch a disapproving look from Mrs. Everdeen. I feel my cheeks burn with shame and the need to dig up a hole and camouflage myself into a sidewalk, but the only thing I manage to do is wave friendlily at her. She doesn't even flinch. I guess I know where Katniss got that steely stare she gives me when she's mad at me. Gale follows her into the house, and his glance is a whole different thing. He´s not watching me; he´s willing daggers into my face. I hold my eyes up to him in a menacing way as well. All I can think "If looks could kill
" The only one who greets me back was Katniss' lovely little sister, Prim. She carries her cat, I think Katniss mentioned its name was Buttercup, and the goat along with her. She smiles at me and waves, "Hi, Peeta!"
I wave her back. "Hey, Prim."
"You want me to call Katniss out?"
My heart skips a beat at the mention of her name. "No, no. That's fine, Prim. Let her rest."
She nods and enters the house following her mother´s example.
My new house in Victor's Village gives me no sense of home, although it already smells of it: freshly baked bread and I think I'm lucky enough to detect beef stew. Back in the old days, the only time I'd get stew was when my dad bought squirrels from Katniss. I wonder what's she going to do with all this free time, I mean, surely she won't have to worry about feeding her family like she did before. At least there's a bright side to all of this, I think. I come into the living room where I find my two siblings gushing over how "cool" the TV is. Great, I think, now I'll really get to enjoy the Hunger Games for sure. I wonder who'll be mentor next year; Haymitch or me. I pray it's not me. Keeping Katniss alive is one thing, I don't think I'd have what it takes to coach a boy into his own death; I can't be heartless like Haymitch. I wouldn't bear to sit and watch helplessly as yet another tribute from District 12 dies before my eyes. I might as well become the next drunken mentor of D12. I suddenly catch my thoughts drifting off to Katniss again when I realize she won't have another choice. She will be the girl mentor like it or not. And although we won this year, frankly most of it was due to Katniss in one way or the other. She's got spark, unfortunately I can't say that of most girls in District 12. Like I said, she's the only one that has made a lasting impression on me, and I'm sure she has done the same with everyone in the Hob and at school. She's hard to forget. But I couldn't picture Madge Undersee or Delly Cartwright especially Delly Cartwright, turning into the next "girl on fire".
"Peeta!" Rye exclaims, shattering my train of thought into oblivion. "Check this out!"
I sit next to Rye and Hesper, who are already fumbling with a large box that has the Capitol emblem on top of it. There's a little note attached to it and I recognize the handwriting.
I knew you'd make it all along. I'm very proud of you. This is for that talk we had before, make it count.
See you in November.
Your friend and stylist,
I open the lid of the box and find a full set of painting tools: paints, canvas, mixing tablets
everything. I smile to myself and move my head from side to side in disbelief. Portia, I think. I don't know how well Katniss got along with Cinna, but for me Portia was some kind of aunt who likes spoiling me. I remember that during my first meeting with her, when she had me stroll around a room naked, she asked me what was my favorite hobby and I remember telling her I didn't have one but I always had wanted to be a painter.
"What's this?" My father asks with obvious amusement at the sight of my shocked expression.
"Peeta's stylist sent him paints
I don't know why." Rye fills my dad in.
" I say, "I told her I've always wanted to be a painter."
"She should've sent you baking materials." My mom says as she walks in to inspect the box herself. "These are no use."
I breathe deep and try to count to ten
One, come on Peeta, you've just arrived from the Games. Give her a break
Two, but she didn't even care I could've died
Three, but she loves you, she's your mom after all
Four, yeah right
Six, she deserves it
Seven, Katniss also deserves it but you don't burst with her, do you?
Seven, yes but Katniss is Katniss
Eight, plus my mom only cares about the bakery. I just arrived from the Hunger Games, for crying out loud
Nine; just let it go
Ten, it's just a harmless comment
"What good is it for you to paint, anyway?" She adds. I feel like someone's pulling my stomach as if it was a string. I violently snatch the box from her sight and say, "It's nothing you would understand."
She stares blankly at me and then I detect anger beginning to boil in her eyes. That's my cue to flee.
" my dad calls, but I just go straight upstairs.
"She didn't mean it to harm you." My dad says when he opens the door to the bedroom I closed myself in.
"She never does, does she?" I say in a very sarcastic way but my dad only stares sternly at me. "I'm sorry. It's just that
that I wish for once she could be a little more tactful."
