Upon advisement, I'm moving this fic from Crossover to the standard section. Its original name was "The Fault Line". There's no character/setting mixing, I just used "Winter's Bone" as the inspiration so I stuck in under crossover (forgive me, I'm still learning what all the terms mean!). If you've already read it, it is the same story, but thanks to my lovely beta eeg01, the spelling errors and chronology issues are repaired. Dialogue is still written in the vernacular.
p.s. This is a very long fic but I've not found a good way to break it into chapters. Be forewarned it can be a bit time consuming!
p.p.s Italics is my little way of signaling the start of a flashback.
The Fault Line
Centralia had been dead for over 50 years. Maybe that's why she liked going there so much. It was someone else's fault.
The mine fire was supposedly caused by burning trash that had broken through the ground and sunk, setting the coal beneath alight. A stupid mistake. A quick landfill cleanup burn after the Memorial Day parade that wasn't properly extinguished. The difference there was that firefighters were granted clemency by the townspeople whose livelihoods were destroyed. They had been heroes after all; they had saved families and rescued homes. So the coal families buried their anger, packed up and moved a few miles down the road to Lime Ridge or Berwick and carried on.
But in her case, in her town, her father had just been a plain old miner who was tired after working a double shift to pay off his gambling debts.
Katniss Everdeen slid off the rock high on the hill overlooking the ghost town and surveyed the scenery one more time. When she sold the truck this afternoon, it would be the last time she could make the drive out to Ashland. It was too far to bike, and she didn't know if she'd have to sell her bike anyway when the next bill came. She'd cut off the phone line last month. It was only ever the school calling to ask where she was anyway.
She checked her watch and noted the time. She should go pick up Prim. She wanted to give her sister one last ride down the bumpy road that threw the skinny little girl in the air off the seat, making her squeal with laughter. She wanted to hear that laugh one more time.
The dusty ground coughed clouds behind her as she drove down the ruined road. She turned on to Route 42 and settled in to listen to the crackling radio for the last thirty minutes she'd ever drive in her father's truck. The late summer was hot on the dashboard and baked the vinyl. The smell was so familiar. In her memory it mixed with her father's cologne and coal dust. She slid against the back of the seat and enjoyed the leather softened by years of sitting on these bench seats. She flipped the dial to the country station he loved. She couldn't bring herself to sing along yet.
She pulled around the back of the corner convenience store thirty minutes later; parking behind the dumpster where the owner wouldn't give her shit about using the lot and not buying anything. She still had a few minutes to kill before the middle school let out. It stood just across the street from the high school she knew she needed to wait until there was a throng of kids to block her from view of any administrators that might see her. The high school let out just fifteen minutes after the middle school and there'd be a clusterfuck of parents and teachers out there that she didn't need to deal with.
She slid down out of the tall vehicle and slammed the door, not bothering to lock it. The car was barely worth the $2,000 she was getting for it and besides there was nothing in there to steal anyway. Besides, everyone here knew it was her car. Those that didn't hate her family enough to steer clear of anything Everdeen, pitied her too much to steal it.
Katniss took the crumbling sidewalk around the front of store, ducking her face so the owner wouldn't look out the big plate glass window and know her truck was out back. She reached the edge of the store where a line of hedges hid her from view and darted across the street to the middle school.
Katniss hid behind the tree at the edge of the new blacktop on the side of the school building. It looked out of place in the lower class town, but the company that owned the mine had installed a lot of ridiculous things trying to placate the families of the miners who had died in the accident. The kids used it now, but for months after the collapse, they refused to go near it. It was like an open wound on school grounds. She poked her head out to watch for her little sister. Instead she saw him.
Peeta Mellark sat alone on the low wall across the street at the high school. He had his hands in his pockets and was looking to the east. She guessed he was waiting for his dad or his mom to pick him up for physical therapy and they were running late. He had his cane resting against the wall next to him, and now he picked it up and bounced it off the rubber sole of the sneaker on his real foot. His artificial leg stayed flat on the ground.
He stopped bouncing the cane and looked around again. She wondered if he could feel her watching him. She could see how blue his eyes were even from this far away. She remembered the first time she'd seen those eyes.
Her first day of kindergarten everyone had sat in a circle around Miss Jefferson and said their names and a little about their families. Seeing as she knew everyone in class, Katniss was not surprised at all to learn most of the kids had a mom or dad that worked in the mine. A few parents had a cushy clerk job in the city, Leevy's dad ran the Tractor Supply franchise and Bristel's mom had the gun and ammunition shop on the other side of town. The door had opened halfway through the day and Mr. Broening had led a little boy with chaotic blond waves sticking up around his head into the class. He looked at everyone nervously, but Katniss was shocked to see eyes that blue. Her friend Delly had blue eyes, but they were greyer, like her own. These eyes were like the sky.
Miss Jefferson had thanked the assistant principle and asked the boy to tell the class his name and a little about his family. He said in a sweet voice that his name was Peeta, and he'd just moved there from Frederick with his two brothers and mother and father. When Miss Jefferson asked what they did, he told them they ran the grocery store. Katniss remembered her father telling her mother that Mr. Tuller was going to retire, whatever that meant, and he was going to sell Tuller's Market to some family from Maryland. At five, none of the details had made sense until she saw the boy in her classroom.
Miss Jefferson said they'd all certainly see him again soon outside of school; Tuller's Market was the only grocery store in town. If someone needed a big box store, there was a warehouse two hours away, but most families only made that trip once a month. Gas was too expensive and Tuller's prices weren't bad.
Miss Jefferson told Peeta to take a seat, and he walked to the one nearest him. Next to Katniss. When he reached the chair, he looked up and saw her watching him. He stopped for a minute and they stared at one another.
"I like your eyes," he said, looking right into hers. He hadn't yet grown into the Pennsylvania drawl they all had eventually.
"I like yours too," she said back.
He sat down and Miss Jefferson started drawing letters on the board.
On the playground at lunch, he ran off with the other boys to chase soccer balls up and down the field behind the elementary school. Katniss met Delly and Bristel over by the jungle gyms and climbed all over, daring one another to jump from the higher rungs.
"I met 'im yesterday," Delly said when Katniss mentioned the new boy in school as they hung upside down. "His brother Kirsch's gonna be on Dad's team. Wrestlin'." Delly's father was the coach of a few sports at the high school.
"He's nice," Katniss mused, looking up at the ground from where she hung from her knees.
And he was. He sat next to her for the whole year, letting her copy off his math papers and loaning her pencils when she forgot or lost hers. He gave her a box of chalky pastel hearts on Valentine's Day and she let him beat her in the 100 yard dash on Field Day. She was excited the first time her mother took her into town to go to the grocery store. Her father usually went after work since he took their only car, but this Sunday her mother needed eggs and Prim was fussing up a storm. So she left the toddler with her husband and took her older daughter into town.
Katniss ran into the store ahead of her mother, looking for Peeta, but she couldn't find him among the racks.
"Kitty, what're you looking for?" her mother laughed, tracking her through the shelves.
"My friend Peeta."
"And you think he's gonna be on a shelf?"
Katniss stopped and thought. "No!" she shouted with a laugh.
"Lily?" A man's voice came from somewhere behind her mother.
Her mother turned around. "Oh my God! Durum? That really you?"
A tall, heavyset blond man with crinkly blue eyes was smiling at her mother. "Well, little more of me than was in high school. Damn, you look great! It's good t' see ya, Lil."
Katniss snuck over and hid behind her mother's knee.
"Kitty, this is Durum. He was a friend o' mine from back home."
"Hiya, there," he waved genially. "Kitty?" he asked her mother.
"Oh, well it's Katniss, but she'd go an' jump all over the furniture, so me and Jet just started callin' her Kat and then Kitty. What about you? Wife and kids, I reckon from that gut?" she laughed.
"Yep," the man smiled, patting his full belly. "Me and Candace just moved on up from Frederick. They closed down that grocery store I been workin' in since school, remember? I figured it were 'bout time t' get my own place. So we come up here with our boys. I got three!"
"Three boys? An' I thought two girls was hard."
"Well, Rye and Kirsch are devils, but Peeta's still real good to me and his momma."
"Oh, is that your friend, Kat?" Her mother twisted to look at her daughter. "Is that the Peeta you was lookin' for?" Katniss nodded shyly.
"Sorry she's playin' at bein' bashful, Durum. You can't get her to shut up once you get her started, I swear," Lily smiled.
"S'okay," he smiled. "Peeta's the same way. He ain't here, sorry. He and his brothers went off on their bikes a while ago. Probably gettin' into something the sheriff goin' call me about."
A waif of a woman appeared at the end-cap of the aisle in which they stood. She was so bony the tendons her hands were visible like tightropes. Katniss was scared of her.
"Candy! Lily, this is my wife Candace. Candy, c'mere and meet a friend of mine from high school."
That moment felt like the end of the good days for Katniss. It always had.
Candy Mellark was not sweet as her name implied. As open and loving as Durum was, she was insecure and jealous. She greeted Katniss' beautiful mother with thin lips. As she checked them out for their carton of eggs she counted the money Lily gave her three times with great mistrust in her eyes. Katniss thought she heard her fighting with the chubby blond man as they left the store to go home.
When she told her father they'd met a friend of her mother's at the grocery store, Lily did not go into detail. That was the first time Katniss ever realized there were things her parents didn't tell one another.
The last time she'd faced that fact was when she discovered her father had been covering two shifts at the mine to cover his gambling debts. She learned that the night he'd fallen asleep on his watch when the mine collapsed.
Peeta looked around again and she knew he couldn't see her. He reached down and touched the artificial leg. It was top of the line, she knew that, but it was still clearly fake. He lifted the hem of his pants to touch the smooth plastic. His fingers glided over the metal braces mournfully. Her heart ached.
He'd only had that leg for two months. Madge had told her, back when she still spoke to her friends, his mother had fought like hell to make sure he got something before senior year started. The settlements hadn't come through for anyone else yet, but Candy Mellark called Central Mining twelve times a day until she got the check to buy that prosthesis.
Katniss wondered bitterly if it was Candy or Peeta that was more ashamed of his leg.
She was still going to school when he came back eight weeks after the collapse. She had been sitting at a picnic table outside the lunchroom with Madge when his father had pulled up.
They weren't speaking because other kids were around, but it wasn't like Katniss could say anything to anyone whose father or mother worked in the mine anyway. The lawyers had told her and her parents that. So she sat with Madge, who lived with her grandmother. Delly would join them when she cut class, but even she couldn't find anything helpful to say to Katniss. So they'd sit in silence.
Durum had shut off the engine and come around to open the side door. His face was still drawn and he had even lost a little of his heft. Peeta looked far worse when his father had pulled him out of the car. He'd lost some of the muscle he'd gained wrestling and his face was pale from being inside. His pant leg was pinned up halfway against the remaining stump.
They both had shadows of black eyes from crying over Kirsch.
Peeta held onto the doorframe of the van while Durum reached in and pulled out the wheelchair. Peeta dropped himself into the chair with a soft thump. He moved slowly to the double doors leading into the school, but stopped when he saw Katniss.
He stared at her for a long time. She dropped her bottle of Coke and ran from the schoolyard. She didn't come back for the rest of the year.
The bell for the middle school release rang loudly and he dropped the pant leg hastily.
She ducked back behind the tree and counted to ten. Children started to pour out of the school and she waited for the first few students to stream past the tree before turning into the tide of eleven-, twelve- and thirteen-year-olds. There weren't enough kids in this town for more than two middle school classes per grade, but they all seemed to know how to get right in her way. She waded through them to the tiny girl with the blond braid waiting at the concrete steps.
"Prim!" she called out. Her sister spotted her and slipped through a cluster of band students to walk over. Katniss noted the dirty looks the junior cheerleaders gave her and her sister as they met up. She gave them the finger and pulled Prim across the street.
"Kat, you need to just ignore them," sighed Prim as they started walking. "It ain't gonna get no better if you're mean right back."
"Fuck better," she spat. "I just want them to leave us the hell alone."
She stopped short. She cursed herself for crossing the street before making sure he'd been picked up. She was standing five feet from him.
After an uncomfortable silence between the three of them, he finally mumbled "Hey."
When Katniss couldn't speak, he nodded to her sister. "Prim."
"Hey, Peeta," the little girl smiled weakly.
Prim tugged on her sister's hand, but she couldn't move her.
"You still goin' here?" he asked, jerking his head toward the school. He was trying to force his eyes to meet hers and was failing.
Katniss fumbled for words. "I guess. Not…right now. I just had stuff goin' on I needed to take care of."
He frowned. "We got a test in Government next week. Garrett said this stuff's gonna be on the year-end exam." He squinted in the sunlight.
Graduation. She knew this was senior year; the one that mattered. Last year, the school had given her a pass for the remaining weeks after Jet's accident. Bereavement leave, they called it. She just knew she and Prim stopped going to school. Prim came back this year. She hadn't. She'd missed two weeks already.
"If you need notes 'r anything…" he trailed off, looking down the road.
She nodded. "Thanks," she whispered.
A horn honked from behind her and made her jump a mile. Prim squeaked in surprise.
Candy's shrill voice pierced through the back of her skull. She felt the pure hatred radiating from the woman in the minivan behind her.
"Bye," Peeta muttered, standing up. He limped around Katniss and Prim to the passenger door behind them.
Katniss grabbed Prim's hand and started pulling her as fast as she could away to the truck. It wasn't fast enough to not hear.
"I don't want you talkin' to those Everdeen girls."
"I was talkin' 'bout homework, Ma."
"Shut it. You don't say a word until I talk to another lawyer."
Candy was still bitching him out as they pulled away from the curb. Katniss pulled Prim all the way to the convenience store parking lot.
She couldn't say she and Peeta had been best friends; but they were close. She liked working with him on projects and the first semester of middle school when they had lunch together was great. He'd taught her how to throw a football in gym class after she lobbed one that nearly broke his nose. She'd even kissed him on the mouth in fifth grade when Bristel dared them on a field trip bus ride, both of them blushing furiously and pretending they weren't nervous. But it was hard to spend time together like they wanted when his mother hated hers so much. They couldn't go to one another's houses like she could with Delly or Gale. Her mother asked her not to talk about the Mellarks in front of her father. It created a natural wedge.
The Easter Sunday the year she turned eleven; Katniss had waved to Peeta after church. He'd waited until his mother turn to greet the pastor before smiling and waving back. She didn't know why today it bothered her so much was, but when they got home she finally asked why it was that Candy hated them so much. Lily was in the kitchen working on the ham when she sighed and put down the can of pineapple slices.
"Kit, me and Durum used to go together. Back in school. For a few years, truth be told."
"Really? But that was ages ago."
"Yeah, well I get the sense things ain't goin' so great with Durum and Candy. She don't like it here; wants to go back down south. But he bought this store and their house, got those three boys on the wrestlin' teams with friends n' all. Marriage ain't no picnic, Katniss. You gotta learn to work with it."
"Is that why you don't tell Daddy 'bout none of this?"
Lily looked over at her sadly. "Bingo, kid. Sorry to say your daddy is a bit of the jealous type. I don't want him worryin' 'bout them Mellarks none since there ain't nothing to worry about. I love your Daddy and that's how it's gonna be."
Unfortunately, that's not how it went.
Lily had to stop by the grocery store a few weeks after Easter and made the mistake of having a brief conversation with Durum. Candy had called the house before Lily had even gotten home and screamed at Jet to keep his homewrecking wife away from her husband.
The ensuing fight made Katniss take Prim out the bathroom window. Their neighbor Hazelle heard the commotion and spotted the girls cowering behind the house. She brought them inside to have cocoa with her three boys and daughter. Katniss had grown up next to the Hawthornes and she trusted Hazelle to not tell anyone about this. She was the same age as Vick, but she preferred the company of his older brother Gale. Gale was smarter in her estimation and had taught her to shoot his pellet gun to catch squirrels when funds got tight. Her mother had been mad she'd been shooting guns, but her dad was proud. Rory was a year older than Prim and had an obvious crush on her, getting tongue-tied and red whenever she was in the same room. Which happened often because Prim lived for babies and would babysit their sister Posy whenever she could. Hazelle always joked she should have named her "Oopsy" because she hadn't meant to have a fourth kid. She said she got carried away and Lily would laugh at a joke Katniss didn't understand.
Gale told her not to worry; his pop and mom had fought a lot before he'd died. Gale was thirteen that night, but he'd been ten when his dad's truck had flipped on the icy interstate and killed him instantly. He says they'd fight cats and dogs but said it was only because Chester Hawthorne loved his mama so much it made him crazy. Katniss decided right then and there that if love made you scream and fight and scare your kids she wanted nothing to do with it.
She took turns playing checkers with Gale and his brothers while Prim played hide-and-seek with three-year-old Posy, who'd been born one month after her father died. She'd kinged all of her remaining pieces when her dad came to the door, red-eyed and exhausted. She realized her momma and daddy loved each other crazy too. And it scared her.
She got Prim into the truck and started the engine; taking a minute to grip her hands on the steering wheel.
She didn't answer her sister.
Prim nodded, letting her sister drop the subject. She settled back against the worn seats and pulled the seatbelt across her lap.
Katniss took a deep breath and let it out as she shifted into reverse and backed out. As she pulled forward to exit the lot, she looked over at Primrose.
"Wanna take the long way home today?"
It was lucky Rory still held a candle for Prim; there was no bus out where they lived in the hills and it was a twenty minute drive home. She had asked Hazelle about letting Vick drive Prim to school the day she'd realized she'd have to sell the truck. Hazelle immediately agreed; she knew Gale wouldn't mind them using his car while he was overseas with his Army unit.
She guided the truck down the paved roads of town out past where the small buildings started to space out along the horizon. When she hit the fields, she narrowed her eyes to look for the dirt path in between the tall grasses. She spotted the break and steered the truck off the road and it leapt up and down over the gap of pavement and dirt. Prim giggled as she bounced in her seat.
The path was smooth until it went past the farmer's house; then they entered the woods from the west rather than the south. The west side was a rougher path; the south had been worn smooth by years of traffic and it led more quickly into town. Hardly anyone took the longer west route. It was perfect for a jostling ride.
Prim laughed as the truck bounced over packed dirt and tree roots, throwing her up into the air. She put her hands up to stop her head from hitting the ceiling and Katniss even started laughing as she got rocked side to side. She slammed her shoulder against the door on one pothole, but even that couldn't bother her. It was nice to laugh again.
She was sore and bruised by the time she pulled around the back of their modest house in the hills. Surrounded by trees, it was hidden from most of the rest of the town even if you were looking right into the woods. There were only a few families back here and she had been grateful they were so isolated when the collapse turned them into pariahs.
Hazelle was out front hanging laundry when she saw the girls pull up.
"Now you know you shouldn't be jostlin' that car all 'round when there's gonna be a buyer up here!" she called as they got out of the car.
"Aw, no worries. Carlson knows she ain't much for looks," Katniss called back, "but she's one helluva work horse." She grabbed Prim's backpack off the seat and slammed the door. "You heard from Gale?"
"Yeah," Hazelle called back. "Said it's hotter 'n hell where's he's at. Toilet registered 120 degrees yesterday!"
"Why's he got a thermometer in the toilet?"
"Said he burned his ass the first time he sat down!"
Katniss laughed at the thought. She missed him a lot; he had stuck by her after the accident. That was before his unit had shipped out and she was left here alone.
She led her sister inside. Prim was thoughtful. "Kat?"
"Yeah," she responded, tossing the bookbag on their sofa.
"Do you think we're gonna get another horse sometime?"
She didn't turn around to look at Prim. She still felt guilty about that.
Lady had been Prim's horse if she was going to be honest about it. Her dad had brought it home on the girl's ninth birthday. Looking back, she thought if only she'd noticed what a high wage gamble would have won him a horse she could have told her mother he needed to knock off the cards. But she had been so excited to have a horse and Prim had cried with happiness.
Jet had been so happy to give them the horse too, she had to accept and love it. She wanted to see him laugh again. So she learned to trot and ride. Even when galloping left her sore and bruised and going to bed with an ice pack on her groin, she kept it up for him.
Lady was a beauty, too. Prim said her dappled spots made her regal; that's why she named her like she did. She loved that animal. But she was expensive to feed. And care for. And the rare vet visits were astronomical. When the money ran out, the horse was the first thing that had to go.
She'd worked hard to get $3,000 for her. She was no thoroughbred, but she was only seven years old and in great condition. Katniss found her hard edge in those negotiations. Luckily the riding farm upstate that bought her did well and could afford her price.
"I don't know Prim. They're awful expensive."
"I know," she sighed. "It's silly. I just miss Lady."
Prim walked over to the closed door to their mother's room. She knocked softly. "Momma? We're home," she called in a gentle voice. She pushed the door open and walked inside. Katniss followed her reluctantly.
Her mother was curled up on her side, just as she'd left her at lunchtime. She was awake, but staring at the wall in a dream state. Prim helped Katniss roll her to her other side, then took her hand and started telling her about her day at school while Katniss refilled the glass of water on the night table and checked the sheets for soiling. Lily had finally remembered how to use the toilet, but Katniss still had to help her to the bathroom a few times a day or she'd forget to get up and mess the bed.
When Prim had given her a kiss on the cheek, they went back out into the dining room so Katniss could cook dinner and Prim could do her homework.
She chopped up the potatoes and had tossed them in a pan to brown when Prim spoke up.
"You need to start goin' to school."
"I can't. Too much t' do 'round here."
"You aint' gonna graduate if you don't go."
"'S okay. Really, Prim. Don't matter none to me."
"Matters to me."
Katniss turned to look at her sister. "Who's gonna look after Momma?"
Prim looked at the table. "If I help you set her all up in the morning, we can ask Hazelle to check on her 'round lunch. Then it's only a few hours and we're home."
Katniss shook her head. "No. I don't want no one else knowin' what's goin' on here. This is our home; ain't none o' their business."
"I already tol' her."
Katniss set her jaw. "What the hell, Prim? We don't need no one snoopin' around our business! I ain't eighteen yet, they ain't gonna let me sign nothin' if Social Services shows up here!"
"You was out huntin', I needed help!" Prim yelled back at her. "I thought she was chokin' an' I couldn't get her up so I ran over an' tol' Hazelle. She came back over and help' sit her up."
