"I know this sounds like a long shot, butfour years from now, you'll be the greatest athlete in your sport. But before you begin to run, you will learn to walk. Again. You will curse the fact that something you mastered as a one year old, is now the most difficult task in the world. But eventually you will take that first step. And then another. And you will never stop moving forward. You will adapt to your new body, until it no longer feels new. You'll realize that everything until now has been a long shot. Still being here, living, breathing, is a long shot. And the bigger the long shot, the bigger the payoff."
—Rico Roman, US Paralympian
I stare at my feet hanging over the edge of the bed, trying to force myself not to cringe at the metal one that gleams back at me on the left. I'm alive when I shouldn't be. Katniss is alive—and what's even more amazing is that she may even care about me. I should be thankful. I should be, but I'm not. Right now, all I can feel is a sickness in my gut. A large part of the body I was born with has been cut off and probably chucked in an incinerator somewhere. My leg is gone. The state of the art prosthetic one they fitted me with two days ago can't make up for that fact.
Reaching for the crutch by the night stand, I pull myself up. The therapists keep telling me that as soon as the electronic sensors finally start syncing up with the remaining nerve endings in my thigh that I will barely even notice I'm missing a leg. I only outright laughed the first time they said it. After that, I managed to keep a straight face. But right now, as I try to will the damn thing to move, I want to find the liars and scream at them. I want them to see that I dootice that I'm missing a leg and always will be. By the time I get my "knee" to bend and my "foot" to move forward, there is sweat pouring down my face. I hear an alarm of some sort start beeping and sigh as I watch a white clad nurse storm in.
"I'm all right," I say, with a heavy sigh.
She smiles at me like I'm some kind of idiot two year old. "Let's get you back to bed then, dearie."
"How is Katniss?" I ask as she begins the process it takes to disengage the monstrous hunk of metal and wires. I try not to cry out when it slides off, sending a jolt through the still raw nerves it was connected to.
"I'm sure she's just fine," she replies, seeming not to notice my discomfort. "Now, what can I get for you? A snack? Something to drink?"
I shake my head and resist the urge to ask for my real leg back. Focusing on the nurse's bright blue hair, I try not to let the shame I feel take over while she strips off the silicone sleeve that houses the sensors from my stump—or residual limb, as the therapists and doctors call it. The second she's done I toss the sheet over my lap to spare us both the sight of it.
"Well, there you are, dearie," she says like she has helped me do something momentous, even though it was something the therapists taught me to do myself the very first time they hooked it up.
"Thanks." It takes way more effort to keep a likable face planted on these days, but I manage.
A therapist named Corvin arrives in the morning to wheel me down to the rehab area. I like him better than the others. Like Cinna, he almost seems too normal to be from the Capitol. The gold and silver tattoos that snake up his dark skinned arms are the only things that would stand out back home. He's a nice enough guy, but I really don't care about making small talk as he parks the chair at the edge of a set of parallel bars that make a short walkway.
"We'll start by getting you standing." He backs away just a step. "Think you can stand on your own?"
With a nod, I pull myself up using my arms and my right leg. My knuckles are turning white as I grip the bars for dear life. Despite being told again and again to try and put weight on it, I can't believe that the prosthetic will hold me.
"Let go of the bars." Corvin steps in front of me. "It's all right, Peeta," he says with a certainty that almost makes me believe him. I want to believe him so badly it hurts. The instant I let go, my balance shifts and I'm falling. Strong hands grab my waist and steady me before I can even make a move for the safety of the bars.
"I thought you said I wouldn't fall?" I spit out venomously.
"No, I said that it was all right to let go. I never said you wouldn't fall," he corrects. He lets go of me again. "Try again. This time, don't think about falling… just think about standing naturally with your weight evenly distributed."
Instead of trying to stand, I let myself fall back into the waiting wheelchair behind me with an undignified thunk. I give the therapist a glare that would have done my mother proud. "Naturally? How the hell do you call this natural?"
"It's like the doctors explained the other day: Your nerves are learning to connect to the nano-sensors that relay the messages straight into the prosthesis. In time, you'll be able to move almost exactly like you did before, but you have to do this first. You have to train your mind and your leg to work together again," he tells me without so much as batting an eye at my rudeness.
Somehow, his even tone only pisses me off more. It must be so easy to sit on the sideline and tell someone else how easy it should be. How do they know what it's like to have to learn how to stand up again? What do they know about losing a leg? Suddenly, there isn't anything likeable about Corvin at all. I can't stop myself for resenting him.
"Don't talk to me like you understand," I yell, balling my fists on the armrests of my chair. "What would you know about learning to walk again?"
Without a word, Corvin bends over and rolls up both pant legs. For a split second, I don't really get what he wants me to see. My eyes first find the matching "tattoos" on his legs before realizing that the designs are covering metal, not flesh. I swallow hard and stare at his legs. I never noticed. How could I not notice? My cheeks are burning with embarrassment. "I didn't know."
He shrugs and lets his pants fall back down. "Why should you have?"
"So then you actually have done this before?" I prompt, still staring at his now covered legs.
Just like that, we go back to work. I don't ask any questions, and he doesn't offer any explanations.