My dad nods in agreement and keeps silent. I look around the room and I find it quite luxurious. A king size bed with navy blue covers, mahogany furniture, a walk-in closet and a door that I'm pretty sure leads to a bathroom. But then I notice the most appealing feature yet. There's a window from where you can see the Everdeen's.
"I call dibs on this one." I say all of nowhere.
"The room. I want this room. It's got good lighting." I say.
"You can have any room you want." My dad says. "After all, this is your house, Peeta."
I'm about to protest but my dad closes the door behind himself, leaving me with the loneliness that had been menacing to spring ever since I realized Katniss wasn't really in love with me. The room is cold despite its luxuriousness and it only helps me become aware of the truth. The Games are over and so is my relationship with Katniss. There's Victory Tour in a couple months and then that's it. Goodbye to the baker's son. It takes me a couple days to realize what my dad meant about this being my house. It is. And according to my dad, it´s not theirs. By the time my first week ends, my dad announces they have to go back to tending the bakery, that they can´t stay here because they must guard it. Someone might steal it in the night; that was my mother´s excuse. Although I felt really down and well, abandoned, I couldn´t really tell them how bad I felt. All I said was "Okay, I´ll drop in to check on you." I say. My dad smiles and tells me, "I´ll be waiting." He gingerly closes the door and just like that, I´m left to myself. Suddenly I understand the reason of Haymitch´s dependence to alcohol. The way the halls are quiet, the colors are harmonic, the way everything is so perfectly arranged makes it great for your mind to play tricks on you. It makes it easier for the ghosts, the loneliness to hunt you down at night.
The first nights were the worse. I fretted on my sleep; my leg hurt because I usually have a bad memory and always forgot to take my painkillers before I went to bed. I shouted and screamed and felt the pain of Cato´s maiming me all over again, like it just happened, like if it was real. I saw the wolf-mutts. I saw Rue dying. Katniss being almost killed by Clove and me shouting at the top of my lungs for her to run. I saw when they cut my leg, even though I was unconscious when they did that. I saw me running away from the Careers, entering the ruins of a bakery and then seeing how the ovens explode and consume me in flames. I saw the moment Katniss pointed that last arrow at me and let my mind create the scenario of what would´ve have happened if she had decided to kill me. Waking up never helped. When I did I only found myself screaming, alone, in an empty dark room, frequently scared by the sounds the trees make when they´re moved by a strong wind. But one night, the first night it rained, the truth dawned on me. No matter how scared, hurt, or lonely I felt, nothing I could do would change it. I heard a mighty thunder which made me fall to the ground and hurt my calf-less leg. Only then, consumed in pain and darkness, I allowed myself to cry all the fear and desperation I had so badly wanted to express during the Games.
Time passed and nights became days while days became weeks. And as this happened it only became harder to fool my family into making them believe my star-crossed lovers trick. Actually, it was hard to fool them about just anything: that I was okay despite the Games, that I felt alright, that I was having a blast as a new victor. So at one point I decided to stop visiting them, because with each visit they got closer to the truth. That I was not okay. That Katniss and I were as close as oil is to water. That my mask is crumbling. But the bubble exploded one afternoon, when they decided to drop by at dinner.
"So, what have you been up to, Peeta?" Rye asks but he has to repeat the question a couple times for me to actually listen. "Peeta?"
Rye and Hesper look concerned at each other.
"Are you okay, sunshine?" Rye asks me, using that darn nickname I used to hate so much but right now brings so many funny memories. He used to call me Little Miss Sunshine to bug me at wrestling, partly because of the blond factor and partly because according to him I was too feminine for his taste. And that´s when I would usually lift him off the floor and smack him to the ground back-first, like a flour bag. Then we would both laugh and I would help him up. Before I know it, I´m smiling, even suppressing a laugh. It´s been so long since I don´t find something funny that I go ahead and let the feeling invade me.
"Sorry Rye, it´s just
" I struggled between chuckles, "It´s just it´s been so long since you called me that and your face
you should´ve seen how stupid you looked." I say with a devilish snicker.
"Oh, yeah?" asks Rye, mockingly. "Well wipe that grin off your face, Sweetie Pie, or I´ll wipe it for ya!" Rye locks me with his arm and with his fist rubs the top of my head as if he were trying to dig a hole on my cranium.