Katniss' eyes scanned their living room. The door to her mother's room stood closed, but the door to her and Prim's room stood open as usual. Hazelle would have seen everything. The washtub by the fire because they didn't have hot water anymore. The stack of unpaid bills on the counter with red letters written all over them. The mouse holes chewed through their sofas and chair legs. Her mother's room smelled antiseptic from how many times Katniss had had to clean it; the room she shared with Prim was smothered in unfolded clothes. All the signs of a household where there were no longer any parents.
"She ain't gonna tell no one, Kat."
"How do you know?" "It's been two months. Services woulda been out here. She feels bad for us." "I don't need 'er pity," Katniss scowled, turning back to the charred potatoes. "I need her to stay outta my business."
"You need her. You gotta go to school. It's harder to get into the force if you ain't got a diploma."
Katniss sighed. "I know."
"And she'd only hafta check once a day. And only during the week. She'd be fine by herself the rest of the day. She just sleeps."
"She don't sleep," Katniss mumbled. "She stares." She turned the potatoes thoughtfully.
"I'll watch those," Prim said quietly, coming over to the pan. "Here."
Katniss leaned back against the counter and watched her shift the pan.
"You could call Peeta if you think you need help catchin' up."
"No I can't."
"Drop it." Katniss stalked off to the bathroom. She didn't like to cry in front of Prim.
He had no business being at the mine that Wednesday evening. He was on his way to a wrestling match, his father behind the wheel waiting in the parking lot while Peeta hopped out to run Kirsch's dinner to the refrigerator in the trailer. His oldest brother had left it at home and called his dad to drop it off on the way to the match. But Durum was hefty and out of shape, so he let Peeta do the run.
The office trailer was only a few yards from the entrance of the mine, so he was close enough to hear the deep roar as the rocks fell deep down below the ground. He saw the ash billowing out of the mouth of the mine, but all he could think of was his brother. Jet came out of the port-a-john at the noise; he'd only fallen asleep for a few minutes in there, but he didn't need to see the pressure monitors to know what happened. He saw the blond boy running towards the mine just as a rock fell on an oxygen tank at the mouth. The tank exploded just as Peeta reached it. When Jet got to him the white-hot shrapnel had sliced deep through three-quarters of Peeta's right calf; shredding the flesh and muscle like a mulcher. Jet dragged his unconscious body from the pouring smoke, but the tendons and muscles were damaged beyond repair and contaminated with dirt and coal.
Candy and Durum had to sign the surgical consent before he was even out of the ambulance. That night the part of his leg below the knee disappeared forever, along with his wrestling scholarship to Penn State.
After she'd bathed her mother that night, Prim fell asleep on the couch in front of their old TV. The satellite dish was long gone, but she still put her old worn-out videotapes of recorded soap operas in the VCR.
Katniss slipped out of the front door and across the dirt road to Hazelle's front door. She knocked quietly, hoping she wouldn't wake Posy.
Hazelle answered the door. "Kat! Is everything all right?"
"Yeah," she breathed. "Do you got a minute?"
The woman invited her in and shooed the boys to their room to finish their homework. Posy was fast asleep and drooling on her first-grade math activity book wearing her brothers' hand-me-down pajamas, Apple Jacks scattered around her like a halo. Katniss sat at their dining table, gently moving comic books and laundry out of the way.
"What brings you over?" Hazelle said, putting a mug of tea down in front of her.
"I know you come over and seen my momma," Katniss found the courage to say. "We doin' okay, I don't need no help or nothin'."
Hazelle watched her carefully and spoke thoughtfully. "I seen you're takin' good care o' her. She'd be real proud if she were in her right mind."
"She's just tired. All the trials and cops and lawyers. It's just been too much and she needed a rest."
Hazelle nodded. "I know."
Katniss sat quietly, furrowing her brow at the table top.
"I ain't gonna call nobody, Katniss."
She looked up at her. Hazelle nodded. "It's the truth. After Chester died, them social workers came around snoopin' after my kids, checkin' up on them. I ain't never gonna let them around again; that goes for yours or mine."
Katniss closed her eyes and breathed deeply. "Thank you. Really. I don't want them to lock her up. And I can't lose Prim."
"Oh now you know Rory'd never forgive me I let that girl disappear," Hazelle winked.
Katniss laughed. "I'd be surprised he ain't done bought a ring by now."
"Yeah, he just got to get up the courage to talk to her and he's set."
They laughed quietly. Katniss sipped the tea. "I should get back home. Gotta make sure Prim gets to bed."
Hazelle reached out and touched her arm. "You doin' okay, Kitty?"
"I'm…I'm okay." Katniss smiled weakly. "Things ain't easy, but I'm managin'."
"You got enough food?"
"Yeah. We're okay."
Hazelle nodded knowingly, but Katniss refused to admit she was lying. She thanked her for the tea and left quickly.
Walking out of Hazelle's house, she stopped at the tracks where the truck had come to its last stop that afternoon. She ran her foot along the grooves in the dirt.
The man and his son from town had come around right after dinner and picked up the truck. She could tell it was a gift for the young man; he looked to be about eighteen. Probably just graduated a year or two ago and started work in the reopened mine. The man pretended he didn't know who she was as she signed over the deed using her mother's name. He counted out the cash into her hand and drove away into the dusky evening. She gripped the bills until her palms sweat.
She counted down the things she had sold and the things she could sell. The horse, the car, the phone were all gone. Her bicycle, her mother's wedding ring, her grandmother's watch were next. The house was paid for; she was fortunate enough that her granddad had left it to Lily when he died. Lily had moved in to the house with Jet shortly after they got married. Her only worry was if the city found out there was no heat besides their fireplace and space heaters, and no hot water save what they boiled. Then they might take her and Prim away. So she had to keep the lights on. For even just a little while.
She woke her sister up to move to the bedroom. She checked again on her mother, clearing the half-eaten plate of potatoes and squirrel meat from her nightstand. She kissed Lily on her cheek. "Good night, Momma."
It was a long bike ride into town the next day. She had to stop a few times to rest her legs. The dirt was kicking up against her tee shirt so she loosened her backpack straps to hang lower to the seat.
She got to the pharmacy around ten. Locking her bike to the downspout on the side of the building, she walked inside with her mother's empty bottles.
She nodded to the pharmacy tech at the counter. "Refills," she said to the young girl she recognized from a few years ahead of her. She thought she remembered Gale taking her to his prom, but she couldn't remember her name.
She wandered up and down the aisles of the drugstore while she waited, checking for anything she needed on sale. She checked the prices on shampoo but didn't think she should spend more just because she had the truck money now. Bar soap made her scalp itchy and her hair dull, but it had been working fine for a week so she'd stick with that.
The pharmacy girl called her name and she walked over to the counter. Peeling off twenties, she winced at the cost without her father's health insurance covering part of these medicines. It seemed to cost more and more every time she was here. She shoved the bottles into her pack without looking at the receipt again. The truck money wasn't going to last long.
She walked outside, the weight of the bill on her mind. She wasn't looking ahead but at her shoes when she bumped into the blond girl lighting a cigarette around the side of the drugstore.
"Ouch! I fuckin' burned myself."
"Kat? Holy shit, girl. Where you been?"
Madge Undersee was the city councilman's daughter but she hadn't lived with him since mid-freshman year. When her anger at his neglect and stunts for attention became a liability to his re-election campaign, she was quietly shipped out to Lime Ridge to live with her grandmother. He told the press it was for the sake of her schooling and then ran on a platform of bettering city schools so he could "reunite his family." Her mother smiled with troubled brows and waved at the camera, blowing a kiss to her long-lost daughter. Madge rolled her eyes every time she saw his billboards.
Katniss stared at her friend. She hadn't seen her since the day she left school. She wore smudged black eyeliner that was far too thick around her grey eyes. Her skirt was too short and her high-top black sneakers featured swear words written in glitter nail polish. Madge had intimidated her when she first moved to town, but it wasn't long before she adored the girl who would say anything on her mind. Even Gale would find a reason to come over when he saw Madge's bike parked in Katniss' driveway. After the accident, Madge had called her a lot when the phone still worked, but Katniss never returned the messages on the answering machine. In the span since she stopped hanging out with Katniss, it was evident things at her grandmother's house were getting worse.
"Umm. I been takin' care of some things. At home."
"Uh-hunh," Madge nodded, taking a drag on her cigarette. "You cuttin' class too?"
Katniss nodded. "Yeah."
"Let's go to th' bar." Madge tossed her cigarette in a patch of gravel and started walking.
"A bar?" Katniss stayed still.
"Yeah. I know Darius. He's been cool," she winked with a laugh. "Real cool."
Katniss didn't know what that meant but it made her worry about Madge more. Darius was a sweet redheaded man with a terrible stutter. He ran the dive bar on the corner of Elm and 3rd. The only time she'd ever been in there was when the timing belt broke in her dad's truck and her mother had used Darius' phone to call the tow truck. Katniss and Prim had spun around on the bar stools gigging wildly and Darius had given them glasses of pineapple juice while they waited.
"Come on," Madge called. "I ain't seen you in near six months; you can have one drink with your best friend?"
Katniss smiled in spite of herself. She'd forgotten how much she missed Madge. She was the kind of friend that knew when to hold her tongue or to keep talking when Katniss wanted to forget about something on her mind.
She caught up with Madge and matched her stride. Madge linked her arm through Katniss' elbow and gave it a squeeze. She stopped two blocks later at the bar door and leaned in. "Wanna know a secret?"
"I really fuckin' missed you." Madge walked into the bar.
The bar was dark and smelled like stale beer. There were a few sad old farmers sitting in the corner, nursing hard brown liquor the color of maple syrup. The bar top was sticky where Darius wiped it down with the cloth he'd used to clean up a tipped bottle.
"Hey Darius! Gimme and my friend a beer." Madge slapped the counter and hopped up on a stool.
"I jus' wanna soda," Katniss said firmly.
"Killjoy," Madge teased. "Fine, gimme a beer and give 'er a Coke."
Darius smiled warmly at Madge. "My b-b-best customer," he said to Katniss, nodding at the blond girl as she popped the bottlecap off.
"Maybe not your best, but definitely your prettiest," Madge smiled and leaned across the bar to pinch his cheek. He blushed furiously and moved away to the farmers.
"Can't believe you're flirtin' with Darius," Katniss murmured around her straw.
"What?" Madge whispered. "You think your drink's gonna be free if I sit here like a lump?"
They sipped in silence.
"So," Madge said finally. She swiveled her seat to press her knees against Katniss' thigh. "I tried to call you, Kat. I really did. After I heard 'bout your daddy. Even tried to go out an' see you but my grandma took my keys when she heard what had happened. Said to 'stay away'. That bat ain't know shit about you."
"It's okay, really. I wanted to be alone."
Madge huffed. "I didn't want you t' be alone."
They let silence invade the space between them again. This time, Katniss decided to break it. "Why ain't you in school?"
"Didn't do my chem homework. Smith said I didn't turn it in again he'd flunk me. Figured I'd just skip."
"You gonna graduate?"
Madge chewed on a plastic stirring straw. "Dunno. Maybe." She sighed. "'d be nice to get outta here on time, but…I dunno."
"What 'bout you?"
"I doubt it. I got too much to do outside o' school. Momma needs so much help with Prim n' all."
"You gonna join the Air Force still?"
"I hope so. Gonna be harder with a GED, but I guess I just gotta study real hard."
"You can have my books n' stuff. From las' year. Didn't return none of 'em for that school refund. Woulda just gone back to his credit card anyway."
Katniss smiled at the bar top. "You always been a good friend, Madge."
Madge laughed. "Well, you's my only friend, so I guess we even."
They finished their drinks and true to Madge's word, Darius waved them away without a bill. Madge winked at him when they walked out the door.
"You doin' anything else t'day?" Madge asked, lighting a new cigarette and tucking the pack into the ankle of her sneaker.
"Nah, gotta get home and take care o' the house. Needs a good cleanin'."
"Lame. You wanna ride?"
"I got my bike, I'm okay."
Madge eyed her. "Okay," she said slowly. "You gonna call me? I'm gonna start showin' up at your house you don't call me."
"Ain't got a phone, Madge. Cut it off to get away from the lawyers and reporters."
"What the hell?" Madge stared at her. "I guess you gonna hafta start comin' to school to see me, hunh?" She took Katniss' hand. "But seriously. I hate goin' there without you. Please come back. Delly Cartwright decided I'm her outreach project this year n' her cheerfulness could wear a hole in paint finish."
Katniss hemmed. "I dunno, Madge. I don't wanna see all those people."
"It ain't bad as you think," Madge said as they reached her bike. She leaned against the wall and stubbed her cigarette against the bricks. "Honestly, after what happened no one talks shit anymore. 'Cept maybe Leevy, but ain't no one like her holier-than-thou attitude. It's worse than mine," Madge grinned.
"I don't think I can see him, Madge."
"Oh." Madge cleared her throat and paused. "Umm. He's been askin' 'bout you."
She imagined her eyebrows could have floated off her forehead.
"He don't blame you, Kitty. He's got a good heart, he knows it ain't your fault."
She tried to respond, but she could only nod.
"You comin' back to school?" Madge asked. "Please? Don't make me beg."
Katniss smirked. "I'll think about it."
"See you Monday!" Madge grinned.
Katniss sighed as she unlocked her bike and climbed on. She waved at Madge and pulled out of the parking lot.
She pedaled hard and stopped only once on the way home. She skidded into the yard and rested her bike against the side of the house. She unlocked and opened the front door quietly, in case her mother was still sleeping.
She knocked quietly at the closed bedroom door. "Momma?"
She opened the door to find her mother had rolled on her back to stare at the ceiling. She was always relieved that she moved. It gave her some idea that there was something still alive inside the shell.
"Hey Momma. I brought your medicine."
She collected pillows off the floor and lifted her mother to a sitting position, shoving the pillows behind her to hold her upright. She refilled the water glass from the kitchen tap and returned to her mother's side.
She found the pill bottles in her backpack and carefully read the labels, popping the tops off the ones to be taken midday. She brushed each pill against her mother's lips so she knew to open her mouth and then swallow the water.
When Lily was finished, Katniss screwed the lids back on and sat down in the rocking chair opposite the bed. "Guess who I ran into today? Madge Undersee. She ain't lookin' so good." She picked at the frayed edges of her jeans. "She want me to come back to school. So do Prim.
"I dunno 'f I should Momma. I don't wanna leave you alone all day," she said, looking in her mother's vacant eyes. "I'm jus' scared is all."
She rocked forward. "I'm not gonna graduate, Ma. I don't know if I can pass the Force Aptitude Test without goin' to school. Gale said it's like the SATs. I mean, if I were studyin' maybe, but…" she trailed off.
"And, um," she said softly. "I kinda wanna go back. I miss Madge, Momma. I miss my friends. The few of them," she muttered. "I wanna go back."
Her mother blinked.
Katniss shook her head, clearing her mind. She took a deep breath. "You know what? I'll figure it out. You jus' rest. It'll be fine. I'll be right outside you need anything."
She gave her mother a kiss on the cheek and closed the door to her bedroom.
She fidgeted in the armchair for ten minutes before quietly slipping out the front door and going over to find Hazelle picking lettuce in her garden.
"Hey, Kat. Want some lettuce? Boys never wanna eat it."
"Yes, thank you," Katniss said, accepting the basket. "Lookin' like a good crop this summer."
"Yep, let the chicken run through the garden all spring. Really made a difference," Hazelle said, wiping her brow. "Your momma okay?"
"Yep." Katniss toed the dirt. "I actually been wondering…if there any way you can help me." Hazelle turned around to look up at her. "It ain't nothing big…just…" she took a deep breath. "I need t' go back to school. I'm gonna flunk out I don't go. It don't matter for college or whatever, but I gotta pass to get into the Air Force, so I gotta go."
"I been wonderin' why you was around all the time," Hazelle murmured.
"And I can take care of Momma before and after school; I just…" she swallowed hard. "I just need someone to check on her durin' the day. 'Round lunch. Make sure ain't nothin' happened. Call me to come home if need be."
"Of course, Kat! I'm right here durin' the day. I can go over and make sure she's doin' all right."
"I don't know if I can pay you to watch her, maybe we could trade? Prim watch Posy for free when you want to go out with the boys?"
"How about you save me some deer when you go out shootin'? You always get 'em right in the eye, save the best meat."
"Deal," Katniss breathed in relief. "Thank you, Hazelle. So much. Jus' – thank you."
"No problem. Vick'll take both y'all to school tomorrow."
"Tomorrow? It's a Friday, might as well wait 'til Monday."
Hazelle stood up and cracked her back. "Think you might wanna go tomorrow. Get one day down b'fore you tackle the week. It's gonna be a big change. Vick's having a hard time with senior year, lot 'riding on it. Happen' to Gale, too."
Katniss nodded thoughtfully and frowned. "Well, I guess so."
She thanked Hazelle three more times and went home to tell her mother.
The next morning she woke up an hour earlier than usual. She packed a lunch for Prim and made a plate for her mother, wrapping it in foil and placing it in the fridge for Hazelle to leave on the nightstand when she checked on her.
Prim woke Lily and helped her brush her teeth before getting herself ready. As she sat at their crowded dining room table, she spooned corn flakes into her mouth and watched her sister comb and braid her hair down the hall in the bathroom mirror.
"You look nice," she remarked with a smile.
"Thanks," Katniss said distractedly.
"You don't need t' be nervous. They's still your friends," Prim shrugged before drinking the milk from the bowl.
"Not all o' them," Katniss muttered, chewing on a piece of toast without tasting it.
She washed and dried the dishes hurriedly. Her anxiety was rising. She tried to come up with a plan. Just go in the doors. Get a schedule from the office. Tell them you disconnected the phone because the lawyers said to. Find your classes. Speak to no one. Hide in the bathroom at lunch. Get home.
She dropped the juice glass and it rattled around the sink. "Sorry," she called to Prim. "Too much soap."
Prim eyed her but said nothing. She finished the dishes and tossed the towel on the counter. She went back into their shared room and looked at herself in the mirror again.
Tee shirt, jeans, work shoes. No makeup. Braided hair. Nothing to draw attention. She saw Prim pop her head in their door.
"You got everything?" she asked the smaller girl. "Got your homework?"
Prim nodded. "You gonna bring a notebook or something?"
"Shit," Katniss realized. "Where's my stuff from last year?"
They spent five minutes tearing about their disastrous room looking for the contents of the pack that she'd dumped out that summer. She finally found a stack of papers and supplies under the bed. Pens and pencils went in the pack. The eraser shaped like a turtle Delly had given her when Katniss was her pet project. Notebooks only halfway filled with notes. A library book well overdue. She zipped the bag closed and pulled it on her back. It was strangely familiar to feel the weight of books on her shoulders.
A horn honked outside. "Vick," said Prim. "Let's go."
Katniss gave her mother a quick kiss goodbye before hurrying out. She pulled the front door shut and followed Prim to the beat up Jeep Cherokee the Hawthorne boys were using to get to school and town. She climbed into the back and thanked Vick for the ride. Prim said hello to Rory, who turned bright red and stared at his shoes. Katniss closed her eyes and felt sickly glad their dad hadn't died in the mine. Chester had worked in the same mine as her dad and if he'd been around the night of the collapse her dad would have been responsible for his death too, and she'd have no allies at home.
Vick started arguing with the sports radio about the Steeler's draft picks and Katniss settled back in her seat for the ride. By the time they got there, he was arguing defensive strategy with Rory, who was clearly trying to look at Prim in his sun visor mirror and not interested in the conversation. Prim caught his eye in the mirror and he jumped in his seat. She giggled.
Vick pulled into the lot behind the school and squealed his tires by a flock of girls. Katniss rolled her eyes as they jumped and laughed. She ducked down in the seat to see who else was around. Girls hung out on the grass, eyeing the boys talking about their cars. She spotted Delly with her boyfriend Tate walking towards the front door. Delly did the morning intercom announcements and got to go in early every day. Tate would go with her so they could make out in the radio booth before classes.
Vick rolled to a stop in the back and pulled the key from the ignition. He moved to open the door, but stopped and turned around in his seat. "Hey, Kat?"
She sat up. "Yeah?"
"Anyone fucks with you, you let me know, 'k? We got your back," he said seriously, gesturing to Rory. His brother nodded solemnly.
She was stunned. "Thank you, Vick. You're good people."
"Eh," he shrugged. "Things ain't your fault, the way they happened. These assholes just wanna blame someone so they's pickin' on you. That's fucked. I ain't gonna let that happen. Gale'd skin me alive."
She smiled. "Thank you. Both. All three."
"You're real sweet, Rory," Prim said, putting her hand on his shoulder. Katniss thought she saw him melt. He opened the door quickly and near fell out of the car.
"That boy's an idiot," Vick muttered, opening the door and slamming it behind him.
"You ready?" Prim asked.
"Yeah," Katniss breathed. She opened the door.
She thought she had gone deaf it got so quiet when she came into full view of the parking lot. So many people had stopped talking she figured it must be her ears. But then she saw them staring at her and knew it was just her. She started to sweat. Vick jogged and caught up with her, making sure he was walking side by side with her. She felt a little better, but she knew he wouldn't be there all day.
The conversations picked back up as she hit the grassy patch that let around to the front doors.
The middle school bell rang, prompting Prim to wave goodbye and cross the street to the middle school. Katniss checked her watch to count down the fifteen minutes until their first bell rang at the high school.
"Hey, you gonna be ok?" Vick was eyeing Katniss.
"Yeah," she muttered, wondering why she bothered to lie.
They shuffled over to the entrance of the school to wait while there were still fewer students out front. Vick and Rory stood with her in silence as they watched the concrete pad in front of the double doors fill up with students. Katniss stared at her shoes. She watched the shadows of other students cross her feet. She checked her watch. Ten minutes.
She glanced up. A few pairs of eyes darted away from hers. Seven minutes.
The sun climbed a little higher over the school. Four minutes.
A pair of checkered slip-on sneakers came up, spun around and a body slammed into hers.
"Hey stranger," Madge chirped. "Where you been all my life?"
Katniss had to give Madge a small smile. "Ow."
The bell rang.
Katniss stood still, waiting as the crowd of kids looking at her passed through the double doors. Vick nudged her and she told him to go ahead to class; she'd have to go to the office anyway.
"You tell me if you get trouble," he said as he turned to go.