Who knew that standing could be one of the hardest things I had ever done? My leg aches and my head throbs from the effort. But I'm doing it; I'm standing on my own. And then I'm taking my first steps. I'm clumsy and clutching at the bars for all I'm worth as I work at moving forward. My new leg isn't able to bear as much of my weight as my natural one yet, but I know that it will someday. The proof that I can do this is walking backwards in front of me, watching my progress. It doesn't feel like it did before, but it is the beginning of something new.
Corvin doesn't give me the option to walk back to the room, and I'm almost thankful for that. I think we both know I'm too tired to make it the whole way. I sit in the wheelchair, feeling like I could fall asleep and not wake up for days.
"They said that once this is all over, I'll barely notice that I'm missing my leg," I hedge lightly. "Is that true? Do you barely notice?"
"What idiot told you that?" he scoffs.
My shoulders shrink and all the hope that had been building inside me starts to crumble. "The doctor who hooked this thing up."
Corvin takes a sudden detour and parks the chair in a sunny looking alcove. Scratching thoughtfully at his beard, he takes a seat on the window ledge. "Demetri is one of the best prosthetists in the business. He can make limbs so life-like and functional that the amputees wearing them barely seem to miss a beat. I've been wearing legs that he's crafted for long enough to tell you that most of what he tells you is a hundred percent right. For the most part, you'll be able to do everything and anything you can think of without your leg being an issue, but..."
"But I'll notice," I finish with a deep sigh before he can.
"You will," he agrees with a nod. "It's different for me. I was only a year old when I had my accident. I don't remember what it's like to have flesh toes that you can feel and wiggle, but even without knowing what it is like, I still notice. Every so often it hits me that I'm that guy who doesn't have legs, but those times are so few and far between that it isn't really worth talking about. You will always notice that your body isn't the way it was—that it isn't like most other people's. But if you work hard enough and keep an open mind, what you will one day stop noticing is that your leg isn't the thing holding you back. You'll have adjusted and accepted your body for how it is."
I sit in silence for a moment and let his words really sink in. "Thank you," I say, genuinely.
The real truth behind what Corvin told me doesn't come to pass for a long time. My life is too filled with things like the Victory Tour, the Quarter Quell, the hijacking, and the rebellion to really sit and think about much beyond survival. Even when I probably could have spared a moment to think about myself and my new reality, I was too filled with self-doubt to actually come to terms with it. At that point, my first thoughts were of Katniss: How did she see me? Was my leg part of the reason that she couldn't love me? After that, there was the Quell, and I wondered if that fraction of a second longer it took me to run or that tiny loss of balance would end up getting one of us killed. Then came the hijacking, and my head was such a toxic place that my leg was literally the last thing I thought about. It wasn't until after it all that I really was able to come to terms with what happened to me after that first time in the arena.
Fittingly enough, it's Katniss who brings it to my attention. We're getting ready for bed...a seemingly innocuous event, except that it's the first time I actually remove my leg in front of her. Sure, we've slept together dozens of times, but between the tour and the arena, I never felt right taking it off. Those circumstances aside though, I prefer to sleep without it. The metal pressing against my skin bothers me, and I've long since stopped giving it much thought when I strip it off for the night. In fact, the process has become so normal to me that I don't think anything of it when I slide the prostheses off. Beside me, Katniss gasps and I follow her gaze to the remains of my left thigh.
"I can put it back on if it bothers you," I say, swallowing hard. We're both more than a bit battered, and I hadn't thought that the sight of my stump might disgust her. Our relationship is complicated at best right now, and I'll do just about anything to relieve tension where I can.
She shakes her head. "It doesn't bother me. I just..."
"Just what?" I prompt.
"No," she says. "You'll think I'm really stupid."
"Say it anyway."
Katniss' gray eyes lock onto mine so seriously that I can feel my heart begin to sink before she even speaks. "Well, I thought they'd attached it permanently. You know, like bolted it on or something."
I don't know why, but I find the idea ridiculous and start laughing so hard I almost cry. It takes her throwing a pillow at me to get me to stop. I tuck her ammunition beneath my head, and roll to my side.
"I guess I can understand why you didn't take it off in the arena. That could have been dangerous. But why didn't you take it off when we slept together on the Victory train?" she asks, sitting on the edge of the bed.
I look away and heave a sigh. "I was ashamed. I didn't want you to see me as a cripple—especially when Gale was waiting back at home with two fully functioning legs beneath him."
"You aren't a cripple, Peeta. Most of the time, I almost forget about your leg. I guess I stopped noticing it a long time ago," she tells me, pulling my face to meet hers. Her lips lightly brush against mine, but then she sits back and eyes me curiously. "What are you grinning about?"
I tell her all about the doctor's comments and about Corvin and learning to walk. It occurs to me that somewhere along the line, I never told anyone about any of it. That time between the games and our first interview as victors has been pretty much wiped clean as far as everyone else is concerned. But somehow talking about it feels right. I think letting it all out in the open is like fitting the last piece into a puzzle.
"The funny thing is," I say as I toy with Katniss' braid, "That although I don't consciously think about it much, I'm always aware. I've never stopped noticing that I'm missing a leg. Corvin was right, but I don't think I understood the rest of what he was trying to tell me until now. My prosthetic leg is a part of who I am now, but it doesn't have to hold me back. Especially not from the things I want."
Katniss arches a brow. "And what is it that you want?"
"Let me show you," I say, smirking.