"Girls, girls" Hesper intervenes, "Stop it, you´ll mess each other´s hairdo. You´re both pretty okay? You can both have Hawthorne."
Rye and me immediately stop our taunting each other and throw daggers at our eldest brother. "You sure he wasn´t adopted, dad?" Rye asks.
"Jeez, way to break the mood, Hesper!" I say, following Rye´s example.
"Tell me about it," Rye starts. "I swear if I hear another girl at school squealing about how hot and how handsome Hawthorne is, I´ll go to his house and punch him. He´s not even in school anymore! Can you believe it? The nerve! And then, there´s you. I´m going to be honest with you, Sunshine, I was hoping being the brother of a freaking Victor would increase my chance with the ladies."
I cough on my soup and laugh. "You what?" This is far too good to let it go. I know Katnissand the rest of Panem, for that matterthinks I´m a complete goodie goodie, and she´s right. But Rye, being my brother, I can make an exception for him. It´s the only person I´ll ever tease.
"And just how well did that one go, champ?" I ask, too upbeat for him not to notice my obvious amusement. Answering me, Rye lifts up his thumb and then points it down. I can´t help but laugh.
"Oh don´t be so smug, Peeta Pie, I´d keep the windows shut and Katniss near, armed with bow and arrow. You have as much obsessed little teenager girls following your trail as Hawthorne."
I almost swallow my spoon. "Now, you´re just messing with me."
"Am not. Seriously, Peeta! How do you do that? They all fell in love with you in the Games!" He starts ranting. "They eat that stuff up, girls."
"They´re the Games, Rye." I say quietly, uncomfortable with the turn our conversation has given.
"Mind you, I almost fell in love with you, too. How can you be so cheesy? I never thought Katniss would fall for that type."
"That´s it, Rye." I say with a small voice again.
"You should coach me sometime
" He keeps on going. And it only takes that phrase to set me off. To trigger my memories and to make me remember why talking like this with Rye is all wrong. Coach me sometime.
"Drop it, Rye!" I exclaim. And although I know Rye was only teasing me in a goodhearted way, it sets me off. He looks at me a bit shocked and mutters he´s sorry. I nod and immediately feel sorry myself. My best friend, my brother, isn´t guilty in any way for my lack of outlet for the feelings I jammed up during the Games. In either way, my snapping at him settles an uncomfortable silence in the dining table that not even Caesar Flickerman could break.
"Well, this is a first." Hesper says poking at his plate after a while.
"It's chicken, I bought it from the butcher" my mother speaks for the first time. "It's fine, expensive meat so I expect you to finish every last bit."
Fine meat or not, this is not half as good as the meat we bought from Katniss, not even Capitol meat, in my opinion. But the only way I´d tell that to my mother is if I wanted my good leg chopped off. Still, it tasted funny, like poisoned or rotten. I shake my head at the butcher, who more than once has sold rotten meat to the merchants. I know this firsthand because one of my friends, Delly Cartwright, got food poisoning by eating rotten meat and had to be taken to Mrs. Everdeen in order for her not to dehydrate to death. She missed school for a week.
"What is it?" My mother asks. Oops, I think she saw me shaking my head.
"Are you sure it's chicken?" I asked. "Tastes funny. Like rotten or something." I say not trying to be rude, just giving her a heads up.
"It's not rotten!" she exclaimed. "It's better than any of the meat we've had before."
"Really?" I say and take another bite. "I think the butcher fooled you. It doesn't taste like--"
"Well, why don't you ask her to bring you game so you stop complaining and for a change save me money!"
I look down to my plate and quietly force the "chicken" down my throat, focusing on finishing fast.
"How's she, by the way?" My dad asks.
"Katniss. You haven't spoken of her lately."
"Oh, she's fine
she's been helping the Hawthornes out."
Rye and Hesper looked at me raising one quizzical eyebrow simultaneously.
"Hawthorne?" Rye asks. "Speak of the devil. He ended up in the mines, right?"
"I honestly don't know." I say. And I don't care.
"Where else?" Hesper adds.
I nod casually. It rubs me the wrong way, how Gale Hawthorne seems to all of a sudden claim even my family conversations. Making fun of him with my brother is one thing, but it's already good enough that I have to compete for Katniss with him. Assuming she will ever speak to me again, that is. I bet she's been seeing him.