"I will," she promised, but his eyes were elsewhere.
He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. "Don't tell my momma 'bout this," he said, raising his eyebrow as he popped one in his mouth. He strode over to the door where Bristel was struggling with her lighter. Vick offered to assist her with the lighter, his own cigarette dangling between his lips. She glared at him and pulled away, lighting her cigarette. They could see him asking for a light. Bristel held up her lighter and he took a hold of her hand to light his cigarette. She looked annoyed as he grinned at her.
"He don't even smoke," Rory said frowning. "And he calls me an idiot." He left them when he spotted some of his basketball teammates coming around from the bus circle.
Katniss realized Madge was still by her side. The warning bell rang.
"I ain't in no hurry," Madge said when Katniss looked to her. "I got chemistry first and I ain't come up with a good excuse yet." Katniss couldn't bring herself to say anything as she watched the other students. "Let's go."
They climbed the wide concrete steps to the bright blue doors. Madge opened them when her friend made no move to pull the handle. Katniss felt an oppressive dread squeezing her lungs as she walked through the metal frames.
Madge walked with her to the office door. "They ain't gonna let me come with you," she said quietly. "If you get the lunch for fourth, me and Delly goin' be outside. Come sit with us."
"Madge-" Katniss started, but she couldn't finish.
"Just sit with us. You gotta save me." And with that, Madge walked away.
She pulled open the door and walked inside the office.
The phones were ringing softly and the electric lights hummed. The air conditioning was turned up too high and goosebumps broke out over her bare arms.
Mrs. Trinket looked up from her filing and stopped working. "Oh!" she managed. Her chubby cheeks were hot red even in the cool of the office and the purple bow on top of her frizzy hair looked ridiculous. She'd always seemed a little flighty and stupid to Katniss. She didn't have time for women who messed with bows and matching belt buckles.
"I need a schedule," Katniss mumbled. "I missed some time," she said.
Mrs. Trinket looked at her desk full of scattered papers confusedly. "Yes." She looked around again, as though what to say would appear written on the jumble of forms. "Yes."
"Oh, Katniss! You're back."
Katniss cringed. Portia Glouster, the guidance counselor, had pestered her to no end last year. She called her out of class several times to come to the office, only drawing more attention to her shame and guilt. It was her persistent phone calls that made Katniss relieved when she shut off the phone.
"Come on back to my office, I'll get you all set up."
"Oh Portia, can you print up a new schedule? I can't find nothin' on this desk," Mrs. Trinket said. "Thanks, sugar."
Katniss gritted her teeth as she followed the slight woman down the office corridor. Portia's shiny curls bounced as she walked. Katniss tugged at her dull braid. They paused in front of the principal's office.
"Hey Thom? Katniss is back. I'm going to print up a schedule for her and get her all settled."
Thomas Thorn hopped up from his desk to hurry over to the door. His eyes found Katniss' face, but she looked away quickly. He'd been friendly with her mother since they both had taught Sunday school classes at First Church in town.
"Hey, Kat. How are you doin'?" His voice was soft and gentle. She looked up. His hazel eyes pierced her from behind his thin gold framed glasses.
"Fine," she muttered.
"We haven't heard from you in a while," he said, leaning uncomfortably against the doorframe to his office. "Everythin' okay at home? With your momma?"
Thorn and Portia exchanged a look in the pervasive silence. "Well, let's get you to class. Thanks, Portia."
She followed the counselor down the hall to her office. She could tell the young woman aspired to be seen as a high-end therapist. She had a canvas colored loveseat dotted with colorful pillow, puzzle games and various brainteasers scattered on low tables. Bright tapestries were tacked up around the walls. Katniss took it all in with irritation. She didn't want help. She wanted to live her life without being bothered ever again.
Portia smiled warmly as she sat down at her computer station and clicked through screens. "We have you set up for this year, but you're going to need to test to get into some of the classes since you missed so much, Katniss."
She nodded dumbly, thinking of all the mailers that came, on subjects and books she should read that she never did.
"You're set up with a schedule for now, but we can move you to the remedial classes if you need a little time catching up. I'm gonna print your current schedule so you can sit in on your classes while the teachers get the tests ready, okay?"
"Okay," Katniss mumbled.
"Here you go!" Portia pulled the single sheet of paper off the whirring printer. "If you need any help studyin' up, you just talk to your teachers. Or friends?" The second part seemed like a question.
She looked up.
"I'm real sorry about your daddy. I know he meant a lot to you."
"Thank you." It came out as a whisper.
"Are you talkin' to someone?"
"I should get to class. I missed a lot," she said, standing up.
Portia stood up too. "If you need to talk to anyone, you know I'm here."
"Thanks. I really have to go," Katniss stuttered, trying to read the schedule as she walked out of the office backwards. She turned before Portia could say anything more and moved as quickly as she could to the front office again. She was shaking and sweating and needed to get away from these people and their insipid kindness.
She burst out of the hallway to the reception area and stopped dead.
He was checking in with Mrs. Trinket, shifting his backpack from where it threatened to slip off his shoulder.
"Peeta! Right on time," Portia's voice chirped from over Katniss' shoulder. Katniss could feel her jaw tensing until her entire head hurt. She wanted to run away again; go home and forget this ever happened. But he was blocking the door this time. Portia had her trapped from behind.
He limped over on his cane towards Portia. He nodded at the guidance counselor behind her, and then said very softly, "Hey, Kat."
She coughed out a "hey".
"Good t' see you back," he murmured.
"Let's get started," Portia said, and Peeta slipped by Katniss to walk back to her office.
Katniss walked numbly to the doors leading to the lobby. She felt like a zombie. She didn't think she could face anymore if every day would be like this. She looked at her schedule. First period Geometry. She sighed and walked to the stairwell.
She could have cried with relief when she realized she had fourth period lunch. Her classmates had been shocked to see her. Her face burned and she kept her head down, struggling to keep up with what their teacher was talking about. She copied the formulas off the blackboard and watched the numbers swim across her notepad. She felt hopeless and lost. World Civilizations made her head ache and she stopped in the bathroom to throw up after American Government. She was sure she going to flunk.
She walked to the cafeteria at the front of the school. One of the two sets of double doors stood open and the thunderous noise of excited teenage conversation poured out into the lobby to bounce off the floors and walls. She slipped behind the closed set of doors to look inside.
Leevy was at the door closest to her. Her little brother was setting down his tray next to her and she was handing him a soda from her bag. Their father had died in the collapse.
She turned around and walked to the double doors that had brought her inside that morning. She walked outside and down the concrete stairs. Delly met her at the bottom of the stairs before she could run away.
"Madge told me you were back! We're sittin' over here," she said, wrapping a firm hand around Katniss' elbow and dragging her across the pad to the tables outside the cafeteria. She pulled her to the table where Madge sat bored, with her elbows on the table. She gave Katniss a withering look as Delly nearly pushed her onto the seat. Delly sat down next to her. Katniss slipped her backpack onto the bench next to her and stared at the tabletop.
"Bring anything to eat?" Madge asked.
Katniss shook her head. Madge pushed half of her sandwich across the table.
"I'm fine," Katniss said stubbornly.
"Take the damn food, Kat," Madge said. "You look like shit."
Katniss looked at the peanut butter and banana sandwich on the table. Her stomach ached. She took it reluctantly and took a bite without looking at Madge.
"So the cheer I'm workin' on for Homecoming is going to be fantastic! I really think you should try out for the squad, Madge. You'd be perfect on the pyramid!" Delly's cheerfulness was completely unbearable.
"And I really think I'd rather die first, Del." Katniss tried not to smile. "So are you n' Tate screwin' yet?"
Delly stuttered and Katniss looked over to see her face turning red. "No! Of course not. I mean, that is none of your business what goes on between me and him."
"Awww, c'mon. I bet that radio booth could tell some stories," Madge dug at her.
"Katniss," Delly hissed, turning to her emphatically. "How's your first day back? Classes treatin' you all right?"
She shrugged. "Guess so."
"Well….that's….good." Delly looked at her hard. She decided to stop pretending. "Kat? What happened?"
Katniss looked up at her friends. They were watching her closely.
"I just…couldn't…I just wanted it to all go away."
"I'm sorry about your daddy, Katniss. I really am."
"How's your momma?"
Katniss looked up at Madge. "She's still sad. But she's doing okay."
"Why you ain't got a phone no more? I called, Kat," Delly said. "A few of us tried to reach you. Bristel. Madge. We called and called and ain't got no answer. Then we get that message sayin' it's disconnected."
"Umm…the lawyers said not to talk to nobody."
"I thought they were paying out the settlements." Madge frowned at her.
"No, um… Peeta's mom hired another lawyer. It's not the negligence one; it's the civil one. I can't talk to no one, so we just…um…cut the phone."
"That bitch is still goin' after your family? What's she want?"
Katniss rubbed her face and didn't answer. She would have guessed blood.
The bell rang for fifth period.
"What'd you got next?" Delly asked, affixing the smile back on her face.
Katniss reached into her backpack and pulled out the folded and wrinkled schedule. "English."
"Boo, got that third. What about sixth and seventh?"
"Got Intro to Psych sixth. Gave me study hall for last period. Guess they think I'm gonna need to study a fuckload to get caught up."
Madge laughed. "Or they know'd you gonna cut out."
Katniss smiled as she took her schedule back and stood up to go inside.
Delly walked with her inside; Madge split off to head to the basement.
"You got into the music class? But you can't sing," Katniss said.
"Oh, you know Ol' Mr. Saunders can't turn away a pretty face." Madge gave her that wicked wink and twirled off down the hall. Katniss frowned.
Delly gave her a quick squeeze on her arm before she took the left hallway to her art class. Katniss regretted not having any electives, but she knew she had to get these classes done to graduate. She'd still rather be making a wobbly vase than diagramming a sentence.
She found the room number outside the classroom and steeled herself for another hour of misery.
When she stumbled into the library for seventh, she felt like she had no strength left. It had been the longest and most dread-filled day she'd faced in a long time. She wondered if this session would even provide a respite. From what she'd heard, Study Hall was for jocks that were failing but scored too many goals to get booted off the team. Or for the kids that the teachers didn't want to have to deal with anymore. She guessed she fit into the latter category.
She walked through the racks of books to the cluster of short, rectangular tables she knew were tucked by the reference desk where ancient Mrs. Branson could watch the students while she checked in books.
The tables were already peppered with students; mostly jocks but a few kids dressed in all black with grey lipstick were mixed in. A kid she knew had been held back last year was also there. Judging by the intricate drawing of a dragon he was finishing on his binder she doubted this would be his last turn as a junior.
Katniss found herself smiling when she saw Vick scowling at his textbook. He was kicking the chair leg beneath him and scribbling notes in the margin. She'd heard Hazelle talk about how good he was on the football field. She should have guessed his coaches wanted him to do better than his typical C average. If only he cared about books as much as he cared about the game.
She gave him a tiny wave when he looked up, and then snuck over to Mrs. Branson's desk.
"Mrs. Branson?" she whispered at the hunched woman behind the desk.
Cloudy eyes looked up at her. "Oh, Miss Everdeen. Welcome back. I trust you are aware Studies on Greek Mythology is in fact, seven months overdue?"
Katniss pulled the book from her backpack and handed it to the frowning woman. She took it with a bony hand and pointed Katniss to the tables.
But he'd snuck up on her again. When she turned around he was there with his cane, appearing between the racks.
He looked up and saw her too, momentarily faltering in his step. She looked away and saw Vick's eyes were wide, watching them.
He turned and walked over to the open seat opposite a girl with black fingernails and lipstick the color of dried blood. "Hey, Deedee," he whispered, eyeing Mrs. Branson as he spoke in the library. The girl looked up from a fashion magazine hidden inside an atlas, smiled and nodded. He sat down and hung his cane from the corner of the table. He pulled out a math book and notebook from the backpack he set on the table and then slid the pack to the ground. She realized she had been staring when he looked up at her still standing at the reference counter.
She flushed with embarrassment and quickly moved to sit next to Vick. She pulled out her notes from the morning classes and tried to decipher her handwriting. She tried to follow the lesson plans but her eyes kept drifting up. He was doing the practice tests in his book, checking the answers in the back. Deedee was passing a piece of lined paper across the table at him. He'd smile, write something and pass it back. He looked up once at Katniss and she ducked her head again. Vick leaned in and asked her what absolute zero meant and she sighed.
"My chances of getting through this year."
A week later the other shoe dropped. Portia handed her a list of evaluation tests she'd need to take. "All these?"
"It's just the four basic tests, and it's not such a big deal if you need to move back a bit," Portia offered. She was trying to be soothing but all Katniss heard was condescension. "Not everyone learns the same."
Katniss looked at the sample tests. The questions looked impossible. "Thanks," she said, standing to leave Portia's office.
"And if you need any help, I'm sure your teachers will make themselves available."
Three of them had lost spouses in the collapse. "Sure," Katniss lied.
"Did you want to schedule a time to come and talk? About anything?"
"No, thanks. Got a lot of studyin' to do," Katniss said, turning on her heel and bolting out of the office.
She returned to study hall to see that in Mrs. Branson's absence, the boys had started a paper football tournament and little triangles of college ruled paper were flying in the air. She laughed as she sat down next to Vick.
"Probably dead at 'er age!" Vick laughed and ducked as a triangle whizzed past his head. "Fail, Dennis!" Dennis lined up his finger goalposts after making a rude hand gesture. "Nah, she's probably asleep in the faculty lounge again."
"Hey, can I?" Katniss took the triangle from Vick and set in on the table in front of her. She carefully eyed Dennis' fingers and flicked the paper hard. It sailed over his head and landed on the table behind them.
Peeta turned around in surprise when it landed on his book. Deedee glared. Katniss flushed and her stomach tied itself in a knot. Her hands were still in the position from flicking the football. It was obviously hers. She stammered out an apology.
"Hold up your hands," Peeta said.
She looked up at him. He was holding the triangle in his left hand between his middle finger and thumb. "I think I can make the shot from here," he wagered.
"I wanna see that," Dennis said. "I got five bucks says you can't."
"If you wanna lose your money, that's fine wit' me," Peeta shrugged.
Katniss held up her thumb and index fingers and rested her wrists on the table in front of her. She could hear her heart pounding blood behind her ears.
He pressed the tip of his tongue between his lips and stared at her hands. He breathed twice. He flicked the paper.
It sailed in a beautiful arc over Dennis' shoulder through the goalposts and popped Katniss' shirt just above her bellybutton.
Peeta blushed as she gasped in surprise, rubbing her stomach. "Sorry," he muttered, looking away.
"Holy shit he nailed it!" Vick jumped up and shouted.
"What on earth is going on here?" shouted Mrs. Branson as she emerged between the tall shelves of books.
"That was a close one," muttered Vick as he and Katniss stepped out of the school that afternoon. "One more detention and Momma was goin' make me quit football." Vick looked over his shoulder. "Hey, Peeta. Nice shot."
She whipped around. She hadn't realized he was right behind her.
"Dennis pay up?"
"Nah you know him. I'm never gonna see that money." He turned and started down the concrete steps carefully with his cane in front of him.
"Fool owes me fifteen from last summer," Vick grumbled, following him. "Took that redhead from Cedar Falls to the movies on my dollar. Glad she didn't like him none." Peeta laughed softly and nodded. He tilted his head over his shoulder.
"Sorry 'bout hitting you with the football. Didn't mean t' hurt you."
"S'okay," she told him, forcing a small smile. Talking to him was surreal.
A horn blared across lot. She looked up and saw Candy's minivan parked across the street. She was waving her hands angrily.
"Shit," whispered Peeta. "Guess I'll see you Monday," he said with a sigh of dread. He ambled down the sidewalk to his mother's red face. Katniss watched him go.
"C'mon," said Vick, leading her around the building to the football field. "Why does he talk to me 'f he know she hates me so much?"
"He don't blame you, Kat. He been stickin' up for you this whole time."
She tripped on a tree root. "What?" she sputtered.
"He whooped Leevy's brother last year when he went off about your daddy bein' asleep. Didn't even have that fake leg yet and he took that kid down."
Katniss felt her face get hot and her throat close. She didn't say anything else as she climbed the bleachers to study for her evaluation tests the following week.
"They weren't bad scores; they were just behind where the rest of your class is now." Portia tried to soften the blow. "Honestly, I think if you have a tutor this semester you'll be able to join the rest of your peers in the spring semester."
Katniss looked at the percentages on the scores. 50% was pretty bad by even her math skills, she reasoned. The highest she got was a 64% in English. The only thing she was remotely passing was Government with a firm C.
"I'll switch over your classes in the computer now, but you can go to the rest of your classes today. Do you want to tell your teachers you'll be transferring? I can if you prefer."
"Can you tell 'em?" She felt she had been humiliated enough by this school.
"Sure. And I want you to come back…let's see…October 15th to check in and let me know how your new classes are going. How's 10am?"
"Fine," she muttered. It didn't really matter.
She gathered her bookbag and stood to go. She reached the door and turned around. "Umm, hey. Ms. Glouster?"
"Will I still have Study Hall for seventh?"
Portia furrowed her brow. "Let me see if the class schedules can match up." She turned to her computer and pulled up the academic listings. "It looks like that will be fine. Would you like to keep that class?"
"Yes, please," Katniss said.
She turned and left the office.
"Remedial math, English, chemistry and social studies. I get to keep Government since I don't need it to graduate," Katniss grumbled and sat back in Madge's bucket seats. "And she let me keep Study Hall."
"Oh good," Madge grinned. "I heard th' paper football league needed a relief player."
Prim and Katniss laughed. "I guess it ain't useful if no one uses it to study. Well, Peeta does. I think he's it, though." She looked over at Madge. "Why's he in that? I thought he's doing good."
"I think he picked it," Madge frowned. "Or his ma. He gotta go to PT for that leg twice a week. Easier to miss a free class like that."
Katniss looked out the window and watched the tree line approach and Madge guided her car up the hill towards her house.
"Is he goin' to college?" Prim asked.
"Dunno. Don't think so. He ain't been talking about it."
Katniss slumped down in the seat. She had algebra with Peeta last fall. He had carried his acceptance letter around in his binder and she'd seen him looking at it over and over again throughout the day. She had finally poked him with her ruler when they sat across from one another in the math class and asked what it was. He'd passed it to her. She had to admit she was incredibly jealous. She'd never imagined she was going to go to college, but the word "scholarship" still made her envious.
"So you want some good news?" Madge asked.
"Sure," Katniss said.
"I'm joinin' you in chemistry. Smith finally told administration I couldn't cut it. Bumped me back."
"Oh Madge. I guess I'm sorry, but not really."
"Katniss! Madge, that's terrible. I'm sorry," Prim said soothingly.
"Eh, no worries, little grasshopper," Madge grinned at the rearview. "Gonna be fine now I'm back with your sister." She pulled the car up their driveway.
"Thanks for the ride, Madge. I forgot about Vick's football practice startin' up. Didn't really want to sit there watchin' them beat each other to hell for two hours every day."
"S'cool. I don't wanna go home."
Katniss was unlocking the front door when Madge slammed her driver's side door and climbed the stairs with her backpack. She froze. "Oh. You wanna come in?"
"Yeah," Madge said slowly. She frowned. "I mean, if that's cool with you."
Prim looked at Katniss. "Momma's not doing so well; she gets bad headaches…"
"I'll keep quiet."
Katniss stuttered. "It's jus'…"
"Jus' what? You don't want me in your house?"
"Madge, don't you say that ever again," Prim said sternly.
"Then let's go," Madge said, pushing the door open. When she stepped inside, she stopped short.
Katniss swallowed hard. She and Prim shared a quiet moment on the porch. She felt like the world had just shattered.
Stepping inside, she said nothing about the mess and the papers.
"I'm gonna tell Momma you're here." Madge nodded dumbly. Katniss gestured for her to come to the closed door. She stepped carefully over the stacks of books and Prim's soap opera videos. Katniss knocked softly. "Momma?"
She pushed the door open and Madge followed her with Prim at her heels. She had gotten Lily into her rocking chair that morning, and she was rocking back and forth, staring at the wall. Katniss walked over and kneeled down beside her, keeping her toes away from the runners.
"Momma? You remember my friend Madge? We did 4-H sophmore year, remember?" Lily made no motion of recognition, nor did she look at Madge. "She's gonna do her homework here, okay?"
Katniss looked up at Madge and nodded. She looked back to her mother. "Let's take a bathroom break, okay?"
Prim stepped into the room around Madge and helped Katniss while she moved in front of her mother, squatting down to leverage herself and pull Lily upright. Wrapping her arms around Lily's shoulders, they guided her past Madge's silent form to the bathroom in the hall. Prim stayed outside the bathroom, closing the door behind them. She didn't look up at Madge.
Madge stood mutely in the hallway, looking back and forth at the messy room filled with old dolls and the school-issued resin recorders that no one ever played well. She saw the turn off notice from the electric company on the kitchen table next to an empty checkbook. The sound of the toilet flushing came through the door.
Katniss reappeared, half-dragging, half-guiding her mother back down the short hall to her room. Prim held the rocking chair steady while Katniss settled her back down, checked the glass of water, and put a blanket over her knees. The sisters stepped out of the room next to Madge and closed the door.
"You can't tell nobody!" Katniss spun around, tears springing out suddenly. "If you tell a soul, Social Services gonna come take my sister. You can't tell nobody!" She had a finger in Madge's face and it was shaking hard.
"I won't tell no one, Kat. I swear it."
Katniss sniffled. "Okay. Um. I gotta clean up so we can do our homework."
"I'll help," Madge said.
They sat on the porch out front as the sun set, filling the woods with dusk. The sound of Prim's soap operas drifted through the screen over the window.
"Your grandmother gonna be worried?"
"Dunno. Would be nice if she was."
Madge snubbed out her cigarette on the sole of her sneaker.
"Madge, what happened? Things is worse, don't act like they ain't."
Her friend sighed. "Eh, Daddy cut me off this summer. We'd had a fight about the college thing again. Grandma don't give me nothin', got stuck inside for a long while. Couldn't pay for gas for the damn car to get outta there."
Katniss nodded. "I hear ya," she sighed.
"But I took care of that," Madge said quietly.
Madge smiled, but there was a sorrow behind her smile. "Darius. Well, him first. Then Saunders."