"Doesn't it bother you though?" My brother asks again.
"They're friends." I say. "She helps his mother with the food and all that."
My mother grunts unimpressed. "Leave it to those Seam brats to suck on someone else's success."
"Katniss happens to be one of those "Seam brats" mom, and I'd really appreciate if you stopped referring to them like that. It's not their fault."
"And how does she provide for them?" My mom snaps. "Oh, don't tell me. Hunting, like always. That girl will get us in trouble if she's caught hunting in the woods, Peeta."
"Look mom," I say angrier than I'd like. "You're free to tell me what and what not you think I can do. But don't get near Katniss. Understood? And for the record, she´ll never get caught. She´s too good at it."
"Peeta Mellark!" She begins, but I just roll my eyes. "Don't you talk to me in that way! I am your mother!"
I just pick up my plate and dump it in the sink.
"Where do you think you're going? Come back here! If you set one more foot I swear I'll
"You'll what mom? Send me to bed without dinner? Scare me? No really, I want you to try." I say and leave her speechless for enough time so I can storm out the back door.
"You have no right to talk to me that way!" She screams from the dining room but I make a point of banging the door as loud as I can. I can hear Rye making a sarcastic comment about the nature of Capitol-made doors but I´m too mad to care. I can still hear my dad who rarely ever fights or speaks to my momtelling her that it wasn´t right to set me off like that. The fact that they start making an argument out of it makes me altogether even more upset so I just walk to the furthest end of the backyard, near Katniss´ house and sit among two large bushes. I hope no one finds me, but I don´t think my size will ease the job of my pair of concealments. I start picking on the fruits of the bush, wondering what they are, and grunting when I hear my parent´s fight isn´t over. I can hear them all the way from here. Ugh, why on Earth can´t my mom and I get along for one miserable dinner? I mean, she´s strict and all, but she´s always been harsher with me. Probably because I´m the youngest. Probably because I´m the one who looks more like my dad. Probably because I´m in love with the daughter of the woman whom my dad always fancied. In either way, our relationship is not exactly fixable. And to think I was having such a good time with my brothers. I hear another of her roars and notice how close I am to the Everdeens and how clear I can hear the fight. Suddenly I start hoping they aren´t listening. That´s the last I want, Katniss knowing there´s not much to admire about me other than I´m the baker´s son, who happens to be part of a very broken family. Frankly this is where Katniss always gets it wrong. She thinks the Seam kids´ life is as dull as it can get: go to school, get working on the mines, marry, have kids, hope they don´t get reaped, grow oldif you´re lucky enough to, die. But she doesn´t know that that unfolding of event applies to everyone, not only Seam kids. That before I was in the Games, and before I met her, that too was my destiny. I hear some smashing in the house and I´m tempted to settle the mess down, but then a window in Katniss´ house that sees towards my garden opens. My immediate instinct is to flinch and get down to the dirt as fast as I can. I guess I haven´t left the Games yet. It´s only when I see the pair of golden braids hanging loose above the window frame that I know I´m on safe grounds. I sit again but Prim still doesn´t see me.
"What´s going on out there?" I hear Mrs. Everdeen asking Prim.
"I think they´re fighting, mom." Prim says. I detect the slightest tint of worry in her voice. "Katniss, maybe you should go and check on Peeta. Maybe he´s being robbed."
I silently laugh at the little girl´s naivety.
"I´m sure he´s fine, Prim." Hearing her voice makes my heart drop to my stomach. I fist the dirt only to have something to hold on to.
"But will you go and check? Maybe he´s hurt or something. Remember his bad leg, Katniss!" She´s almost whining now and even though I can´t see her, I can imagine Katniss´ expression and fight hard not to chuckle. Too bad her single weakness will always be Prim.
"Okay, I´ll go check on him later."
"Go now, please."
"No, Prim. Now we need to finish our diner. I´ll let you come along with me if you finish eating first."
Prim´s about to leave when a shift of my feet make some roots crackle. Prim gasps. Curse that freaking Everdeen ear. It´s in their genes, I swear. Not even Prim misses it! I know how Katniss says I´m very loud when I walk, but come on, I barely heard this one! In either way, now I have Prim eye-searching whatever did the sound in the bushes. I´m tempted to do a cat sound so she thinks it´s Buttercup but then again, what if he´s with her and she wants to retrieve the poor creature stuck in the bush. Well, she´d have a tough time healing this cat. It´s already missing a limb for all that I know.