Katniss stared at her. "Madge…what?"
"Oh c'mon." She threw her blond hair over her shoulder and bit her lip. "It's all a trade, right? I needed money, they needed some company. It ain't no big deal." She couldn't meet her friend's eye.
"Madge, you didn't."
Madge brushed a tear away. "Oh, like it matters. Everyone knew I'd slept with Eddie Nagel when he spilled his damn guts sophomore year so the boys' would recommend him for junior varsity. Then fuckin' Greg Fishburne tells me he loves me junior year just to tell the basketball team I'm an easy score. The visiting football team probl'y gets my phone number on their bus. Everyone in town knows Madge is open for business."
"Don't you say that!" Katniss wiped a tear away. "You better than that."
"Thought I was," Madge sniffed. "Made sense at the time."
She shrugged. "You can't tell me you ain't thought about it. You sold your daddy's truck and your sister's horse. Things can't be easy."
"No, I ain't thought about it."
"Well, I guess you a better person," Madge said bitterly.
"No, I ain't. You know that. I just…why that?"
Madge took a deep breath and Katniss heard her breath shake as she inhaled. "I just…liked it when they paid attention to me, Kat." She started to cry. "I know Darius ain't no catch, but he was so nice and he listened to my stupid stories. And he's real lonely. No one talks to him. People in this town don't like different. So I did it. And he gives me my drinks and cigarettes free." She coughed and settled her tears. "So then I needed a class I could pass and I know Saunders been widowed for a few years, so I went to him and offered to trade. He let me in and…and I kept him company."
Katniss fought her own tears. "Madge."
"Don't you judge me, Katniss!" Madge yelled. "You left me alone!" She started to cry harder, burying her face in her hands.
"I'm sorry, Madge! I'm so sorry," she said, trying to wrap her arms around her friend.
"No, no, no," Madge choked. "I didn't mean that. I was jus' all alone, is all." She looked at her shoes. "I ain't done that in a while, I swear. Not since Saunders. Found out I didn't need Gran's card to charge gas to her account at Sonny's. She just get the bill and pay it without lookin', so…" She rubbed her hands along her knees. "Anyway. Met someone new at the bar who buys me drinks anyway." She stilled her hands and looked up at Katniss. "I'm so glad you're back."
Katniss smiled through her tears. "And I'm stayin'."
She and Madge settled back on the porch. The light behind them flickered. Katniss noted she'd need to turn the hall light off if Prim was going to keep the TV on past eight. She bit her lip thoughtfully.
"How was it?"
"With Darius? Or Saunders?"
"I guess either. I mean – yeah, either."
"Well, Darius tried real hard, so that was kinda sweet. Saunders went off like a rocket, you know? Both was kinda all over the place, you know?" Katniss stared at her blankly. Madge looked at her with curiosity. "Kat, you a virgin?"
Her cheeks flushed. "Yeah," she whispered.
"Well, shit. I thought you and that Waller kid was going steady summer b'fore last?"
Katniss shrugged. "Yeah, I mean kinda. It was like six weeks between 4-H and when he moved. We fooled around but we ain't done that."
Madge whistled. "Didn't think anyone here was still a virgin. Well, maybe Peeta. That Addison girl from Springfield dropped him after the accident. People here hate different." She looked over at Katniss suddenly. "Oh, shit. I'm sorry, I shouldn'a said that."
Katniss forced the tightness in her throat back down. "Ain't no big deal, Madge. And-" she spoke emphatically- "I'm sure I ain't the only one."
Madge looked away. "Guess I'm the only whore here."
"You fuckin' stop saying that," Katniss said, getting on her knees to clutch Madge's shoulders. "You're my friend and that's all that matters. What you done in the past don't mean shit. Now is all that matters, okay?"
Madge snuffled her red nose. "Okay, Kitty. I gotcha."
"You need anything you come to me, okay?"
"Hah, like you got anything to give," Madge laughed sadly.
Katniss shrugged and released Madge. "Yeah, well. I can figure somethin' out."
"I'm not goin', Vick."
"But you can talk to Bristel! Talk about how good I'm playin' and whether she thinks I'm awesome or hot."
"Dammit, Vick, go home!"
Katniss slammed the door on his face. She stormed back into the house and threw open the fridge door, looking for nothing. He had waited until he saw Madge's car had pulled away until he came over to bother her to go to the Homecoming game to spy on Bristel. He had promised a ride, three sodas and the answers to the geography test before she slammed the door.
"You should go," said Prim, popping her head up from the sofa where she read a thick paperback romance novel.
"No, I shouldn't."
"Well, not for Vick. Bristel's never gonna talk 'bout him. But for you."
"Why? So everyone can stare or scream at me?"
"Katniss, you's the only one makin' yourself out to be the odd-man-out. No one else pushin' you out the circle," Prim said angrily, standing up. "You gotta stop!"
"Prim, what's wrong?"
"I get so sad watchin' you hate on yourself, Kat. You's a good person and you get so down on things that ain't your fault. I don' want you to give up 'cause you busy blamin' yourself."
Katniss had to stare for a short while before she was able to walk over and hug her sister. Prim started to whimper.
"Shhh, Prim, it's okay," she hushed. "I'll go to the game."
"Really?" she looked up at Katniss with a hopeful smile.
"Yeah. If it means so much t' you, I'll go."
"It does," Prim sniffed, pulling back. "It really does." She smiled and wiped her nose with her sleeve. "I'm gonna go check on Momma."
Katniss sighed and dropped herself onto the sofa, reaching long for her bookbag across the floor. She unzipped the top and rummaged through for the list. She pulled the study list for her new classes. She looked over the list and felt the disappointment wash over her.
"She's sleepin'," Prim whispered, appearing over her shoulder. She leaned on the back of the sofa to read the class reading lists. "You need any help?"
"Prob'ly," Katniss sighed. "This 's all stuff from las' year but I missed all that anyway."
"You could ask Vick, maybe?"
"Didn' he hafta go to summer school las' year?"
"I guess, I mean…I don't think she care too much 'bout school. I guess I'd ask Delly but she'd bring that damn boyfrien' o' hers."
"What 'bout Peeta? Y'already got study hall with him."
Katniss clenched her jaw. "You know I can't ask him, Prim. I can't."
Prim sigh. "Okay," she said defeatedly, meandering over to the kitchen to look for food.
"So why we use pi? What's it mean?"
"Fuck if I know," Vick said, frowning at her in the rearview. "I ain't ever figured out what the hell that is."
Katniss sighed. "I give up."
"Hey, at Homecomin' next Friday, if she says anythin' 'bout me, you' tell me, right?"
"Bristel's usually sayin' she can't stand you, Vick," Prim giggled.
"It's all a cover, Primrose. She adores me and can't bear it," he laughed.
Rory rolled his eyes. "You goin', Rory?" Prim asked from the backseat.
"Nah," he said. "I'm grounded for swearin' in church."
"You sweared in church?" Prim laughed out loud.
Rory blushed. "It's his fault," he gestured at Vick. "He stomped my foot."
"Yeah, but you's the one that got caught," Vick grinned. "B'sides, I can't miss this game."
"Tha's okay, Rory. I ain't goin' either. I don't like football. Basketball looks way harder," Prim said with a little grin. Rory turned beet red.
"Holy hell, it's louder'n a pig drive out here," Katniss yelled over her cheering classmates.
"It'll only stay this loud if they win," yelled Tate.
"What?" Bristel screamed.
"Only if they win!" Delly screamed into her ear.
Katniss laughed at the ridiculousness of it all. Her eyes drifted four rows down and to her right. Peeta was sitting with Dennis and Archer Collins. In the intense stadium lights his hair glowed white.
"Holy shit, you see that?" Tate jumped up at something on the field Katniss had completely missed.
"Tate, you spillin' pop on me!" Delly scowled.
"What'd I miss?" Katniss hopped up.
"Vick just intercepted that throw," Bristel grinned. "He's gonna make MVP this year, I know it."
Katniss looked over at her with a sly smile. "You watchin' Vick, is you?"
Bristel looked back at her sharply and leaned in to drop her voice. "You tell him, I'm gonna march down there an' tell Peeta you watchin' him."
Katniss felt her face catch fire. "I won't tell no one."
"Damn straight." Bristel turned back and sipped her cocoa viciously.
The half-time show was the flag team and the band performing the same tired songs she remembered from middle school. She slipped from her seat in the pandemonium of kids and followed the concrete corridor between the sets of stadium seats. Spotting the doors on opposite sides of one another, she headed for the blue door with the words "Girls" stenciled on the front.
Washing in her hands in the sink, she looked up just in time to see Leevy walk in. Both girls froze.
Leevy finally broke the stillness. "See you finally decided to show your face here 'gain."
Katniss looked down at her hands and slowly started rubbing soap off her hands. "Hafta graduate."
"Yeah, heard about your takin' all those slow kid classes."
She ignored her and grabbed a paper towel, drying her hands with the rough paper.
"Don't think it gonna make no difference; ain't no one in your family gonna be any good at nothin'."
"Leave me alone, Leevy! Just leave me alone so I can finish this fuckin' year and graduate!" She ran for the door and yanked it open, intent on running to the parking lot to hide.
"Why? So you can get the fuck outta town like you oughtta? You shoulda left when your daddy killed hisself!"
Leevy's voice burst out of the door as Katniss' opened it, hitting the far concrete wall and echoed back to everyone and anyone standing in the corridor. She felt her throat close as eyes turned to gape at her. She rolled her forehead against the wall. She wouldn't make it before she crumbled.
She heard the door swing open when she was only a few staggering steps away.
"I'm talkin' to you, bitch!" Leevy yelled.
"Leevy!" His voice boomed out from a few feet to her right. "You shut your fuckin' mouth. It ain't been proven your daddy wasn't drunk on the job again. How you know it ain't his fault?"
Katniss rolled her head to the side to see Leevy's face turn purple with rage. She screamed "Fuck you, cripple!" at Peeta and ran back towards the field.
Katniss turned back to the wall, struggling uselessly against tears. She heard the soft thump of Peeta's cane as he moved closer to her. "C'mon," he murmured to her ear, putting his arm around her and burying her face into his shoulder. They walked out to the parking lot.
She made it halfway across the lot before she burst into wracking sobs and pulled away, hiding her face in the night. She gulped for air. She pushed Peeta away and sat down heavily on a curb between two parked cars. She rested her face on her knees and wrapped her arms around her shins to cover herself.
He moved over to the curb and sat carefully and awkwardly.
When her sobs had ebbed, he spoke. "I don' think he did it on purpose."
She spoke into her jeans. "He were drunk. Might as well be on purpose."
Peeta sat quietly for a few minutes, staring at the pavement. "You wanna get outta here?"
Her breath shuddered as she tried to control her breathing. "I ain't gotta ride."
He used his cane to help himself up and then offered her his hand. "You wanna call Bristel and tell her you leavin'?"
"Oh," she frowned, letting him help her up. "I ain't got a cell phone."
"It's okay," he said, reaching in his pocket. "I think I got her number. We did drill team freshman year, had a phone tree."
"Hey Bristel. Bristel! Bristel!" he yelled into the phone. She could hear the noise from the field pouring out of the earpiece.
"Dammit," he said, hanging up. "I'll just text her."
He finished typing and slipped his phone into his jeans pocket. "I'm right over here."
She followed him, watching him limp with his false right leg. She wondered what his parents had done to the car so he could drive. She remembered giggling in the window of the pharmacy in town, watching him a few weeks before his sixteenth birthday. He knocked over every traffic cone in the grocery store parking lot learning to parallel park. It seemed like decades ago.
He stepped over to a parking spot. She stared. "You shift with your left leg on a bike."
It was a simple motorcycle, definitely older but well cared for. It had a worn canvas pack that draped over both sides of the rear wheel and a helmet secured around the handlebars. She looked up at Peeta nervously. "I been practicin' for a month with my dad," he assured her. "He didn't let me take it out the neighborhood 'fore today." He handed her his helmet. "It'll be okay. Promise."
She held the helmet in her hand and looked up at him. "Okay," she said, pulling the helmet over her hair, clicking the plastic lock.
He climbed on and slipped his cane through his belt. He walked the bike out of the space and then waited for her.
"How'm I…your cane…"
"Oh," he said. "Sorry. Umm…" he pulled it from his belt and looked at the bike.
"Here," she said. She followed his lead, throwing her leg over the bike and settling in against him. She took the cane from his hand and slipped it through the belt loops on her jeans. She leaned forward, wrapping her arms around his waist. Her head started to spin when she tried to consider this moment.
He started the bike and they rolled out of the school parking lot.
The October air pierced her coat and she pressed herself tighter into Peeta. She pressed her nose against his shoulder blade, inhaling the smell of the detergent his mother used. The breeze tugged at her hair and strands pulled free of the braid. She opened her eyes and watched the lit windows of houses give way to fields. Dark outlines of trees whipped past her field of vision. The familiar path she traveled every day to school was different without a glass window. She felt she could reach out and touch it.
He guided the bike off the main road to the hill that led to her house. She sat up, alarmed. She tapped his ribs.
"Why?" he called back.
"Just do it!"
He downshifted and applied the front brakes cautiously, slowing to a gentle stop on the side of the road. She climbed off.
"Ain't your house a li'l further up?"
"My momma'd be mad she saw I was ridin' a bike. She don't like 'em."
Peeta nodded. "Yeah, Momma ain't likin' this too much, but Dad talked 'er into it." He looked back up at her. She thought he looked like he was waiting.
"Umm, thanks for the ride."
"No problem." He waited. "You have my cane."
"Oh, God, I'm sorry!" she flushed with embarrassment, pulling it from her belt loops behind her.
"S'okay, Kat. I didn't think you was tryin' to steal it." He gave her a small smile as he took it from her and used it to balance as he climbed off the bike and applied the kickstand.
"What're you doin'?"
"I'm gonna walk you up. It's real dark out here."
The panic returned. "You ain't gotta do that, I know the way."
"I don' mind. Missed a PT session this week with that Government test. Need the exercise."
She resolved she'd stop him at the bend of the road just before her house and the Hawthorne's house were visible. "Okay. Um. Thank you."
They started up the slight incline, listening to the night around them.
"Why'd you stop talkin' to me?"
Jet had stayed at the site for hours, talking to the investigators over and over. He'd told them he was in the john, but when they found the hours logs they found out he was at the end of sixteen hours on the job. The chief investigator finally wore him down to admit he didn't know how long he'd been in the bathroom and they figured out he'd fallen asleep. He lost his job on the spot. He came home defeated.
When he told Lily what happened, Katniss and Prim were hiding in their room, lying on the floor to press their ears to the crack under the door. Prim helped Katniss cover her mouth when Jet told Lily what had happened to Peeta when he tried to get to Kirsch.
The lawsuit made their phone ring off the hook. The attorneys for the mining company tried to pin the entire blame on Jet, but the investigators were able to conclusively prove his lost three minutes couldn't have helped anything; the stone was unstable and it could have happened at any time. He blamed himself anyway.
Lily started driving out to the warehouse store to buy food since he was too depressed or too drunk to drive most of the time. She'd take the girls with her. She didn't speak to any of her friends, even though they would try to say hello at the store. They could look in the half-filled cart and see what was happening at home.
Only Candy Mellark was still out for vengeance. After Central Mining had been forced to settle with the families, she filed the civil suit against Jet Everdeen. Lily decided to bring the girls dressed in their Sunday clothes to the first day of the trial that April. She wanted Candy to see Jet's family. Katniss sat sweating outside the courtroom, wishing she could will herself invisible. It was one of the few times she'd been out in public since she quit school.
Candy had the same idea. She had Rye come back from college in West Virginia, and he appeared at the door helping Peeta up the last few stairs on his new crutches.
He saw Katniss right away and worked his way over to her on the bench.
Lily stood up when he got close. "Peeta," she breathed. Katniss could hear she was frightened.
"This ain't me, Mrs. Everdeen," he pleaded. He looked down at Katniss on the bench. "It ain't."
"Peeta!" Candy was by his side. "You come with me now." Her voice was a growl.
Seven weeks into the hearings, Jet drove his truck into a tree three miles from their home.
She was frozen on the road. "I was afraid," she whispered.
"Why was you scared of me?"
"Because," she struggled to breathe. "You was there and you was with him and…your leg."
His face hardened and he shifted the cane in his hand. She panicked she'd hurt his feelings. "I shoulda known he was workin' too hard. I shoulda said something. I…it's my fault."
"It ain't your fault. Ain't nothing you could've done. No one could've stopped those rocks. It was the fault line." His voice was softer than she expected.
"I'm so sorry about Kirsch, Peeta."
"I know. I'm sorry 'bout your Dad. Ain't fair for nobody, is it?"
She gave him a nod. They started walking again.
"Thought you hated me or somethin'."
She gasped. "Why would I hate you?"
"Y'know," he shrugged. "All the stuff with my momma."
"Oh. Well. I don't." She paused. "Kinda thought you hated me."
"Nope," he looked over. "Don't think I could if I tried."
The night seemed warmer. The air smelled sweet from the leaves of the surrounding trees. She watched the moonlight on his swinging cane as they walked.
"How's Rye doin'?" she finally asked.
"Better. Back at school. He got a year left after this."
"He gonna come back?"
"Dunno. He studyin' business but I think after WVU he gonna get bored here."
She bit her lip. "What 'bout you?" He looked over. "You goin' to college?"
"Nah," he shrugged. "Dad's gonna need someone to help at the store. He ain't takin' care of hisself." Katniss nodded sadly. "What 'bout you?"
"I wanna join the Air Force," she said shyly.
"That's great." She didn't think he was being sarcastic.
"Yeah, gonna take the aptitude test in spring. After my grades get a little better."
"Meant t' talk t' you 'bout that." She was glad the night hid her embarrassment. "Prim said you was lookin' for study help?"
She was running through the ways to kill Prim, so it took her a minute to answer. "Um, yeah. It's just stuff from las' year, but…I missed a lot."
"I'll help you with that 'f you can run through Government with me."
"Really? I thought you was doin' real good in that class."
"Nah. I got it first period and I keep fallin' asleep. I'm doing cakes for weddin's and stuff, do 'em before school." He coughed. "Um. There's a private area back behind those tables in Study Hall so Branson won't holler at us for talkin'."
"I don't think I'm doin' that good…but…okay," The knot in her stomach tightened when he looked at her with a half-smile.
"My house is right there," she said, "thanks for walkin' me up. And for the ride. And…and…for calling out Leevy."
"Anytime." He reached forward and took her hand. "I got your back."
She was still watching him as he released her hand and walked back down the hill.
Vick was combing his hair back from his temples, trying his best to look like a greaser in the new leather bomber jacket. Katniss tried not to laugh at him while she waited for Peeta. Vick blew on the comb and tucked it sharply in the interior breast pocket of the jacket. She coughed to cover her giggle.
Peeta appeared between the racks of books and ambled over to her. "Nice coat, Vick,"
"Thanks. It's new," Vick said, stretching and acting nonchalant. Katniss stifled a laugh. "What?" Vick snapped his head back to her.
She looked up at Peeta. "He's gonna want you to ask him where he got it."
"Okay, shoot. Where'd you get it?"
Vick scowled. "Gale sent it to me from base, okay? Happy, Kat?"
"It's a gen-u-ine leather bomber jacket," she teased. "He's been talkin' 'bout it all weekend."
"Get the fuck outta here and go study."
Katniss blew Vick a sarcastic kiss and he gave her the finger as she collected her bag and followed Peeta back to the private area he'd found.
A small round table was set near the wall, surrounded by four chairs. There were a few rows of disused reference books and a cabinet with the books from the current year along the wall. A stained old carpet lay on the floor, and a potted plant that Katniss imagined Mrs. Branson talked to when she watered it.
Peeta hung his cane off the table and dropped into one of the chairs, swinging his backpack onto his lap. "What you wanna work on first?"
"English," Katniss said, seating herself across from him. She rifled through her bookbag and found the folded piece of paper. "I started my essay on Gettysburg last night."
He took the paper from her and read quietly for a few minutes. He circled a few spelling errors and handed it back to her.
"It's not bad, but you're not talking about what you thought of th' address. Jus' dates of stuff. She wants your opinion on whether a short or long speech woulda gotten a better reaction from the civilians who was tired of war. Sorta comparin' whether more or less information would be better received now n' all."
"But I don't think nothin' about Gettysburg."
"Nothin' 'bout any of it?" He raised his eyebrows at her.
"I'm thinkin' I don't like writin' this paper." She tucked her chin and smiled.
"C'mon," he said. "When else you gonna get a chance to say how you really feel? Tha's the best thing 'bout opinion papers. You're showin' them you get it and you have your own ideas."
She felt the smile on her face widen a little. "Okay," she said softly, taking the paper back and looking at the spelling while she pulled her social studies book from her backpack.
"So how long you been datin' Vick?" Peeta asked, locating his Government book to review while she wrote.
She looked up in surprise. "Vick Hawthorne? I ain't with him. I'm…umm…I'm not seein' anybody."
She glanced down. "Vick's after Bristel."
"Oh," Peeta said again, frowning. "Sorry, I guess. You's always with him, 'n all."
"He's my neighbor. Gives me n' Prim a ride to school. I was more friends with his brother Gale, truth be told. He's overseas in the Army."
"And you ain't got an opinion on war coverage?"
She blushed furiously and put her face down inches from her paper.
"He the reason you joinin' the service?" Peeta asked as he looked through his Government notes.
She thought. "I guess. Kinda. He been sending his wartime pay home to his momma. Signin' bonus bought that Cherokee." She shrugged and scratched a few lines on to her paper.
"Damn, must be good."
"Yeah," she breathed. "Was a good way to take care of his family when the insurance ran out."
Peeta read a few sentences in his book. "What you been doin'? Since the insurance run out?"
She felt her fingers freeze. She stared hard at her essay. "We doin' okay."
She could feel he was still looking at her.
"I…I sold some things we ain't needed." She buried her face and tried to figure out what she spelled incorrectly.
"Like your daddy's truck? That why you don't drive to school?"
"I need to finish this essay."
"Katniss," he leaned in close. "You need any help, you just tell me okay?"
"No." She looked up. She could feel her face burning and the skin below her eyes felt hot. "I don't need no charity." She slammed her notebook shut and shoved it into her backpack.
"Class ain't over," Peeta protested.
She stomped out to the football field to wait for the bell. She huddled on the bleachers and stewed in her shame. She tucked her face onto her knees against the cold.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean t' offend you."
She looked up. She hadn't heard the thump of his cane on the grassy field.
"Kat, I know my momma made things real hard for you, even without winnin'. Those lawyers cost her a fortune, Dad said Ma spent a lot of the money her dad left her on that damn attorney."
"It's okay," she whispered. "The life insurance paid for Dad's bill."
He watched her. "But things are okay? With your momma? I never see her at the store no more."
Katniss put her face back down on her knees. "Stop talkin' to me."
The air went silent but she could feel he wasn't moving. The bell rang. He stayed.
She finally looked up. He had sat down next to her and was watching players run onto the football field. The icy breeze pulled at his jacket.
"Do you miss runnin'?" She kept her voice soft. She didn't want him to think she was making fun of him.
"Sometimes. I've tried it a few times when I'm alone, but I always fall. I ain't got enough control over this thing."
Something told her he'd never shared this with his family. Just her.
"Vick says you whooped Levi without the leg."
Peeta scoffed quietly. "Yeah, but I was real mad. That helps a lot."
She grimaced. "I don't think I like no one in that family."
"Eh, don't worry 'bout it. Heard her momma tellin' Mom she's thinkin' 'bout selling their house and movin' back with her folks."
"God that would be heaven." He laughed.
She shook her head and put her face back down on her knees. "What's wrong?" he asked.
"I don't understand why you talkin' to me. You can't run 'cause o' my family. My daddy."
"Katniss, you know that ain't true-"
"He dragged you from the accident. If he'd a carried you, or somethin'…"
"He were inhalin' fumes, Katniss. You remember how sick the survivors was. He couldn'ta carried me he wanted to."
Katniss sniffed and rubbed her nose. "It's so weird you sittin' here. Like ain't nothin' happened between us las' year."
"Ain't nothin' did, Kat." He looked over at her. "What happened ain't between us. We're still…friends." He shrugged. She stared. "That okay?"
She smiled even though she was still tearing up. "Real okay."
"Okay then. We's friends." He held out his hand. She took it with a smile. "Need a ride home?"
"I gotta wait for Prim. Madge'll take us."
"Next time, then," he said, standing up.
"Yeah," she said. "I'd like that."
She liked that he smiled when he walked away.
"You got an A?" Prim jumped up and down.
Katniss stared at her essay on Gettysburg, reading the notes over and over again. Good points, well constructed. Watch your spelling. And in a bright red marker, "A-".
Prim poked her nose over her shoulder. "Well, I know what we gonna do with that." She snatched the paper from her sister's hands, marched over to the refrigerator and put it on the fridge with a magnet depicting the Coral Caverns.
Katniss grinned. "It ain't no fingerpainting, but that's the best early Christmas gift I got." Her hopes of getting into regular classes next semester bubbled inside her.
A knock at the door stopped the excitement. She looked at Prim sharply. "You expectin' anyone?"
Prim shook her head, her eyes wide.
"Go to the bathroom, lock the door. You hear anything, you go out the window and run to that boulder by the creek." She walked over to the door, tossed Prim her coat from the rack and waited until the bathroom lock clicked.
She opened the door to the cold December air.
"Surprise!" Madge's tear streaked face forced a big grin.
"Madge? What the hell you doin' here?" Katniss stepped out onto the porch, calling over her shoulder to Prim that it was safe.
Katniss looked down at the plastic pink suitcase Madge was dragging behind her. She had her backpack over her shoulder and a grocery bag of shoes in her left hand. Prim appeared in the crack in the doorway.
"Well, as it turn out actions do have consequences," she laughed mirthlessly. "Yours truly is knocked up."
Prim gasped. Katniss nearly choked. "Oh my God, Madge! When? Who?"
Madge sighed. "Umm. I was kinda hangin' out with this guy. You know, from the bar? Who bought me some drinks? Works at a hardware store in Harrisburg, comes up here t' see his kids and ex-wife." Madge kicked at a plank with her sneaker. "He's a lot older. A lot."
"You gettin' married?" Prim asked.
Madge laughed bitterly. "Oh God no! I tol' him and he went apeshit. Went off and changed his number. Don't even know where he lives."
Katniss sucked in a breath through her teeth. "What your grandma say?"
"That I had fifteen minutes to get my shit and get out."
Katniss glanced over her shoulder.
"I took my car," Madge said, following her gaze. "Dunno if they gonna take it back, but figure they'll at least wait until I'm at school tomorrow to repo it."
"We only got two rooms," Katniss murmured. "We got my momma's room and me and Prim's."
"I'm okay with the couch," Madge tried to laugh, but a strangled sob came out. "Please, Katniss?" Madge was whispering. "I ain't got nowhere else to go."
Katniss looked over at Prim's expression of pity. She felt her own tears rising. "Okay, Madge. Of course."
Madge dropped her shoes and backpack and flung her arms around her friend. She cried and cried. Katniss held her tight and squeezed the tears from her own eyes. She felt Prim's arms around Madge's waist between them. She spotted Vick and Hazelle looking out their front window with alarm. She waved their worries away.
"Come on in," she said.
She took Madge's suitcase while the blond girl collected the spilled shoes and backpack.
"We should tell my momma you's gonna be stayin' here."
"Okay," Madge nodded.
Katniss opened the door to her mother's room and she and Prim disappeared inside. Madge heard soft murmurs. A few minutes later, the door opened again.
Katniss walked into the living room and took Madge's suitcase. She hauled it down the hallway to Prim's room. "I'm gonna put you in my bed and take the sofa. That ain't no place for a pregnant lady. Prim, you get in here and clean up this room for Madge."
Prim hung her head. "This gonna take all day," she smiled and headed into the room as Katniss reemerged.
"Kat." Madge met her eye. "Thank you."
Katniss smiled at her. She returned to the living room and started stacking the videos on top of the VCR and shoving old hunting magazines back under the coffee table. Madge wandered into the kitchen and started shelving dishes and putting canned goods into the pantry closet.
"How far along is you?"
"I think 'bout six weeks. Maybe seven." She checked the expiration date on a bottle of mayonnaise. "It's gonna be here August."
"So…you gonna keep it?" Katniss asked cautiously.
Madge shrugged. "Doc won't do anything without my grandma or Daddy there and I ain't calling them. Guess I could give it away..." She trailed off.
"You know, it's gonna be okay either way," Katniss forced cheer into her voice. "You know if it's a boy or girl?"
"Way too soon. Don't think I wanna know."
"Well, we gots lotsa girl stuff," Katniss said, locating an old doll of Prim's under the armchair. "And Hazelle's across the street with Posy, I bet she got some girl stuff left."
"Better hope it's a girl," Madge laughed.
Katniss smiled. "What you gonna call him or her?"
"Don't know yet," Madge considered. "I always liked your and Prim's names. You know, bein' named after flowers and stuff."
Katniss laughed. "Don't you call her Katniss. I look up my name after my daddy showed me the flower when I was a kid. Hunters call it 'duck potato' for slang. Don't you name a kid Potato."
Madge laughed so hard she dropped the box of cereal she was shelving. "You was named after a potato?"
They were both on the floor laughing when Prim came in with a basket of laundry.
"Why you laughin' about it?"
"I was just tellin' her 'bout my name."
"Oh, how you's named after a potato?"
Madge and Katniss laughed until they cried.
"I like Mason," Rory said.
"Nah, makes me think o' them Shriners. What about Steel?" Madge chewed on her thumbnail.
"Sounds like a cartoon character," Prim wrinkled her nose.
"Or a porn star," Bristel snickered.
"Thanks, Bristel." Madge rolled her eyes. She pulled her coat tighter against the early winter cold.
"What about Hyacinth?" Katniss looked up for the book of flowers she'd taken from the library.
"Hyacinth means sorrow," Prim shook her head. "Don't call your baby that."
"Oooh, foxglove! Name the baby Foxglove," Britsel said, leaning over Katniss' shoulder.
"Boy or girl?" Madge asked.
"Either sounds good," said Vick, winking at Bristel. She scowled.
The middle school bell rang. "See you later!" Prim called as she ran off to her school.
Vick and Rory started arguing about the latest sports rival and Bristel rolled her eyes and went off to beg a cigarette from some of the cheerleaders.
Katniss sat down on the frozen bricks on the low wall outside the school next to Madge. "Oh, hey we're outta toilet paper so we should go to Lucky's after school," Madge commented.
Katniss looked up to make sure no one was looking. She leaned in close. "D'you think we can use the table napkins for a while? There ain't much left and the 'lectric bill gonna be due next week." She whispered. "Just 'til I see how much we owe."
Madge looked at her and nodded. She'd only lived with them for four weeks but it had been evident immediately things were hard. She'd gotten used to using bar soap on her blond curls and boiling water for a bath. Katniss had explained that due to the nature of the accident it took a long time for the life insurance to agree to pay out and they'd run through nearly all their savings trying to stay afloat. Her mother had been too sick to work anyway, so it was all a waiting game.
"I'm gonna try to sell my bike," she said. "Shoulda listed it sooner; Christmas right around the corner n' all, but I still been usin' it."
"D'ya think I should sell my car?" Madge whispered. "I don't think he's gonna take it. I'm not sure Gran even called him."
"Title's in your daddy's name," Katniss shook her head. "Couldn't do it without him. 'Sides, we do need a car." She leaned in to Madge's ear. "And you gotta get to all those clinic appointments."
The bell rang. Madge waited until most everyone else had gone in before standing. "I'm so sorry, Kat. I know it ain't helpful having 'nother mouth to feed."
"Don't be like that, Madge," Katniss said, lifting her backpack on her shoulder. "You help me clean n' cook n' take care of Momma. It's a great help and I'm grateful you's there."
Madge smiled. "Hey, look, there's Peeta." She cocked her head to the side, impressed. "When'd he get a bike?"
Katniss put on her best smug face. "Oh, that? Yeah, he gave me a ride back at Homecomin'." She grinned as Madge turned to her with a look of pleased shock.
"Oh, you ridin' around on a motorcycle with a boy, is you?"
Katniss stifled a giggle. "It was jus' a ride home. Leevy was bein' a bitch and I had to get outta there."
"Mmmm-hmmm," Madge clucked.
Peeta locked the front wheel against the streetlamp post just off the sidewalk. He pulled his cane from his belt and moved over to them as the warning bell rang.
"Stuck at the store?" Madge asked.
"Yeah," Peeta said, moving quickly on the cane. "All these holiday orders come in over the weekend. Seem like ain't no one makin' their own pie this Thanksgivin'. I got thirty to do. Think I'm gonna hafta stay home day b'fore."
"Wow, you doin' it all yourself?"
"Jus' me and Dad and Ma until Rye gets back for winter break. Then he's gone again. Winter's never been easy. All the snow keeps people in town, gets 'em all in the store. Always miss a lotta school."
"I can bring you your assignments," Katniss offered, opening the door for Peeta and Madge. "I'm taking better notes these days."
"Yeah, a little birdy tol' me," he grinned, "you comin' back to our classes in spring semester."
She blushed. "Ummm, maybe. Prob'ly. My mid-terms went real well n' all." She glanced up. "And I got a real good tutor."
His ears flushed red.
The final bell rang. "Oh shit!" Katniss said. "Gotta go! See you later, okay?" She took off running.
"The day I see Katniss worried 'bout gettin' to class on time," Madge grinned. She turned to Peeta. "So. I need a favor."
"I got a job."
"I'm gonna quit school and go work for Peeta's dad for the holidays."
Katniss stared. "What?"
"Katniss, I'm knocked up. I need a damn job to pay for this baby. I ain't gonna go to college, I don't need to finish high school. I need a job."
"Madge, you gotta finish high school," Prim insisted.
"Prim, this baby ain't goin' be cheap. I can't live here forever."
"Yes you can."
"Katniss, will you please knock some sense into your sister?"
"You're going to work for Durum?"
"Remember? Peeta's telling us all about how much work there's to do in winter but he's gotta go to school. Well, I'll stay and help. He's gonna teach me how to do th' cakes, I don' think I can do what Peeta does, but I can do th' rest of it so he got less to do."
"Madge, you should go to school," Katniss said.
Madge sighed. "I should. I want to graduate. I don't wanna be no dropout. But I'm pregnant," she said dismally. "I gotta face this kid's gonna hafta come first. I, um, I wanna keep it." Katniss and Prim exchanged a worried glance. "I wanna love it." She paused. "C'mon. You know we need the money."
Katniss stared hard at the coffee table. "I don't want you to quit school 'cause of me."
Madge rolled her eyes. "Unless you the one who knocked me up n' split, this ain't your fault. Stop blamin' yourself for stuff that ain't your fault."
Prim looked up at Katniss. "Maybe…it would help."
Katniss looked over at her, then Madge. "But I'm bringing home the assignments so you can study n' get your GED."
"Ugh," Madge made a face. "Fine."
"Well, okay then."
"Gale's back!" Prim ran through the house screaming.
"Wha?" Katniss woke up from her nap on the sofa. Prim jumped on the arm of the sofa.
"He's on leave, he's here for two weeks!"
"Stop yellin'! I'm comin'!" Katniss was up, trying to pull her boots and coat on simultaneously. She didn't lace them as she ran outside without her coat, following Prim across the short driveway. She could hear Hazelle's tears and Posy's shouts from their front porch.
Rory opened the door before Prim could knock. She ran in.
Katniss saw him. She felt the joyful tears leaking from her eyes. He looked like himself, but older. A patch of gray hair had sprouted above his left ear. His uniform was sharp and exact. She stood on the threshold and wept.
He turned around, releasing his mother from his embrace. "Kat."
She ran over and jumped into his arms, holding as tight as she could while she cried. "I'm so glad you're home," she sobbed.
He let her go and grinned at her. "Shit you got tall. And holy hell, Prim, you're like a weed!" He picked up Prim and swung her legs as he hugged her.
Hazelle was crying too much, so Vick sat his mother down in the living room. Gale promised Katniss and Prim he'd come over as soon as she calmed down.
They waited anxiously in the living room for him, straightening magazines and couch cushions for over an hour. He finally came over with the apology that he'd have to go home soon; Hazelle wanted to spend the evening with him.
Katniss hugged him again. "I've missed you so much. We was so worried 'bout you all the time."
"It's okay, Kat," he said, rubbing his five o'clock shadow. "I been doin' equipment inventory, with the trucks and stuff. I don' leave the base too much. Just when…" he looked away, "somethin' happen. To one o' the cars."
Prim and Katniss sat quietly for a moment trying to find the words to continue.
He turned back to Katniss. "How's your momma doin'?"
"Better," she said. "She ain't herself, but she's eatin' and sittin' up." She saw Gale's fallen expression. "Hey, don' worry. We pullin' through. She's gonna be okay."
A car door slamming out front brought their eyes to the front door. Gale sat up straight. "You expectin' someone?" he asked.
"Tha's prob'ly Madge. She's livin' with us," Prim told him.
"Madge Undersee? What's she doin' out here?"
Madge opened the door. "Oh!" Her eyes were wide when she spotted Gale on the couch next to Katniss. She brought her hands across her midsection instinctively. "Sorry, didn't know we was havin' company." She pulled her coat closed.
"Hey," Gale said, standing up and crossing to her. "Gale Hawthorne. Dunno if you 'member me from school. Been awhile."
"Yeah, course I do!" Madge said. "I came to your basketball and cross country meets with Kat," she smiled.
"Yeah," Gale nodded with a smile slipping onto his face. "So you living here now?"
Madge nodded. "Yeah, things ain't so good at home with…" she glanced down "…a little one on the way." She finally shrugged off her coat and hung it on the post by the door.
"Oh," Gale said, quickly glancing down at her still-flat stomach. "Um. Sorry 'bout that?" he said uncertainly.
"Gale's home for leave for the holidays," Katniss said.
"Yeah," he said, finally looking away from Madge. "Really lucky I could get Christmas." He turned around and looked at Katniss. "You comin' over for our make-up Thanksgivin'? We're gonna do it this weekend."
"To your house?" Katniss looked up.
"Well we ain't eatin' outside," he grinned. "We can move the sofa and bring in the card table."
"That would be nice!" Katniss smiled. "Oh…what about Momma?"
Prim furrowed her brow. "Maybe you guys can come over here?"
"I can stay with her," Madge said.
"Oh, I meant…you come over too," Gale said awkwardly.
"Oh!" Madge blushed. "Okay. I mean. If that's okay."
"Well," Katniss thought about it. "Maybe if I make her a plate and then we can have dessert over here with her."
"Perfect!" Gale said. "Well…I gotta get back. Ma's goin' crazy with me bein' more 'n ten feet away. I'll see you guys tomorrow after you's done with school."
He stepped out the door with a quick wave to Madge.
Madge closed the door after him and fanned herself with her hand. "I forgot how hot he was."
Katniss waited in the car outside Mellarks' Grocery, slouching in the seat and trying to see Madge through the plate glass window. The store wasn't very big but she couldn't see her when she rounded the end-cap. She pressed her nose to the glass, staring as hard as she could.
The tap made her jump and scream. She looked across at the driver's side window. Peeta was giving her a very puzzled expression under his knit cap. A brown paper bag from the bar was under his arm.
"What're you doin'?" His voice was muffled through the glass.
She climbed over the gear shift and rolled down the window.
"Waiting for Madge. She gettin' some stuff for Thanksgiving."
He eyed her. "It's December 19th."
"Oh," she laughed, "Gale's home on leave, so we doin' a make-up."
"Why don't you come in?"
She stopped smiling. "I…I don't think…"
"Ma's in Frederick 'til tomorrow. Dad and me're running the store today. Come inside." He started to walk away before she could refuse.
She caught up with him with a quick jog, squeezing the keys hard in her hand until it hurt. The door chime made her stomach drop. The till was unmanned; she guessed Durum must be in the backroom while Madge could watch for customers.
"Hey Madge, you in here?" Peeta shouted at the air.
"Yeah," her voice called from the frozen food case.
"You see Dad back there, tell him I got the ones." He leaned over the single checkout counter and tapped a code into the cash register. The drawer slid open and he pulled a stack of ones from the bag. "When th' bank's closed I get change from th' bar," he offered as she watched. "So what you need?" He looked at her, handing her a basket.
"Just some bread and ummm-"
"I thought you wasn't comin' in?" Madge appeared carrying a long loaf of soft bread wrapped in paper. She didn't wait for Katniss to answer. "Hey, Peet, you make this batch?"
"If it's from this mornin', yeah."
"Good," she said emphatically. "Kat, you gotta try this. He makes the best bread ever."
"I'm okay," he shrugged. "Ain't like my dad yet, but I'm gettin' there."
"You need anythin' else?
"Well…" Katniss stared at the floor. "You don't got any pumpkin pies left do you?"
"Nah," he said. "But I'll make you one."
"Oh no, you don't have to do that."
"That would be awesome!" Madge grinned.
"Madge!" Katniss punched her softly in the arm.
"Kat, I'm tellin' you you've gotta try his cookin'. He knows what he's doin'."
"But it's too much trouble."
"No it' ain't," Peeta shrugged. "Made a few extra pie crusts this morning for Christmas orders."
"It's too much," she insisted.
"Take it, Kat. Seriously," Madge said, elbowing her. She and Peeta watched her sputter until she finally conceded.
"Okay," she sighed.
"Good," Peeta said. "I don't know 'f we got any turkeys left, you need one?"
"Oh, no," Katniss smiled. "Got a wild one."
He looked at her surprised. She grinned. "You hunt?" She nodded, biting her bottom lip. "That's really cool."
"Peeta?" Durum was carrying a case of soda from the backroom when he spotted them. He had to blink a few times before he was sure he was seeing correctly. "Katniss."
She nodded, but could feel her panic rising. "Hello, hi." She looked at the bread. "Um, how much I owe you?" she asked, scrambling for her wallet in her jeans.
"Don't worry 'bout it," Peeta said.
"I can't," she said, fumbling with the velcroed nylon.
"Take it for a Christmas gift," he said, covering her shaking hands with his. "Stop by in 'bout an hour. I'll have the pie done."
Madge thanked him while Katniss stuttered and stammered. She dragged her out of the store by the arm and waved goodbye to Durum, saying she'd see him on Monday when she worked next.
She pried the keys from Katniss' clenched hands at the car and opened the doors. Madge climbed in the driver's side and rested the bread on the seat between them. Katniss got in, slamming the door and tightening the seat belt until she couldn't breathe.
Madge started the car and eased out of the parking lot. "You okay?"
"Yeah," she said, breathing hard.
Madge dropped her off at the Hawthorne's so she could return for the pie alone, promising Katniss she wouldn't smoke on the way back. Just to be sure, Katniss made sure she snuck her lighter from the console before Madge drove away.
She checked on her mother and walked across the street.
Gale was sitting on the porch, his coat pulled up around his ears. "Hey," Gale said.
"Hey," she said, sitting down next to him. He reached over and tore a chunk off the loaf of bread in her arm and popped it in his mouth.
"That's for dinner!"
"I'm hungry now," he chewed. "Ain't been allowed to eat since breakfast."
"What're you doin' out here?"
"Little…hectic in there. Sometimes just…need to decompress," he said. "Huntin' this mornin' was good."
"Yeah," she smiled. "Ain't done that in a long while."
He gestured towards the bag in her lap. "This is good, where'd you get it?"
"Mellark's," she said, looking at the torn bread. "Peeta's makin' their breads and cakes."
"You guys talkin'?"
"Yeah," she said. "He, um, been tutorin' me, actually. So I can get out o' remedial classes in spring semester."
He watched her. "That's real good, Kat. I'm glad to hear that."
"Yeah." She smiled at the loaf. "He been real kind 'bout all this."
They watched the last few dead leaves flutter down from the trees in the winter air. "Madge comin' back?"
"She just ran t' get the pie. Peeta said he gonna bake one special for our Thanksgivin."
Gale whistled between his two front teeth. "Hunh."
"You shut up. You the one askin' after Madge."
"Okay, okay." He leaned over to nudge her with his shoulder. "Hey. Who's the father?"
"Some guy from outta town. Ex-wife and kids. Ditched her and changed his number."
"She's okay. I know she dress all weird with those swear sneakers and always colorin' her nails black with a marker, but she's all right."