"Peeta?" She whispers. I flinch. I turn to her and put my index finger to my lips, signaling her to quiet down. She nods her head but in her eyes I can see the question that surely brews in her mouth, What are you doing down there? I signal her with my hands that it´s all okay and she nods again. I shoo her to her dining room, point to the house and make eating gestures. She nods again.
"Prim? What´s taking so long?" I hear Katniss asking. Now, my hearing might not be made to hear every freaking twig snap, but I can hear Katniss´ footsteps anywhere. I see her peeking out the window but Prim immediately goes to my aid.
"Nothing! It´s nothing! I thought I saw something on Peeta´s garden." Prim speaks agitatedly.
"What did you see?" Katniss asks with a sudden urgency that makes my heart skip a beat. Maybe she does care about me after all. But just as I´m silently thanking Prim´s masterful cupid tricks, she says "Uh
"A snake?!" Katniss shrieks and I slap my forehead. Thanks Prim. Note to self about Everdeens: Keen ear, yes. Acting abilities
they could use some improvement.
"But we should finish eating first, Katniss. The soup is getting cold." Through the holes in the bush I can see Prim pushing Katniss away from the window but she struggles with her to take a closer look to my garden. I hope she doesn´t see me.
"Katniss!" Prim shrieks. "You´re squashing me!" True. Katniss is leaning so far out the window, she´s got Prim trapped between herself and the wall.
"Sorry! Sorry, Prim!"
"I´m fine. Let´s just go and eat so we can go and check on Peeta."
"Yes, well maybe you´re right. I should go and check on him now."
"No! Not now! I want to go with you but I´m still hungry!" The girl pleads with Katniss.
"Alright, let´s go finish dinner."
If I could rely better on my eyesight, I could´ve swear Prim winked at me.
The best I can do not to blow my alibi of the snake is to crawl my way to my house. Where I forgot for a minute that I had left a mess in; and sure enough, I find my mom still mad and my dad and brothers done with their dinner.
"Peeta!" My dad says suddenly. "I thought you had run off." I´m tempted to fill him in on the fact that there´s nowhere to run to in my backyard, so I let him be.
"I´m fine. I just wanted to wait until you guys were done with your talking."
My dad presses his lips together in regret. "We´re just trying to make sure you´re okay, Peeta."
"I know, and I´m glad for that. But I´m fine."
"How´s the leg?"
"Getting better each day." I lie with expertise.
"Good, and have you´ve been taking your painkillers?"
"Okay." He says with relief. "Uh, it´s getting late so we should probably get going. We don´t want to bump into the Peacekeepers, you know how they´ve been lately."
"Okay." I say. "It was nice having you over."
My dad nods and I escort them to the door. The chilly wind enters the house as I open the front door and we all flinch. Autumn´s here, no doubt.
"Take care, son." My dad says.
"You too. And
be careful with those Peacekeepers."
They all nod. They´re just leaving when I see the pair of my neighbors approaching my house. I see that subtle shift in Katniss´ expression that lets me know she´s not very confortable with my family. I think it´s Rye. Rye on the other hand must have seen how my face changed when I saw Katniss because he announces, "Hey Sunshine, I´ll be dropping by during the week, okay?"
I see Katniss´ brows furrow puzzled at my nickname, Rye´s grin, and then I smack my forehead again. I hear Prim laugh at this last gesture. But even though I sense the mood is relaxing, it all becomes ice once my family is out of hearing range and Katniss and Prim reach my front door.
"Hi, Peeta." Prim waves at me.
"Hey, Prim!" I answer with equal friendliness. I need whatever I got to earn myself points with Katniss. I´m still not entirely ready to hand her over in a silver platter to Hawthorne.
"Hey," Katniss says and shrugs when a gust of wind shamelessly messes her braid. I notice she´s not very covered from the cold. Only a thin long sleeved green shirt and her normal pair of pants and boots.
"Want to come in? It´s cold outside." I say flinching at the cold too.
"That´s fine, Prim only wanted to check on you."
"No. You did!" Prim says and although I remain calm I´m dying to laugh at Katniss´ expression. She´s cute when she gets mad at Prim. "I told her I saw a snake in your house and she wanted to come and check on you right then but I told her we should wait until we finished dinner."
"Sure, little miss." Katniss says. In that moment more wind gushes in and Katniss and Prim flinch again. I´m about to ask them again if they want to come in, but Prim makes herself at home and comes right in.
"Prim!" Katniss shrieks.
"What, it´s cold outside, crazy! You´ll get a cold!"
Katniss´nosetrills flare a little and I, playing my good boy role so well, make myself aside and say, "She´s right, you know."
Once she´s inside I close the door.
"Anyway I only wanted to check about that snake. Don´t want it entering either houses."
I´ll just go and
I nod again and Katniss goes out to the backyard, hunting a snake she will never find.
"Thanks for that." I mutter to Prim as we both watch Katniss hunt the invisible creature, pushing bushes aside, lifting rocks, attacking suspicious-looking things
"For what?" Prim asks obliviously. I turn to look at her with a puzzled stare.
"You know for what."
"I have no idea what you´re talking about." She simply states, hopping on of my couches. She´s smart, this one. Not that Katniss isn´t but I sense Prim is easier to communicate to.
"Oh but I think you do." I say and sit by her side. "A snake, Prim?"
"Do not." Prim continued, stubbornly. Well, aren´t you your sister´s sister. "Honestly, Peeta. If I knew better I´d think you were trying to sabotage yourself. Katniss came here by her own account. Snake or no snake."
"You told her it was a snake so she would come up here?"
Prim yawns. "It´s late for me. I still have homework to do, tell Katniss I´ll be in the house, okay?"
She hops down the couch and walks to the front door.
"What?!" I´m suddenly whispering, even though I know Katniss can´t hear. "No, Prim! Prim!"
I follow after the girl. "Prim, don´t leave me here with Katniss!"
She turns around with a kind laughter dangling on her smile. "But Peeta, you spent a month alone with her. And you weren´t exactly shy
I feel my cheeks burning. Now this is what I needed. Crumbling to bits Katniss´little sister innocence. "I know but
" I sigh, "It´s difficult, Prim. When you´re older, you learn that not everything is what it seems and
"Peeta," she looks straight into my eyes with a serenity that can only come from fire itself. Young Primrose, also a girl on fire. "If anyone knows Katniss best, I think that´s me. And, don´t tell her I said this, but my sister´s far more fragile than she looks like. I know
what happened. Before you arriving here. Don´t give up on her just yet. Katniss needs someone like you. It´s just that she can´t see it yet. She has a hard time sorting feelings out. Anyway, I should be going now. I wasn´t lying when I said I have homework to do."
"Thanks, Prim. What´s your homework about, anyway?"
"Coal types." She scrunches her nose. I mirror her expression. "Yeah, I know. Not fun."
"What grade are you in now?"
"Already? Wow. I remember when you were this tall" I level my hand up to my hip "And used to drag Katniss to the bakery so you could see my cakes."
Prim laughs. "Yes, it feels like it was very long ago. You know, unlike Katniss, I always knew it was you who iced them."
I laugh unable to help my blushing. "I might bake one just for you any day. When´s your birthday?"
"I turn thirteen next Friday." She says, blushing herself.
"Well, I know what your gift will be."
"Thanks, Peeta!" She says, genuinely happy, and hugs me goodbye. "I really have to go now, my mom will kill me if I don´t. And don´t let Katniss get too wrapped up in looking for our little imaginary friend."
I laugh. "Sure, Prim. Have fun doing your homework." I tease as she walks up to her house. She moves her head from side to side. When I close the door, reality hits me. As good-natured and empathetic as Prim is, my problem is still plucking my garden around. I gulp hard and force my heart into beating at a steadier pace, one that doesn´t give me a heart attack.
"Uh, Katniss?" Her braid is loose now, and little hairs fall over her face making her look a little beastly; especially because her goal of killing the thing has not been accomplished.
"Katniss, it´s okay. I´ll just close the door and look for it myself tomorrow."
She turns to me with fiery eyes but then the intensity fades away. She stands up, as she was kneeling, and dusts the dirt off her pants. She looks over my shoulder and finds that there´s no blond girl sitting on my living room.
"Where´s Prim?" She asks.
"She told me to tell you she had to go because she had a lot of homework to do." I say, and I don´t know why but the way Katniss looks at me makes me feel scared, nervous. "She said it was about coal types."
Katniss studies my face and then nods.