"I know. I wouldn't let her stay with Prim I didn't think so."
"Yeah." Gale looked at his boots. "Kat. You wanna think about this Air Force thing."
She looked over at him. "What?"
"I know I tol' you all 'bout the signing bonus, and it's paying for my Momma and family t' live here, but…Kat," he shook his head. "You see things. You can't unsee."
She stared at him. She could see how different he was. He met her eyes.
"I know you wanna take care your family, and if you wanna do this you do it, but you gotta know you ain't gonna be the same person who comes home to Primrose."
"Gale," she whispered.
"I know," he said. "It's just." He sighed. "Few weeks ago one o' the trucks hit an IED on the road. Had to go…get the parts of the truck back." He took a shuddering breath. "Got there when they was collectin' the bodies."
"Oh God, Gale." She put a hand on his arm. He put his hand over hers and gripped it.
"S'okay. Part of the job. Just. I knew those guys. That morning…" He looked at her with red eyes. "You gotta be ready."
She nodded. She moved the bread to the rocking chair on the porch behind them and leaned it to hug him. He held her tight. "I can't wait until this summer," he whispered into her shoulder. "I just wanna be home."
"We want you home."
"Gale! You out there?"
Gale pulled back and called over his shoulder. "Yeah!"
The door swung up and Rory's face was at the screen. "Momma needs you to hold the pan while she bastes the turkey."
"Why ain't you doin' it?"
"I'm playin' checkers with Prim," he snorted, leaving the door open and walking away.
Gale turned back to Katniss. "He been this annoying all year?"
"Yep. 'Specially 'bout her," Katniss grinned, standing up and swiping the bread from the rocking chair. Gale sighed and stood up with her. They went inside.
She had been excited all morning getting ready for school, but walking down the hall to the standard World Civilizations class room brought back the fear. She'd be seeing her peers again.
She ducked her head when she walked into the room, trying not to meet anyone's eye. She snuck a look to see where seats were available. She crossed to the fourth row of chairs and headed to the back of the room, sliding into the connected desk and chair and letting her pack fall to the floor with a soft thud. She focused on pulling out her notebook and textbook. She snuck glances around the room. A few people looked back, but most were talking amongst themselves.
She was drawing a tree over the back cover of her notebook waiting for the bell when she heard someone sit down in the last chair of the fifth row across from her.
"How was your Christmas?" Peeta asked, looking through his backpack for a pen.
She looked around. People were watching them now. "It was good," she said. "Madge knows some really filthy Christmas carols." He chuckled quietly. "Hey, where's your cane?"
"Tryin' to go without it," he said. "Therapist says I'm gettin' stronger, should be able to go half a day on my own."
"That's great, Peeta." She smiled. "Hey, I didn't see you before, but thank you so much for the bread and the pie. They was really good. Ev'ryone really liked them."
"Good," he smiled back. "Hey, let Madge know we're prob'ly gonna need some overtime help around Valentine's Day. Definitely Easter."
"That's real good news," she said before stopping the eagerness in her voice. Peeta eyed her and she looked back to her book.
Mr. Faulkner smacked his ruler on the chalkboard to get their attention.
Madge stood next to Katniss at the counter while the teller counted out the bills. "Four sixty, four eighty, five hundred."
She stared at the pawnbroker as he took her mother's wedding ring and her grandmother's watch off the tiny scale and walked them to the cleaning station.
"You okay?" Madge whispered, rubbing her back. Her belly pressed against Katniss' elbow.
"Yeah," she whispered, folding the money and shoving it into her jeans' pocket. "Let's go."
"Wait," Madge said. "Hey! How much for these?" She rummaged in her purse and found the plastic baggie she was looking for. "They're quarter-carat," she told the teller as he came back to the counter.
"Madge, don't sell those," Katniss pleaded with her. "They's the only thing from your momma you have."
"Kat, she ain't called in three months. I don't need a reminder o' that."
The teller looked at the earrings carefully and thoroughly. "One hundred."
"Two." Madge said firmly. "They's flawless."
"Done." She held out her hand and waited as he counted out bills. Katniss watched sadly. "Oh, Kat, stop. You know we need this more'n earrings."
Katniss sighed as Madge tucked the money into her purse and they walked outside. "When Durum gonna need you for Valentine's Day?"
"This weekend. 'Parrently Peeta's got a science project due and those giant cookie-cake orders are comin' in already." Madge unlocked the car doors and climbed inside. She settled behind the seat and looked down. "Damn."
"You're gonna hafta start drivin' soon. Look at this belly."
Katniss looked at the narrowing gap between Madge's stomach and the steering wheel. "You got some time."
"Not so much," her friend murmured.
"Um. We need to start talkin' 'bout gettin' some baby things," Katniss said quietly. "You gonna need a crib. And a changin' table."
"With what money?" Madge asked. She was hovering between bitterness and panic. "We jus' got enough for food and lights. If there weren't a pump in the backyard we wouldn't have water."
Katniss sat mute in the passenger seat as Madge started up the car. They drove down Elm Street and turned onto Third Avenue to get out to the road home. She watched the men smoking outside the bar eye them both as they drove by.
"How did you do it?"
"With the guys at the bar? What did you say to…let them know you…was lookin'?"
Madge looked at her sharply. "Why?"
"We only got enough for food and lights for the next month. If we only turn on one light at a time and cook all the meals at once."
Madge jerked the wheel and pulled over on the side of the road. She shifted in her seat. "Katniss Everdeen, I catch you doin' what I did I will hit you so hard you gonna wake up next week."
"Madge, what the hell we gonna do? Ain't no insurance left! You can't work much longer and Prim's gotta go to school!"
Madge reached across the seat and grabbed Katniss' neckline under her coat. "No!"
"We figure somethin' else out. Got it?" She gripped her shirt tighter.
Katniss nodded unconvinced and Madge released her with a little shove back into her seat. She settled back into the driver's seat and pulled the car back into the lane.
"Maybe you hunt for food? We stop buying meat?" Madge asked thoughtfully after a few minutes of tense silence.
"Tha's just food. Not toilet paper or books for Prim."
"It's a start, Kat. We'll start there."
"Happy Valentine's Day!" Madge grinned and plopped the white paper bag on the table. "Whew. Can't imagine what eight hours on my feet's gonna be in two months," she said, rubbing her back. The bump was growing more visible through her coat.
"What's this?" Prim said, opening the bag and sticking her nose in the opening. "It smells like heaven!"
"Cookies. From Peeta," Madge grinned.
Prim upended the bag onto her empty dinner plate. She squealed with excitement. They'd been eating nearly only meat and canned vegetables for two weeks. The heart-shaped vanilla cookies piled up in front of her, frosted neatly with pink and red frosting. Katniss' eyes bugged as she gawked.
"Oh my God! All these are leftover? I thought you got tons of pre-orders," she asked, picking up a red cookie and inhaling the sugary aroma.
Prim had stuffed a pink cookie in her mouth whole. "Mfffhhwefff."
"These weren't leftover," Madge smiled, looking at Katniss secretively. "When I was leavin', he gave me this bag. Said it was for you."
Katniss stared at the cookie. She tentatively brought the cookie to her mouth and let it rest on her tongue, the butter dissolving on her tastebuds. She bit down on the cookie and sighed at its perfection.
"I know!" Madge grinned, taking a cookie from the plate. "He's real good."
"So you done workin' for now?" Prim asked Madge, breaking a cookie in half and putting both halves in her mouth.
"Yeah," Madge said, eyeing Katniss before looking back to Prim. "'Til Easter anyway. Rye's spring break don't start until the Friday b'fore, so Durum gonna need me."
"Darn. I hate to wait until March for more cookies," Prim smiled with her mouth still full.
"Can't believe he gave us all these. Gotta be two dozen here," Katniss said quietly, taking another bite.
"Eh, I think he knows girls like lovey stuff. Made his momma a little cake."
"Madge," Katniss cleared her throat. "She ever…say anything? 'Bout me? I mean, I was there…"
Madge paused. "Well, I ain't told 'em I live here. I think Peeta 'spects I don't live at home, but he ain't asked. Durum n' Candy got no idea anyway. She…well, she don't talk much. I don't think she do too much in the store, mostly the business stuff an' orderin'."
Katniss held her eye.
"Um, yeah." Madge took another cookie. "She talk about the lawyers she's callin'. She talk about how her son ain't got no future now, but really you ask me he so good at all these cookies and bread and what so I don't see-"
"Madge, it's okay," Katniss said quietly, looking at the plate.
Prim looked over at Katniss. "Madge," she asked, "what do Durum say?"
"He don't wanna help her." Madge looked over at Katniss. "He says it ain't fair, you lost your daddy too. They fight a lot. Me n' Peeta hear 'em when they in the storage room," she added quietly. "Peeta don't talk 'bout that."
The conversation lapsed.
"I'm gonna take Momma a cookie," Katniss said.
She knocked quietly on the door then pushed it open. She could hear Prim and Madge whispering when she closed the door behind her. The nightlight was on, but she clicked on the bedside table lamp.
"Look Momma," she said softly. "It's Valentine's Day."
She put the cookie on the bedside table to haul her mother up to a seated position. After the pillows were tucked behind her, she picked the cookie up and crawled over her mother to sit next to her. She gently brushed the cookie against her mother's lips, and she opened them and took a bite.
"Remember how Daddy used to bring you pink roses every Valentine's Day? And the year that the florist ran outta pink? He spray painted the white roses to make 'em pink?" She laughed and gave her mother another bite. "You was so mad, he got spray paint all over the fence where he propped up them flowers. He just laughed and laughed th' madder you got. Then you started laughin' too." Katniss smiled to herself. "I bet he still thinks 'bout that all in Heaven. I bet he watches you all the time, just thinkin' 'bout how much he loves you."
She gave her the last bite of cookie. She breathed deeply. "Momma, I was wondering 'bout the Air Force. I'm gonna be eighteen in May 'n all, but um," she bit her lip. "Gale's thinkin' I shouldn't. Told me some things. It ain't so good over there. Maybe I get a desk job, but says most likely gonna do security services. I just," she struggled, "wanna take care y'all, but Gale's not the same anymore. The noise with his family n'all, spent a lotta time outside with me or in the woods. I don't wanna not be 'round Prim anymore, Ma." She stared at her shoes. "What do I do?"
She heard the TV start up in the living room. Prim was telling Madge the plot of the soap story she was rewatching for the fifth time.
She smiled. "It'll be okay. I'll be okay. I gotta take care of her, right? We stick together." She looked to her mother and gave her a kiss on the cheek. "I'll come back to tuck you in a little later."
She climbed off the bed and headed to the door. "Happy Valentine's Day. I love you." She turned around before she left. "Momma? I think Peeta…I think I." She stopped. "Nevermind. See you later."
In March hunting season opened on deer. When the population dropped, Katniss taught a very reluctant Madge to clean and gut squirrel meat. A record rainfall arrived in the second week and the roof started to leak. They left teacups around the living room to catch the drips.
Madge started at the grocery store four days a week to get ready for Easter orders, but the income wasn't enough to buy roofing materials. Instead they found a crib and changing table at Goodwill and bought a gallon of bleach to clean them in the yard. Hazelle called from her clothesline she would pack up Posy's toys that afternoon.
Madge scrubbed the plastic changing pad hard with an old rag.
"I'm gonna go to town."
Madge looked over at her. "Why?"
Katniss didn't answer for a while. "Need to fix the roof. Can do it myself but we already can't pay the electric bill. Ain't got nothin' left to sell."
Madge stopped cleaning the frame of the table and stared hard at the cabinet. "I'm gonna move back with my grandma."
"I'm puttin' you in this spot, Kat. You and Prim stretching a dollar 'cause o' me and this baby. I go, you'll have more to go 'round."
Katniss stood up from wiping the crib legs and took Madge's hand. "I needed your help. I still do. You's around durin' the day to watch Ma and you brining' in money with your job."
"We wouldn'ta made it this far without you, Madge."
"But Kat," Madge said miserably. "I don't want you to do this."
"I know," she whispered back. She hugged Madge. "But you know she'd make you give it away. And Prim would kill me I let that baby go."
Madge sniffed miserably. "I wish I could go instead."
Katniss gave her another squeeze and let her go. "Don't tell Prim, okay?"
The Friday afternoon before Easter break was a pointless time to try to teach, so nearly all classes had a video or filmstrip planned. Sitting in first, Peeta nudged her foot and tossed a piece of folded notepaper onto her desk when Faulkner struggled to plug in the projector.
She unfolded the paper and squinted in the dim light. Wanna ditch seventh? She looked over at him. He glanced over. She smiled and nodded. He mouthed "library" then turned back to the board.
She hid in the bathroom outside the library at the bell for seventh then crept through the racks keeping an eye out for Branson. She heard the new study hall class making a commotion and laughing in the back and relaxed. Branson was probably asleep in the teachers' lounge.
She walked back to their old private study table and sat down. She ran her hand across the dented soft wood. She smiled to herself.
Last year she'd run from the school. Six months ago she'd been afraid to talk to him. Four months ago he started tutoring her. Now they were going to ditch class together. She breathed deeply. Nothing could ease her mind about what she was going to do Saturday, but today could be hers and Peeta's.
She heard his footsteps. She looked up with a smile. His grin met hers. He wasn't using a cane. "Let's go," he said.
She followed him out into the hallway. They laughed as they ducked around pillars and checked down hallways. She made a gun with her fingers and did her best Charlie's Angels impression to make him laugh. When they got out into the parking lot via the side door by the band hall, she jumped down the steps and turned to beam at him as he moved easily down them.
"Where'r we going?"
"Anywhere," he smiled. "Where you wanna go?"
She thought for a while. The sun was shining and there was a warmth in the breeze on that damp afternoon. "Do you know how to get to Ashland?"
"The place with the fire?"
"I think I been out there once, but I don't know to get there."
"I do," she said. "Will you take me?"
She wrapped her arms around his waist on the bike and squeezed. She pressed her body into his as he pulled out of the parking lot.
The wind blew her hair out under the helmet and she sighed a happy little sigh. The sun was shining.
"Turn here!" she called into his ear and he guided the bike off the highway onto the broken road. "Here," she called again a short while later and he steered away from town to the surrounding hills.
He pulled over when she patted his ribs.
"Come on," she said, throwing her leg off the bike and dismounting. "I wanna show you somethin'."
He dropped the kickstand on the bike and climbed off to follow her.
They walked over broken rocks and grassy patches up a short hill. "Right over here," she said.
The boulder was set on the top of the hill. She climbed on top and he skirted the bottom to find the easiest slope up. She held out her hands, but he tried to do it without her. When he slipped she saw his face turned red. He reluctantly accepted her hand. When he pulled on her, she slid towards him. He looked horrified, but she giggled as she was nearly underneath him.
They settled onto the top of the rock and stared out over the hills. Smoke was still rising from vents in the ground below in the shallow valley.
"It been burnin' this long?" Peeta asked.
"Yeah. Fifty years n' some," Katniss said.
"Why you come out here?" He shifted to face her.
She looked around at him, then the valley. "It's um…peaceful. I can be alone here." She looked over at him. "Well, sorta alone," she smiled sheepishly.
He smiled. He turned around and looked behind them. "Look at that."
She turned. The hill behind them dipped down and she could see the county stretching out behind them. "It's a good spot," was all the she could think to say.
"Why you wanna be alone?"
She didn't answer. "It's nothin' bad," he said. "I like bein' alone too. 'Specially after…" he stopped.
"After you lost your leg?" she asked softly.
"Yeah," he answered. "People starin' and feelin' sorry for me. Like I'm different and that's bad or somethin'."
"Same thing. I like bein' alone 'cause people treat me diff'rent." They let a pause grow between them. "Heard about Leslie Addison. That was a shitty thing for her t' do."
"Eh, truth be told didn't think that was gonna work out anyway."
"Yeah. Kinda prissy," he grinned.
She laughed. "Out here?"
"She from the city. I think she moved back to Wilkes-Barre or something."
"Well. You deserve better." She blushed when she said it.
"Really?" She heard a little teasing in his voice.
"Yeah," she whispered. She looked down at the rock hoping he couldn't see the bright red on her face.
She laid down on the rock and stared up at the sky. "That cloud looks like an anchor."
He squinted at the sky. "Nuh-unh."
She elbowed his hip. He laid down. They argued about clouds for most of the afternoon.
When he dropped her off that evening the stars were beginning to appear in the fading light. He shifted to first and rolled off the main route onto a bouncy dirt path. She pulled her head from his shoulder blades and looked around. Just before the trees grew thick, he slowed to a stop.
"Look," he whispered, pointing up.
She tilted her face to the sky. A streak of light whisked across the sky above them.
"Make a wish," he whispered.
She looked around his shoulder at him. She leaned forward and kissed him. His mouth was soft and warm. She smelled vanilla and pineapple on his skin. She moved away. "Don't need to," she smiled. She climbed off the bike and handed him back the helmet, shaking her hair loose from it.
He was smiling when he took it from her. "I'll see you Easter? At church?" She saw the eager little boy waving at her when his mother turned around for a minute in her memory.
"Yeah," she whispered. Tomorrow night's task had rushed back to her mind.
"Good," he said. "Um."
She stood awkwardly, not knowing what to say. "Can't wait." She immediately regretted sounding so foolish.
"Yeah," he smiled at the handlebars.
She gave him a little wave and started walking up the hill to her house.
"Kat! Wait!" She turned around. He was hurrying as fast as he could without running.
"What?" she asked.
He reached her. "This." He wrapped his hands around her shoulders and pulled her closer. Their mouths met eagerly and she joined her hands behind his back.
She pulled back, embarrassed at herself. She grinned shyly. "I should go."
"See you tomorrow. "He turned around and walked down the hill.
She got back to the house and into the bathroom before she remembered her plans for the next night. She put the water in pots on the stove to boil and hung the largest one on the makeshift spit over the fire to boil. She held down the tears until the water was in the tub. She sunk beneath the water to sob.
Madge led the car up to the parking lot behind the bar. She had been silent the whole ride, but when she shifted the car into park and cut the engine she turned to Katniss with intention.
"Let's go home."
"No," Katniss said, turning to open the door. Madge locked the doors. "Madge!" She turned sharply. She didn't need to fight about this anymore.
Prim had woken up at the noise of Madge closing the bedroom door. She was rubbing her eyes when she came out into the living room and saw Katniss zipping up Madge's corset tank top over her bra. She had cut up her ripped summer jeans into shorts that were nearly a skirt and borrowed their mother's black heels and was coating her lips with the berry colored lipstick.
Katniss saw her look of horror and yelled for her to go back to their room. Prim started screaming so she had grabbed her coat and run Madge out the door. Prim chased the car for a few yards before they got away from her.
Katniss cried for fifteen minutes into the ride then forced herself to stop and fix her makeup in the visor mirror. Madge had whispered, "We can't do this" over and over the entire ride. Now she locked the doors and started again.
"What if Prim goes to Hazelle?"Madge challenged.
"She won't," Katniss said. "She wouldn't do that to us." She manually unlocked the door. Madge locked it again.
Katniss turned to her in her seat. "Madge."
Madge started to cry. Katniss leaned over and put her arm around her shoulder. "It'll just be a few hours. You drive home, put Prim to bed, come back n' get me at 2, okay?" She pulled back and squeezed Madge's shoulder. "In this same parking lot, ok?"
"You have Darius call me you need me," Madge hiccupped. "I'll come get you. Anywhere. You just call me!"
"I will," Katniss said. She unlocked the door and stepped out into the chilly night. She slipped her jacket off and tossed it in the backseat. "Two am, ok?"
"Okay," Madge mouthed.
Katniss tried to think of anything to say, but decided against it. She slammed the door and turned away.
She walked around the corner of the bar and tripped on the cracked sidewalk. She hadn't worn heels since she went to a 4-H ribbon winner reception at the mayor's house. She looked down at the tank top that she had tied tightly to give herself cleavage. The ragged strings of her ruined shorts hanging down, tickling her legs. She ran her finger outside her lips. It came away with thin streaks of berry. She fought the fear. She counted to ten, counted the bills on the desk, counted the leaks in the ceiling, counted the days until she turned eighteen and pushed open the door to the bar.
It was dark. It took a minute for her eyes to adjust.
The bar was not full, but the clientele was those who would not be home with families the night before Easter. It was near midnight and the bottles were running low on the tables. She could make out a dozen or more figures in the dim light. Widowed farmers she recognized. Men in trucker hats that were passing through. The odd businessman from town that was divorced and didn't get the kids this holiday.
A few eyes found her and dropped to her chest. She curled her chest in self-consciously. She slunk over to the bar and tried to remember how to flirt. Darius came over to her and his expression spoke volumes.
"Hey, Kat," he forced out, a troubled look on his face.
"Can I have a drink?" she asked quietly.
"Anything." She shook her head. "I dunno. I only ever tried peach schnapps."
He smiled at her. He turned away for a moment and returned with a pale orange drink. "Schanpps and orange juice. Called a fuzzy n-n-navel. Won't make you f-feel sssick,"
"Thanks," she muttered. He slid away when he got called away to refill a whisky.
She looked around. A few eyes lingered on her. She didn't know what to do. She looked up and made eye contact with the man closest to her. She didn't recognize him. He was probably in his fifties. Maybe forties if he'd had a hard life. His shoulders were big and his arms thick, but he had a rotund belly. Hair poked out of the neckline of his greasy tee shirt. She swallowed hard. She grew frightened. If things went wrong most of these people could easily kill her.
Her eyes moved to a leering and obviously drunk businessman two barstools down from her. He openly stared at her thighs. She looked at his loose necktie and the spilled scotch on the bartop surrounding his glass. A thin sheen of sweat stood out above his lip. She wondered if she should turn her hips toward him.
She gripped her glass and drank a large gulp. She closed her eyes and breathed hard to fight the resistance to turn to the drunk and offer her body. She didn't have much time.
The door opened behind her.
"Hey Darius, you got ones? Didn't get to go to the bank."
Time stopped. She closed her eyes.
Darius nodded with a smile and headed over to the cash register. She prayed he stayed at the door but his footsteps had already started closer.
Darius came over with a handful of ones and Peeta leaned forward across the bar to hand him the twenties and fifties from the grocery store till.
"Thanks," he said. Darius nodded. He turned into her.