"Well, I should be going then." She walks inside and I don´t follow her. I just wait for the sound of the door to tell me she´s left me. But no sound comes. I look inside and Katniss is still there, looking into a room that I carelessly left open. I run.
"No, no, no
. what are you? No
that room, no." I stutter. Which is rare in me. Katniss stares at me weirdly.
"What´s in it?"
"Stuff. Paints. It´s my studio." More like my mess room, the reason why I don´t want her anywhere near it is because sometimes I get so scared about my nightmares that a canvas is not enough space for my splashing paints around. Sometimes I paint the walls too or rip my own paintings apart. Sometimes the only thing I can do to forget my nightmares is to destroy them.
We both look at each other and for a moment, I think she will try to kiss me or something, because she stares at me in the same way she did when we kissed in the arena. I feel my heart starting to race only to have it stop abruptly when I hear my conscience telling me It´s not real, you stupid. She was pretending. I feel an urge to stop staring at those grey eyes that have always brought me to my knees ever since the first time I saw them. I notice the dirty plates of my family´s dinner still lying around in the table so I get to the task of clearing them.
Agonizing. That´s the only way to describe the silence between the two of us. I try to walk slowly as to no make a sound, but the task becomes impossible. Hiding in the bushes and being exposed out in the cold finally took its toll on my much abused prosthetic leg. I wince with every step, but I´m determined to hold up until Katniss leaves. I pile up as many plates I can in my hands so I make less trips, but the pain of my leg along the fact that I haven´t exactly been taking care of it lately makes it really hard to keep walking. Finally I give in.
"Ah!" I whine. I fall and hear the plates crashing.
"Peeta!" She screams and comes running to my help. "Peeta, your hands!"
I look down to them and sure enough, they´re bleeding.
"Huh, funny how I didn´t need you to push me this time." I say. "I´m okay. It´s just my leg." Katniss makes me sit.
"Your leg? Let me see." She starts reaching for my shoe but I scoot my feet away with much effort.
"I´m fine, Katniss. It´s just pain. I need my pills." I try to stand up only to be proven a cripple in front of Katniss.
"Where are they?"
"Peeta, where are they?"
I sigh and look angrily at her. "My room. Up the stairs, first on the left. Right side table, first drawer."
She springs to it while I bang my head against the kitchen island. There´s a reason I wanted to get the pills myself. I have a sketchbook in that drawer. A sketchbook she´s not supposed to see. Let´s hope Katniss curiosity doesn´t get the best of her. She comes back in a heartbeat and she´s wearing an expression that promises an argument. Oh boy, she saw it. Well, in my defense, she wasn´t supposed to be snooping around.
"How in the world aren´t you going to be hurting?" She scolds at me. "These are not even opened yet, Peeta!"
She grabs a glass and pours it with water, but all the time she´s muttering things under her breath. I don´t mention the sketchbook. I´ll have to give her the benefit of doubt.
"I´m sorry, I have a bad memory. I never get a glass of water with me to my room and by the time I remember I have to take it, I already have taken the prosthetic out. So I rather just endure through the night."
"Endure through the night
" She mutters. "Do you even listen to yourself? There´s a reason you have to takes these! You need to get better!"
"Sure, Katniss." I say patronizingly.
"Don´t sure Katniss me!" She shrieks. "Honestly, Peeta! You´d think I´m dealing with a little boy!" She hands me the pills and the glass of water and I take them will the dignity I have left. And although I feel intensely humiliated because I´m certainly not a little boy, I have to admit I´d rather have Katniss mad at me than not at all.
"Do you have something I could use to heal your hands?"
I move my head from side to side. She scowls. After she clears the rest of the table, takes away the broken plates and mops the floor clean of my blood she helps me up to the sink, washes my hands even though I insist I can do that by myself. She almost hits me when I tell her that I´m missing a leg not a hand. She helps me to the living room, sits me down and tells me not to move or else. If she hadn´t added the "or else" I´d probably had tried to climb the stairs up to my room, but this is Katniss we´re talking about. Three minutes later, she comes back, flushed by the cold air, holding a bunch of medical supplies with her and her mother trailing back.