It was a whisper. Her eyes were still closed. She could feel his eyes on her over-rouged cheeks. The tacky blue eyeshadow applied unevenly. The berry lipstick ring on the glass of liquor. She opened her eyes.
"Darius, what do I owe you?"
"Forg-g-g-et it," he said, waving her crumpled singles away.
She stood up and turned away from Peeta towards the wall and stormed out the door. A light drizzle was falling and it chilled her skin as she stepped into the night. She rushed into the middle of the road.
"Hey!" He yelled as he slammed the door behind him.
She didn't stop. "Hey!" he yelled louder.
She turned around. "What?" she was yelling just as loud. "What?" Her voice broke and she fought down.
He caught up with her. His eyes drifted down to her makeup. Her clothes. Her shoes.
"Katniss," he breathed. "What the fuck?"
She crossed her arms and tried not to look as if she cared. "What?" she choked out, looking at the sky.
"I don' fuckin' believe you."
"Why? You wanna fuck me."
He looked like she'd slapped him. She couldn't stop the tremor in her voice as she shouted at him. "C'mon, Peeta. You want to. Hundred bucks," she cried. "You can have th' first go." She stepped forward and grabbed the front of his shirt. "You know you're lonely. I know you're like me."
He slowly slid his hands up to cover hers. She let her shaky breaths ebb and he ripped her hands off his shirt. He shoved her away roughly.
"You think no one wants a cripple?" He was yelling in her face. "No one gonna fuck me, I gotta pay for it, hunh?"
"No," she bawled. "No," she said, scratching at his arms. "That's not what I meant!"
"Fuck you!" he said, yanking his arms away from her. He stomped past her back towards the grocery store.
"Peeta, wait!" He didn't stop.
She crumbled. She cried and cried. She staggered around the corner of the bar and threw up behind the dumpster. She huddled there in the back by the ice cooler for a long while in the soft rain.
When her legs and arms were frozen when she pulled herself to her feet using the brick wall. She heard muffled voices leaving the bar and car doors slamming behind the building. She hoped the scariest patrons had left and she could pick someone that looked relatively safe. She was shocked to see Darius locking the door when she got to the front of the bar.
Darius spun around. "Yeah. Early f-f-for Easter. Sorry, Katni-i-ss." He could see her face fall. "Sorry," he said again, shoving his hands in his pockets. He turned and walked away.
She looked at the dark windows all around her. The storefronts were abandoned and silent. The town was silent save Darius' footsteps as he rounded the block and climbed the steps to his house. His door opened and closed and she felt smothered in silence. She looked at her watch.
It was just 12:40. She looked around desperately. Madge wouldn't be there for another hour and twenty minutes. The cold was settling into her bones.
She saw one light at the end of the street. She started to cry again and she walked down the street to Mellark's Grocery.
Peeta was emptying the trash, throwing the bags angrily from the back stoop by the loading dock. She could see his face was red and puffy.
He froze when he saw her. She looked down at her soaked clothes. She wiped her tears and her palms came away covered in mascara.
"Can you gimme a ride home?" she pleaded.
He looked like he was going to say no. "Please," she begged.
He pursed his lips, and then gestured for her to wait there. He disappeared inside. She waited.
He came back in a coat with a towel. He threw the towel at her. She caught it and wrapped it around herself and followed him.
He walked over to his father's truck and unlocked it. She crossed to the passenger side. He climbed into the driver's side of the truck without leaning over to open her door. She opened it and slid onto the bench seat, pulling the door closed behind her. She could see his jaw tensing while he clenched his teeth. The modified brake lever jutted out from the steering column.
He guided the car down the road in the darkness, the highlights cutting a thin beam through the gloom of the damp spring night. She stared at the dark grass on the road side. She leaned her head back against the seat and stared at the sky. It was overcast and there were no stars.
When he finally pulled the truck up the rocky dirt road to her house she felt broken inside. His silence was worse than any yelling. He stopped a few yards short of where the road bent and lead up to her house. He didn't turn the ignition off or look over at her.
"Peeta?" It came out as a pitiful whisper.
He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a thick envelope. He held it over to her but kept his eyes locked on the road ahead of the dashboard. "It's what I got with the settlement. Take it."
When her hand didn't come over to the envelope he looked at her. She could see the tears. "Take it!"
She wrapped her fingers around the envelope and looked at it blindly. He put his other hand back on the steering wheel. His knuckles were white in the moonlight.
She didn't reach for the door handle. She couldn't leave him like this. She put the envelope down on the dashboard lip and cried.
Desperately, she slid across the bench seat and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, kissing his cheek, his neck, his mouth.
"Stop it," he said into her lips, releasing his grip on the steering wheel to try to push her away.
She struggled against him, batting his arms away as he tried to push her towards the passenger side, gripping his biceps and coat while she kissed his face and neck.
He tried to shout but she covered his mouth with her own, kissing him as hard as she could. Her lips felt bruised. She gasped for air and brought her mouth back to his. She felt him kiss her back.
His hands wrapped around her waist, pulling her closer while he moved against her. They scrambled for one another, hands tangling in each other's hair and clinging to one another, both of their faces wet with rain and tears. She reached to the side of his seat and pulled the lever, letting the seat fall back slightly.
She straddled his lap so she could press their bodies together in the cramped seat. Her lips were back at his within seconds. His hand slipped under the towel. She shrugged it off so he could get under her shirt.
His fingers were cold on her breast, but she relished the eagerness at which he experienced her body. She could feel his hard-on pressing against her thigh. She shoved her tongue into his mouth and slipped her hand down his pants to grasp him.
"No!" He sat up suddenly, shaking his head as though to clear her away. He wiped her smeared lipstick from his mouth and stared at his fingers. His shoulders started to shake and she realized he was crying. "Go," he sobbed into his hands.
"Peeta-" she begged. "That wasn't 'cause-"
"Get out!" he screamed. He reached across her and opened her door. "Get the fuck out!"
She was crying too hard to move quickly. He took the envelope of money off the dashboard and smacked it against her heart. Her hands came up to cup it against her and he pushed her out of the truck.
She stumbled to the ground. "Peeta, please!" she wept.
He reached over and pulled the door closed. He shifted into reverse and backed away from her, then turned around with tires spinning on the gravel. She staggered up the bend when his taillights disappeared, bawling into the night. She crumpled the envelope in her fist, hanging onto it with all her will.
The house was almost all dark when she came upon it, just the glow of the TV through the front curtain told her at least Madge was waiting for her.
She slid her keys in the lock with shaking hands. Before she could make one turn, Madge had the door open. She could see Prim standing behind her with terrified eyes.
"Oh my God, Katniss!" Madge saw her tearful face. Katniss slumped in the door past her and almost made it to the couch before she fell to her knees.
"Katniss!" Prim was at her side. "What happened? D' you need a doctor?"
She shook her head, gasping for air. She held out the envelope in the air.
"What's this?" Madge whispered.
Katniss shook her head. Madge took the envelope and slowly ripped the flap open. Bills spilled out of it onto the floor. "Wha..How?"
"Peeta gave me his money from the settlement!" she yelled at the floor, bending at the weight of the words. She cried harder. "I…I…told him I'd fuck him for some money. He thought I was sayin' he was worthless, like no girl would want him," she choked out. "He gave me the money and threw me out his truck." She looked up at Madge. "Oh God Madge, he hates me. What've I done?"
Prim sat down next to her on the floor and wrapped her arms around her. "It's okay, Katniss. Shhh. It's okay."
Madge helped Prim get Katniss to her feet. They got her down the hall to the bathroom. Madge sat her on the toilet seat carefully. Prim rubbed soap onto a washcloth and gently scrubbed Katniss' face. The makeup stained the cloth. She rinsed it three times and cleaned the soap away.
She was numb by the time they got her into the bedroom Madge and Prim shared. They stripped off her tank and shorts and pulled a thick nightgown over her head. Prim laid her down on her bed and pulled the blanket up around her shoulders.
"What'm I gonna do?" Katniss whispered.
"Go to sleep," Prim murmured. "Get some rest. Things'll be better tomorrow."
When Katniss woke up the next morning her shoulders and jaw ached from the bouts of crying. The late morning sun was streaking through the windows. She climbed out of bed and listened to the quiet of the house. She walked out into the empty living room then to the front window. Madge's car was gone. Church, she thought. It was Easter Sunday. She retrieved a cup of water from the kitchen and went to her mother's room.
"Hi Momma," she said, climbing onto the bed and sitting across from where her mother sat in the rocking chair, smiling at her hands. She sipped the cup of water.
"I did somethin' stupid last night. I'm real upset 'bout it. Can I talk to you and you not get mad?" Her throat felt swollen. "I really need someone to talk to."
She took a deep breath. "Last night I went down t' the bar in town. I was…I was gonna let someone pay me to sleep with 'em." She saw her mother's smile twitch. "I didn't do it. I was scared n'…and…" She had to pause.
"I ran into Peeta, Momma. I was so stupid," she sighed. "I told 'em I'd do him for the money. I just," she fought out, "I just figured he ain't been with no one neither and it wouldn't be so bad if we was both goin' in blind. But he was thinkin' I meant I didn't think no one wanted him 'cause his leg. I hurt him real bad," she said, looking down at the cup in her hand. She took a long drink.
"He gave me all the money he got for the settlement from the mining company. Gave me a ride home. I don't think he ever wanna see me again." She felt a tear roll down her cheek. "I really liked him, Ma. He really liked me. I really fucked it up."
She heard a car engine approach. "That's prob'ly Prim and Madge come from church. Happy Easter." She stood up and gave her mother a kiss on the check. "I'll be back when we've made you some lunch."
She walked out into the living room wiping her eyes as Madge and Prim entered in their flowered dresses. Madge's dress was an old one of Lily's with a high empire waist. It gently ballooned over her growing stomach.
"Kat!" Prim came over and hugged her. "How're you feelin'?"
"Okay," she said. "My head hurts."
"You're jus' tired," Madge sympathized. "Jus' take it easy today." She moved over to the kitchen and pulled out a cup to pour some water.
"Can you unzip my dress?" Prim asked. Katniss did so and Prim walked down the hallway to change clothes.
Katniss turned back to Madge. "Did you see him?"
Madge focused on her water glass. "Um. Yeah. Durum had my last paycheck…" She looked over. "I tol' him you didn't do nothin'. You jus' come right home when you saw him."
Katniss nodded and waited. Madge sighed. "I tol' him you really care 'bout him and was so upset you thought you hurt him, but he wouldn't talk to me, Kat. He just left."
Katniss sat down heavily at their dining room table and put her head down on her folded arms. Madge came over to sit next to her. She rubbed her back gently. "Give it time, Kat. It'll help."
She waited before bringing her face up. "Okay," she said. "Okay." She stood up. "I'm gonna get dressed."
She stopped halfway down the hallway. She turned around and Madge was holding up the thick envelope from last night.
"It's thirteen thousand dollars."
Katniss went into the bathroom to throw up.
She tried to talk to him nine days later when school went back into session, but he moved to another row in their shared class. She looked for him the hallways, but he made sure to avoid her after he realized what she was trying to do.
Vick finally asked when he saw her try to catch him the parking lot. Peeta rolled his bike into the only open spot next to Vick. Katniss had nearly fallen out of the car trying to get to him.
"Peeta, please listen," Katniss said quietly and frantically.
"Kinda crowded here," he snapped. "Think you can feel bad for the cripple in a more private place?"
"I wasn't saying that!" She looked around at her sudden outburst. Vick was watching and jerked his head back to Rory when they looked over. "I just….I just…." He started to walk away. "I thought you wouldn't hurt me."
He stopped for a minute. He looked over his shoulder. He opened his mouth to say something. He shook his head and left.
Katniss climbed back in the Jeep.
"Somethin' goin' on between you two?" Vick eyed her in the rear view. "Need me to straighten him out?'
"This one's my fault," she said. Prim reached over and took her hand.
"Well," Rory said uncomfortably. "You need anything, you just tell us."
Katniss looked up. "You know how to patch a roof?"
Vick drove out to the hardware store with Katniss the next weekend. She explained the problem to the salesperson and he gave them a cartful of tools to replace the rotted shingles and a pamphlet on what to do. As he rang up the cart she knew immediately she'd never had made enough money that night to pay for the repairs. She reached inside her inside jacket pocket and pulled out a handful of twenties from the envelope Peeta had given her. She really could keep a roof over Prim's head now, she realized.
Rory held the ladder while Vick climbed onto the roof, followed by Katniss. Prim came halfway up the ladder and they made an assembly line of materials and tools. Hazelle sat with Posy on her porch watching them nervously. Posy had volunteered to help and was pouting that she was determined to be too young.
As he hammered the shingles down, Vick told her, "I'm gonna ask Bristel to prom. She said no the las' three times, but I'm feelin' good 'bout this time. She ain't said yes to anyone else. Should I give 'er flowers or somethin'?"
"Why not a pack o' cigarettes?" Katniss smiled.
"She quittin'!" Vick grinned. "I forgot to keep doin' it in front o' her and she asked why. Tol' her I quit for football and she said she oughtta do the same."
"So a pack o' the patch?"
"One flower," Prim called from the ladder.
"Hunh?" Vick called.
"When Damien asked Sorcia t' the governor's ball on Our Time Rolls On, he gave her a single calla lily," she said dreamily. "It was perfect."
"Is she talkin' 'bout a TV show?" he whispered.
"Yeah, but I think you should listen. If anyone know romance, it's that girl."
Madge's car appeared on the hill and rolled to stop a few yards from the ladder.
"Hey," she called getting out of the car with her few bags from the pharmacy.
"Up here!" called Katniss waving an arm up in the air. "Get the meds?"
"Yeah, and my prenatal refill. Hope that's okay."
"Fine!" she called down.
"Hey Madge, you see the florist shop still open?" Prim asked. "Vick need to get a flower for Bristel. He gonna ask her to prom."
"Pssh," Madge laughed. "Easier just t' roofie her to get her to go with him."
"I can hear you, asshole," Vick called.
Madge laughed as she went inside the house.
Vick knocked the last nail into place and surveyed the roof. "I think that'll do it for now. We can wrap up what's lefta the materials for next time it rains, see if there's still a leak anywhere."
"Thanks, Vick. I couldn'ta done this without ya," Katniss said, taking tools over to Prim to lower to Rory.
"Don't mention it. Hey, you get your class ranking?"
"Oh yeah. 93 outta 115. Not that worst or nothin', but I'm gonna pass. I'm gonna graduate."
"Tha's real good news."
"What about you?" she asked as she slipped her foot around the gutter to climb onto the ladder.
"89. Just made it!"
"Vick, what're you gonna do when you graduate?" Prim asked from the ground as he descended the ladder.
He coughed. "Um. I was, um. I was gonna work in the mine."
Katniss and Prim froze.
"It ain't all that bad, you guys," Vick said at their horrified faces. "It's good money and Gale's gonna be outta the Army soon enough. We gonna need the income."
"But the mine? Ain't nothing else you can do?" Prim looked over at Rory. He dropped his eyes to the ground and moved to collect the ladder.
"I'm lookin', but I think we gonna get the most from the mine."
Katniss said nothing. She stared up at the patched roof.
"I better set the table for dinner," Vick mumbled and walked back to his house across the street. Rory nodded to Prim and followed.
"It just ain't fair, is it Prim?"
"No," Prim said. "You think Rory'll go too?"
"Watch your mouth."
At Prim's urging, Vick brought the lily to school the last Friday in April. When Bristel finally appeared on the concrete pad as they waited for the first bell to ring he went over and dropped to one knee and presented her with the flower. The surrounding girls gasped as he recited the lines Prim had copied for him. Bristel stared.
"Oh my God, Bristel!" squeaked Delly from behind her. "You've got to go!"
"You really do, girl," said Leevy, eyeing her jealously.
As the other girls started chanting "say yes" Bristel dropped her gaze to Vick's grin. She sighed. "Guess I do owe you for this whole year, eh? Fine, I'll go with you." She accepted the flower with a pleased smile.
He hopped to his feet and kissed her square on the mouth. The ringing bell drowned out her cry of protest.
Rory and Katniss watched him chase her through the other students, both of them laughing, into the school and disappearing. She looked at the other girls flowing by her and heard their talk about dresses and dinner and how someone's dad got a limousine.
"Not going?" asked Rory.
"You got a look on your face. Not goin' to prom?"
"No," she shook her head. "Ain't need to spend all that money on a dress or dinner."
He frowned thoughtfully. "Thought it was s'posed to be 'bout sayin' good-bye to your friends n' school."
"Prob'ly is," she replied, shouldering her backpack as they moved to the door. "But the dress and dinner is a part o' it. Besides, ain't no one asked me," she added under her breath.
"Why don' you ask him?" Rory said without looking over.
Katniss felt her cheeks burn. "Who?" she tried to say innocently.
"Kat, don't play stupid. I may be quiet, but I listen. You crazy 'bout Mellark, he definitely crazy for you. I don' know what you two fightin' 'bout, but I'm sure he wanna stop fightin' too."
She realized her mouth was open and shut it. "It ain't that easy."
"It just ain't."
"You don't know what you talking 'bout, Rory."
He was silent for a moment and she thought maybe she'd upset him. But he collected his thoughts and continued. "It seem real silly to me, that after the mine collapses and he loses his leg and you run away from school that you go to all this trouble t' be friends again to throw it away."
She stopped on the stairs and turned to Rory. He looked back at her. "Took a long time t' get back here. For both o' ya. Years." He shrugged.
"You might be the smartest guy in this school."
He shrugged. "Smarts and commonsense ain't the same thing. But thanks."
"You think I should jus'…ask him to prom?"
"I dunno. Probably wouldn't hurt."
She exhaled a half-laugh. "Okay. I'm gonna try that. Oh God, what'm I gonna wear?"
Rory shook his head and sighed. "Girls is weird," he muttered as he walked away.
She ran to Government and slipped in as Faulkner gave her a disapproving glance and clucked at his watch. She slipped into her seat and looked over at Peeta. His face was buried in his notebook. She started to panic. She wondered if someone had already asked him. What if he was too angry to ever forgive her? He looked up at her. She gave him a weak smile, willing him to hold her gaze. He looked away.
She spent the day in a fog. How was she going to get to him? She had nearly given up hope by seventh period when an announcement startled her out of her book.
"Katniss Everdeen to the office, please," the intercom clicked on over the blackboard. Mrs. Trinket's annoyingly cheerful voice sounded again. "Ms. Ricks, please send Katniss Everdeen to the office."
Eyes were on her as she picked up her backpack and shuffled out of the room. Her mind raced as her footsteps echoed down the hallway. Did they know she cut class a few times? Was it about Madge? Was it her final exam scores? Was she not going to graduate?
She stopped outside the office to calm her breathing. Maybe it was Hazelle or Madge calling about her mother.
The door opened into her and she backed up with an "Ugh!"
Peeta's "Oh sorry!" burst out in surprise. They stared at one another as the door gently clicked closed behind him. He started to move away.
"Stop," she said, moving in front of him. "You gotta listen."
"No I don't."
"Peeta." She put her arms up and gripped his tee shirt. "Please."
He stopped and looked over her shoulder at the wall.
"I…I…" She struggled for the words. "I didn't do nothin'. With those guys. At the bar."
"Good for you," he muttered and tried to move.
"Good for you, you made me not have to."
"You're welcome, can I go?"
"Things is bad, Peeta," she whimpered. "Real bad, okay?" She saw him falter. "I never woulda gone I thought there was another way. I was scared and I got mean and I made you feel bad 'cause I felt bad and I didn't mean any o' it. I really like you, I think you're amazing and I want you to go to prom with me."
He was staring at her. "What?"
"I never thought you was less of a man 'cause you lost your leg," she whispered. "You the bravest, strongest person I know. I want to take you to prom."
His face softened. She let go of his shirt. Her palms started to sweat as she waited.
"Katniss." The tone of his voice made her heart sink. "I really like you too, okay? I had a crush on you since we met. But-" he licked his lips nervously "I think too much's happened between us to make this work."
"You said ain't nothin' happened b'tween us," she exhaled.
"It's comin' b'tween us," he interrupted. "It's just…you gonna be eighteen in two weeks. You only gonna be around a few days after prom then you gonna be gone to the processing station. Prob'ly gonna send you to basic training right away."
She tried to breathe against the lump in throat.
"It's just," he thought for a minute, "bad timing."
The door pushed open behind them. "Oh Katniss, I thought that was you." Portia's cheerful voice floated out of the door.
"Take care, Kitty," Peeta murmured and walked away.
"Are you okay, sweetie?" Portia asked. Katniss realized her eyes were wet.
"Yeah," she said. "Just…I'm fine."
Portia clucked sympathetically and led Katniss down to her office. She handed her a box of Kleenex before she sat at her desk facing Katniss.
Wiping her running nose, Katniss prepared herself for bad news.
"I just wanted to tell you how proud I am of you face-to-face, Katniss," Portia smiled gently. "You really pulled through this year."
Katniss felt part of the lead weight lift off her chest. "Really?"
"Yes," Portia laughed at her incredulous expression. "You really well on your exams. I know you missed a few days here and there and things were pretty tough at home but you buckled down and you're going to graduate with your class."
Katniss nearly laughed out loud. "I'm gonna graduate?" Portia nodded. "I'm really gonna graduate?"
"Oh my God. That's fuckin' awesome. Oh sorry!" she said, covering her mouth.
"It's okay," Portia smiled. Katniss smiled too.
"So…are you and Peeta having a fight? Is everything okay?"
Katniss looked down to the floor. "It's nothin'."
"You seem pretty upset for it t' be nothing."
Katniss looked at the cracked ceiling tiles. "I hurt his feelin's. I didn't mean to."
"Did you say you're sorry?"
"Well," Portia sighed. "That's all you can really do, Katniss. You've got to let him accept your apology when he's ready." She looked toward the door, considering her words. "When…big events happen around you in life, it can change the way you see yourself. So, if something…like what happened to Peeta…happened to you, you'd be a lot more sensitive about what people say to you. You can take things the wrong way because you'd be focused on that event rather on the moment. Like you're stuck in the past."
"So he's just more sensitive?"
"Well, I'm just being hypothetical, I couldn't suggest anything about him one way or the other, you know. Being a counselor and all…" Portia looked up at the ceiling tiles guiltily.