"Oh, Peeta!" Mrs. Everdeen cries. "Let me see those hands." I extend them to her and she gets down to work. I´m hypnotized by the swiftness with which she works, only experienced hands could move this fast. When I see her pulling out a small cloth and dampens it into a clear liquid, I know it´s time to turn away. I flinch and wince and tighten my jaw, because it´s all I can do to prevent myself from screaming. Katniss walks up to me and sits by my side, grabbing my arm. I know how she hates watching people being healed, so you can only imagine how flattered I feel. I stare into her eyes. I know I must be looking pitiful because she smiles to me. Katniss never smiles. I make of it the most and resolve to stare fondly into that beautiful curve.
"There, all done." Mrs. Everdeen says. I look at my hands which are already bandaged neatly in white, clean cotton. I turn them to test the damage, it´s not that bad. I make my hand adopt the position it´d need to hold a pencil and a brush and that´s when I realize just in how deep a trouble I am. I wince.
"Oh no, don´t do that. The stitches have to heal up." I look quietly while Mrs. Everdeen puts everything she used away and gets ready to leave. "If you need anything Peeta, you just have to tell us, okay?"
I smile, "Thank you, Mrs. Everdeen. It´s very kind of you." She goes to her house after that, leaving Katniss alone with me.
"You´re on your own?" She asks but we don´t look each other.
"Why, you noticed?"
"I heard you today. Actually everyone did."
"Everyone as in Prim and your mom?"
I keep silent a long time. "Sorry about that. My mom has anger management problems."
"I´ll start a fire. You haven´t used your chimney."
I´m too in pain to tell her I´ll do it. So I let her, because even if I had told her, she would have pinned me down to the couch with her arrows. Once the fire gets going I feel better. The warmth is so inviting I have to force myself awake. I know where I will be sleeping tonight, though.
"Sorry about the troublesome neighbors." I say. "I´ll try to keep it quieter next time."
I don´t say anything.
"Katniss?" I say her name tentatively. My mouth goes dry because I know where I want to go from here.
"Why did you come here?"
"You know why, it´s the snake."
"Oh, don´t give me that!"
"Prim wanted me to check on you, okay?"
I keep silent. Prim was wrong. She cares for me because Prim wants her to care. Not because she actually does.
"Oh." I whisper to the fireplace and then look to my hands, then I remember the promise I made to the girl, object of our talk. "Ugh, stupid!" I say, smacking my head, then regretting it because it hurts.
"Have you gone nuts?!"
"No, it´s just that
I promised Prim I would make her a cake for her birthday. You know, it´s next
"Friday. I know. You don´t have to do that."
"I do. I promised."
"If it´s just for me then
"Who says it´s for you? It´s for Prim. She always loved seeing the frosting of my cakes. But now I won´t be able to bake it for her."
"I know, it´s just that I wanted her to have a nice birthday. After all she´s been through, having to watch you in the Games and all. I owe her, anyway. I used to hide behind the counter so I could take a better look at you when she dragged you to the bakery."
Katniss shift in the couch and I know I just made her uncomfortable. I also know this conversation won´t get anywhere either, so I yawn.
"Thanks for taking care of me Katniss, I´ll be fine." I say, trying to find a more comfortable position in the couch. And her, being Katniss, of course knows I want her to leave.
"Let me take that off you." She aims at my prosthetic but I reach first.
"No. I can do it." She stares at me and although her expression tells me she wants to help, she lets me be. Which suits me just fine, it´s good enough I had to be taken care by all three of the Everdeen household. You´d think I´d be a little more able to fend for myself. Once I take off the prosthetic, I dump it on the floor and struggle myself into a lying position on the couch, again, I don´t let Katniss help.
"Do you want me to help you up your room?" She asks.
"No, I´m fine. Thanks. If I feel like it, I´ll get there myself later."
She studies me with a weird expression. Some mix of sadness and anger. It hurts me to see her like that, then again, part of me hurts as well knowing she´ll never love me the way I love her.
"Do you want a blanket?" I drape over my legs the couch shawl before she gets the opportunity to reach to my linen closet.
"Don´t be like this, Peeta." She says.
"I´m just trying to make it easier on you. You don´t have to take care of me Katniss, you don´t have to pretend to care about me either." I say sleepily.
"You´re not being fair."
"It´s okay, Katniss. I can fend." I yawn.
"Peeta!" I pretend to fall asleep.
"You´re being so ridiculous!" Is the last thing I hear her shout at me, but being ridiculous is the only way I can think of to hurt less when I remember she doesn´t really love me.