"But if…I was hurt the way he were…I'd think people was always talkin' 'bout that. Rather than what's happenin' now," Katniss measured.
"Exactly. In time you'd be able to see you can trust people, but for the time being, things would be difficult."
Katniss nodded. "Okay. So like, if I was gonna talk to him I gotta tell him exactly what I mean?"
"Yes, exactly," Portia said.
"I gotta go."
"Oh, so soon?"
"I gotta catch him b'fore he leaves."
She didn't wait for a response before sprinting down the hall. She heard Principal Thorn call out and Mrs. Trinket sputter at her desk but she managed to burst out of the office as the final bell rang. She ran to the sets of double doors and opened them as the thunder of excited voices poured out of classes behind her. Her backpack slammed against her back as she ran to the parking lot. She stopped at the edge of the parking lot to scan for him.
She heard a motorcycle engine kick on.
She ran to the sound and got behind him as he was walking the bike out of the space.
"Dammit," he said as he spotted her. He cut off the engine.
She reached over and unclasped his helmet and pulled it off.
"Hey!" He reached for it.
"Please talk to me. I can't stand you not talkin' to me. I know you can't forgive me yet, and tha's okay, but please talk to me." She cradled the helmet in her arms out of his reach.
He looked down at the bike. She heard footsteps entering the parking lot as juniors and seniors walked to their cars.
"Will you go to prom with me?"
"I'm not goin' to prom, Kat, I can't dance," he muttered angrily at his steering wheel.
"I don't care 'bout dancin', I just wanna go out with you."
"I care, okay?" He nearly shouted and looked around to make sure no one was listening. He lowered his voice. "I care."
"You the only one that does."
"Yeah, right," he muttered.
"I don't care. Delly don't. Tate don't. Madge, Prim, Vick, Rory, Bristel, Archer, Dennis, even your weird friend Deedee. Don't nobody care but you."
"Deedee ain't weird."
"And you ain't a cripple. You drive a bike and walk me home and you can fuckin' dance with me at prom."
"Katniss!" Vick was running as fast as he could across the parking lot. "Katniss!"
"Vick! What's wrong?"
"Madge called the office. Something's wrong at home." His face was pale.
Her eyes flew to the line of cars already waiting to get out of the parking lot. "I gotta go home. I gotta go home," she repeated to no one in particular, looking everywhere and seeing nothing.
"Get on," Peeta said, taking the helmet from her hands and putting it on her head. "We'll cut across the lawn."
She was distracted so he reached behind his back and found her hands, pulling her arms around him. "Hang on, okay?" She nodded mutely.
He took off towards the exit and veered across the grassy patch along the shoulder. He cut ahead of the line of cars using the bus entrance and was out on the main road in minutes. He shifted faster and the wind deafened her. Her arms instinctively tightened as she held on to him and to the hope everything was okay.
He reached the dirt road and slowed for the change, but sped up as fast as he could on the loose dirt and rocks. Her eyes watered in the wind but she couldn't look away from the road over his shoulder. He went all the way up the road to her house.
She saw the ambulance first, then the police car behind it. Peeta slowed the bike to a stop when he felt her grip go loose. She started to fall and he reached behind to catch her arm. He dismounted first, carefully, and then helped her off the bike. She couldn't really move.
Madge was sitting on the wooden boards of the porch, hanging onto Hazelle's legs and sobbing. Hazelle's eyes were red.
"Momma?" Katniss whispered. Peeta helped her to the porch.
"Madge, what happened?" he asked quietly.
She pulled her face from Hazelle's skirt. "Katniss! Oh no, Katniss," she said, trying to crawl across the porch to her.
Katniss broke free of Peeta and fell towards Madge. She gripped her arms at her shoulders. "Where's my momma, Madge? Where's my momma?"
Sheriff Cray stepped out onto the porch. He saw her on the floor. "Katniss? That you?" His voice was soft and nervous.
She looked up at him. "Yeah." It was a whisper.
"You should come inside with me," he said, kneeling down. He offered her his hand.
She released Madge and staggered to her feet without taking his hand. He'd come out to interrogate her father in the past; she didn't want to touch him. She stifled her tears and followed him inside.
He led her to the bedroom where Lily had spent the last year of her life.
Her blue eyes had been closed. The paramedic was calling the time of death.
She knew people were speaking to her, words she knew but could not process. She nodded when they asked her if she understood what a blood clot was, and how spending long times without moving could cause them unexpectedly. It was only a matter of time she was told. She hit the paramedic with her fist.
The sheriff had wanted to take her to the hospital after that, saying she was obviously in shock. She heard Prim's scream from outside and bolted out of the house to her.
Rory was holding her from falling to the ground while she screamed hysterically. Katniss wrapped her in her arms and held her tight.
"You ain't takin' them from home," Madge said, standing up and facing off with Sheriff Cray at the door. She wiped the tears from her face with the back of her hand. "They belong here at home."
"There aren't any guardians here, Miss Undersee," he said to her. "They should come to the station with us."
"Like hell they should," said Vick. "They ain't leavin' with you."
"She's gonna be eighteen in two weeks," Peeta said. "You don't need to put them through that hell, Cray."
"Just the same," the officer began.
"You aren't takin' em." Hazelle stepped over to Cray. "They stay here."
He eyed her. Her tone was clear. Cray looked around at the small resistance gathering around him.
"We gotta do home checks," he started to mutter. He saw Hazelle's face and dropped the subject.
"Sir?" A paramedic slipped out onto the porch. "They're ready to bring her out."
Cray glanced at the girls in the driveway. They turned their faces to him.
"Okay," he nodded. "Okay."
Katniss could feel Prim clutching at her shirt as the stretcher emerged through their narrow door. A black bag had been buckled into the stretcher. It softly jostled back and forth as the two medics carried her down the porch steps and out towards the ambulance.
Something broke inside. Katniss pulled herself free of Prim's grasp and heard herself screaming "No."
She threw herself at the stretcher, her fingers trying to grip the oily black plastic. She tried to tear it open to get to her mother. "No, you can't take her!"
She felt arms around her waist and screamed harder. Peeta lifted her off the stretcher as she thrashed. The paramedics quickly moved to the ambulance. She kicked at Peeta and scratched at his arms to get to away, but he sank down to the ground to hold her fast while they loaded the stretcher and slammed the doors.
The EMTs looked between Cray and the sobbing children on the ground, unsure of how to proceed. Cray told them to go. "I'll follow you and fill out the forms. Go ahead," he said.
The ambulance pulled slowly out of the driveway and disappeared on the road through the woods. Cray looked around nervously.
"You can go," Hazelle told him with a definitive tone. "We've got 'em."
He thanked her quietly and walked down the stairs. "I'm so sorry, girls. Really." He got into his car and disappeared.
"Peeta, you bring her inside. Rory, help Prim."
Peeta lifted Katinss off the ground and half-carried, half-dragged her up to the house. He had to fully drag her over the threshold. Rory carried Prim.
"Vick, you go make some tea, okay? Madge, follow me."
Hazelle had Peeta and Rory get the girls into the bedroom cramped with twin beds and clothes on the floor. Peeta kissed Katniss' forehead before Hazelle ushered them out of the room. Madge closed the door behind them. Prim was able to unbutton her own blouse, but Katniss didn't offer any help while she was changed into pajamas. All the energy within her bones had gone. Hazelle tucked her into the bed Madge had been sleeping in. Madge pulled the covers up to Prim's chin and kissed her forehead.
Hazelle answered a soft knock at the door. Peeta's voice told her his father was coming to bring food. She thanked him and turned back to the girls. "You girls get some rest, okay. Madge?"
Madge followed her out of the room, wiping more tears from her face with her sleeve. The door closed with a gentle click.
Prim slid out of bed and over to Katniss'. She pulled back the covers so Prim could climb in with her. Prim buried her face in Katniss' collarbone and started to cry again. Katniss cried with her and held her tight until they faded to sleep.
Hazelle woke them gently when the light had begun to fall. "Come eat somethin'."
Prim sat up but waited for Katniss. Katniss didn't rise. She rolled over and stared at the wall.
Hazelle urged Prim up and guided her out of the room.
She pulled the covers over her ears.
"Katniss, don't do this."
Katniss shook her head.
Hazelle sighed. "I'll give you a few minutes." She stood from her kneeling position by the bed. She ran her hand through Katniss' hair and left, gently closing the door behind her.
Katniss listened to soft voices in the dining room. She felt a million miles away. It was like being smothered. She felt like her body had been hollowed and filled with an ache that would never ease. She closed her eyes and tried to go back to sleep.
She felt a hand on her forehead and opened her eyes again. It was fully dark now, she must have dozed off.
"Katniss? My dad brought some food. Come eat," Peeta whispered.
She didn't turn over.
"She awake?" Hazelle was in the doorway.
"Yeah," Peeta said.
"Katniss, come get some food."
She didn't move. "Katniss."
"It's okay, Miz Hazelle," Peeta said. "I'll get it."
He clicked on the bedside lamp and left the room with Hazelle. Katniss debated rolling over to turn off the light but couldn't summon the energy. Her eyes stayed on the smudged wall. There were cobwebs in the seams of the ceiling.
She heard footsteps come back. A clink of a bowl and spoon came from table between the twin beds. A strong arm sliding beneath her side and the mattress and lifting her up. She started to struggle.
Peeta sat down on the mattress behind her and pulled her into a seated position between his legs so he could support her. He kept his arms around her until she stopped struggling and started to cry.
She felt his shuddering chest behind her. "Katniss, please," he whispered as he held her to him. "Please."
He shifted so she should rest her cheek on his shoulder. He stayed behind her on the bed to make sure she ate the potato soup. She finished about half of it before refusing the spoon. She turned her face back to the wall.
Peeta climbed out from behind her and collected the spoon. He paused before leaving, turning back to brush a kiss on her exposed temple. "I'm here, Kat. I'm staying."
He closed the door quietly behind him.
She fell asleep. She was aware of the door opening and Prim crawling back into bed with her an hour or so later. She turned to let Prim wrap her arms around her and she faded to blackness again.
She woke up with a start when she realized Prim was gone. She listened for her voice and heard muffled voices and movement outside her room. She threw off the covers and stumbled out of bed after the hours she'd spent lying down. She was squinting in the bright morning light. She yanked open the door, expecting to see Cray's truck out front and Prim being locked in the back.
She could hear a man's voice speaking with Hazelle in the kitchen. She was aware of movement in the living room and guessed Madge must be moving about. It was loud and her head throbbed. She had to get out.
She ran from her room straight to the front door. She saw Durum holding a bag of groceries, heard Madge gasp and Hazelle call out, but she yanked open the door and stepped onto the porch with her bare feet. Peeta and Vick looked up at her from the driveway. Alarm registered at her nightgown and wild hair. She looked to her left where Rory sat next to where Prim was curled up into herself on the porch.
She tore past them and ran out into the woods.
She heard them calling for her but she kept running. Her feet hurt from the sticks and rocks and she couldn't breathe from running so hard. She tore through the trees and ripped her dress on branches.
When she finally reached the boulder she and Prim had discovered as little girls, she climbed on top and collapsed. She pressed her cheek to the cold rock and smelled earth and dirt. She stretched her arms out on the rock and let the chill settle into her bones.
It was only a few minutes before she felt the tug on her dress as Prim crawled onto the rock next to her. She laid down across Katniss' back. Her cheek was warm on her shoulder blade.
"You ain't gonna leave me, are you Kat?"
Katniss twisted to look at her.
"Don't go away like Momma. Please, Kat. Please stay with me." Prim was weary and frightened.
Katniss sat up, forcing Prim up too. She pulled her to her tight. "I'm here. I won't leave you. Ever."
Prim squeezed her back as hard as she could. "Why is this happening to us?"
"I dunno, baby. I don't. But we're together. And we gonna stay that way."
They listened to the birds call in the treetops. A fawn wandered through the trees a hundred yards away and they held their breath until she spotted them and ran away. The sun passed overhead.
Katniss started to shiver and let Prim lead her back to the house. Madge helped her into the tub. Katniss yanked back from the spigot when she realized there was hot water coming from the tap.
"Durum took care o' the water," Madge said quietly, handing Katniss a bottle of shampoo. "Brought us a few things from the shop."
Katniss stared at the bottle in her hand. Her hair was dull and filmy from using soap. She asked Madge to leave her alone. Madge agreed and told her to call her if she needed anything.
She leaned back in the tub and listened to the conversations outside the door. Peeta asking Madge if Katniss was okay. Rory offering Prim a cup of chocolate milk. Hazelle reminding Madge to take her pre-natal vitamins and Durum asking where a saucepan was. She hadn't had this many people in the house since before Jet started gambling. She remembered Christmases when Chester Hawthorne and Jet Everdeen would start singing to the kids horribly and chase them out into the snow, laughing. It didn't feel like that now.
She washed her hair and face, sinking into the hot water and running her fingers along her bruised feet. She pulled the plug and wrapped herself in a towel and stepped out of the tub. She found the jeans and tee shirt Madge had brought in for her and got dressed.
She opened the door cautiously and stepped out to the hallway, balling her nightgown in her fist. She turned into her bedroom off the hallway and dropped it into the laundry hamper.
She sat down on her bed. She stared at the wall above Prim's bed.
She turned to the door. Durum was standing in the doorway, looking uncomfortable.
"Um. Can I come in?" She nodded.
He stepped over a fallen stack of Prim's romance novels and spotted the white wicker chair under a giant stuffed dog Jet had won for Lily at the state fair five years ago. Lily had set it up on the chair to guard Prim and Katniss one night when Prim had a nightmare and it had never left.
Durum smiled at the dog as he moved it to the foot of Prim's bed to sit down. "Um, Katniss. Did your Momma have any insurance?"
Katniss shook her head. "We had to cash it in," she told him.
"Okay," he nodded, tenting his fingers and leaning forward on his knees. "Okay. We need t' make some plans."
"Yeah." He rubbed his forehead. "I can take care 'f it if you want, okay? It's no problem."
She shook her head. "I planned my dad's. I'll do it."
Durum looked at her mournfully. "I never got the chance to tell her how sorry I was 'bout all the mess my family caused you. I'm gonna regret that forever."
She saw his pain. "I know that weren't your fault, Durum. You had t' look out for your family. For Peeta. For Kirsch," she said. "We were real sorry too."
"And that weren't your fault," he smiled sadly. "You're a brave girl, Katniss. You made your parents real proud." He stood up. "I gotta run back to the store t' check on Rye and the missus. You need somethin', I'm keepin' a list on your fridge. Add anything."
She watched him leave as Prim came into the bedroom. He patted Katniss' shoulder and Prim offered a weak smile as she went to her bed.
"You okay?" Katniss asked her.
"Yeah," she said, laying down. "Just a lot of people 'round. Kinda overwhelming."
"Yeah," Katniss said, moving to Prim's bed and slipping in next to her.
"What's gonna happen, Kat?" she asked, sliding her head down the pillow to rest on her sister's shoulder.
Katniss sighed. "I dunno. I'll think of somethin'."
Prim snuggled down tighter against her.
Prim said it made sense the sun would shine when Lily and Jet got to be together again.
Principal Thorn had worked it out to have the reception at the parish house and the other First Church Sunday School teachers brought food. She could hear the conversations of people drifting away from the gravesite to the house. A few of the miner's wives had come and a few of Lily's former friends from town. Thorn. The minister. Hazelle, Rory, and Vick holding Posy's hand. Bristel, Delly, Tate. Durum had insisted Candy show up despite her clear discomfort. Rye had shaken Katniss' hand and offered condolences. She listened to the guests murmur quietly about Lily's long absence, about how much Katniss looked like Jet and Prim looked like Lily and how just tragic it all was. Their clucking made her feel nauseated.
She waited until the voices had faded to silence. Her feet and knees ached from standing still but she couldn't bring herself to leave just yet.
She stood in front of the plots and squinted in the bright light. The headstones matched; Durum had found the paperwork Katniss had left stuffed behind a recipe box on the kitchen counter for a whole year. He ordered the same things for Lily, the headstone after asking Katniss what to write on it. She wished she could feel guilty he was paying for it, but she couldn't summon any feelings just yet.
She stared at the name carved on the tombstone. She tried to remember her mother before her mind went, but all she could bring back was the blank eyes and the one-sided conversations. She didn't think it should hurt this much when her mother had gone so many months before.
She sensed she wasn't alone before she turned around. She turned her head to see Peeta coming back up the hill. He didn't say anything, just stood a few feet away from her. She turned to look at the town surround them as they stood on the hill.
He hadn't left a single night between the afternoon Lily died and today. She didn't know how he'd gotten any sleep in the armchair but he didn't leave. She had woken in the middle of the night the second day and wandered out to the living room, feeling lost but not knowing what she was looking for. She could hear Madge sigh in her sleep as she twisted on the sofa. She saw his face outlined by the moonlight in the armchair, leaning back and cramped into the seat. An overnight bag was sitting next to the chair. She watched him sleep for a long while.
He took a few steps closer to her at the gravesite. "Wanna get out of here?"
"Yeah. Oh... What about Prim?"
"I tol' Rory I was gonna offer you a ride, he'll look after her. Bristel'll gimme a call if she needs you."
"Okay," she said.
He led her down the hill to his father's truck and opened the door for her. He helped her up in her long sun dress before crossing to the driver's side. When he pulled out to Route 42, she knew where he was taking her.
He spread his suit jacket out in the truck bed for her to lie on and they watched the clouds roll over Ashland.
"That one," she pointed.
"That one. Looks like the two halves of a heart. That's Momma finding Dad."
He rolled his head to look at her. "They really love each other?"
"Yeah," she said, letting her hand fall back on her side. "Crazy. Too much."
"Ain't no such thing."
"They fought cats n' dogs. Hurt each other's feelin's. Scared me n' Prim. She went to pieces without him 'round. Tha's too much."
"I don't think that's too much. I think tha's just right. Better'n not lovin' enough. Or one lovin' more'n the other." He paused. "Better to be scared of how much they love each other than wonderin' when the love gonna run out n' someone gonna leave."
She rolled her head and looked at him.
He glanced over. "My parents is gettin' divorced. They was waiting 'til I graduated. I shoulda figured; they ain't been happy for years, but…"
"S'okay," he shifted on his back. "Now Dad's really gonna need my help when she leaves, though. Think she's movin' in August or somethin'."
"You gonna stay here?"
She rolled back, feeling the ridges of the truck bed on her spine. "You should go to college, Peeta."
"I'm givin' you back your money. You better n' all this. You can make somethin' o' yourself. You should get out of this place."
He sat up and faced away from her. "Peeta?"
"Goddamit, Katniss! What the fuck does it take to win you?" He spun around to face her. "I wanna stay here with you. I'd give up all that shit to stay here with you!" He sputtered in frustration. "Do you want me to go?"
She struggled up to her elbows. "No."
"Is it my leg? It ain't never gonna get better, I can't-"
"Then why you tellin' me to leave?"
"I think you can do better."
"How can I do better'n the only thing I want?"
She thought her heart must have stopped.
He picked at his shoe. "I love you crazy. For a real long time," he mumbled.
"Me too. A long time," she said. "It scared me."
He looked back. He slowly came back to her.
"I was afraid you hated me," he said, sitting close to her. "After all that happened with my momma and your family. I never wanted t' hurt you."
"I know," she said to him. "I was afraid you'd never forgive me. For the mine. And for runnin' away when you came back."
"Ain't nothin' to forgive, Kitty," he said.
"Stay with me," she whispered. She rested her hand on his forearm. She leaned over and he moved in to kiss her greedily. He pulled back once to whisper "always".
He drove her back to the reception an hour later when Prim started to worry about her. Candy eyed Peeta holding her hand when they walked in the door, but she still gave her a polite hug and offered her condolences.
When the guests had departed and Thorn was helping the minister clear dishes, Katniss walked Prim up to the tombstones on the hill one more time. They stood side by side.
"You ain't leavin' me, Katniss. You ain't gonna join the Force and go, are you?" Prim whispered.
"No," Katniss told her. She gripped Prim's hand. "No, I'm here."
Peeta showed up at her house the following afternoon when Candy started packing her things. They sat in her living room silently. He reached over and held her hand.
Madge and Prim came home from town an hour later with boxes from the liquor store to pack up Jet and Lily's things. Katniss stacked them on the porch until she was ready to face it.
That night Bristel came over to see Vick, and they sat with Rory, Prim, Peeta and Katniss on the porch. Madge produced a bottle of champagne she'd talked out of Darius and Prim brought out a construction paper diploma for the ceremony that Katniss had missed. They made her walk across the porch to accept the crayon and glitter certificate clearly made by Posy and she had to laugh as they cheered for her.
Vick pulled up the driveway with the horn blaring the following Sunday morning, but Prim and Katniss were already up, tying yellow ribbons to the Hawthorne's porch while Hazelle alternated between crying and cooking far too much food.
Gale gave Katniss and Prim both long hugs and told them he was there for them. He greeted Madge with an embrace that made her blush. "You just about ready to go, eh?" he took a step back from her, still holding her hands to admire her stomach.
"Still got six weeks," she scowled. "I'm ready t' go. Ain't got a moment's peace with this kid kickin' me all the time."
Gale laughed. "Sounds like a nice reminder you got somethin' good on the way." He released her hands and hauled his duffel over his shoulder to head inside. "Come by later, my momma said she was puttin' together some things for you last time I talked with her."
Madge was bright pink when she came inside the Everdeen house.
"Someone likes Madge…" Prim sing-songed from the living room window where she'd been spying.
"Don't be stupid, Primrose," Madge sighed. "He's jus' being nice 'cause I'm in a mess."
"'F you say so," Prim shrugged. She shuffled down the hallway to her parents' room.
Katniss had moved to sit inside the uninhabited room on the stripped mattress. Empty boxes lined the walls, but nothing had gone in them yet. She played with the awful tie patterned with little fish she'd given Jet for Father's Day years ago when Prim was in diapers.
"Hey," Prim said as she struggled over a few boxes in the doorway.
"Hey," Katniss sighed. She moved to drop a tie in a box, but brought it back to her again.
Prim sat next to her on the bed. "Kinda weird this room bein' empty. When they been gone so long."
"He ain't in that tie, Kat."
Katniss looked over at her sister.
Prim smiled and put her hand on Katniss'. "They ain't in these shoes or the ties or the mattress. I know you feelin' guilty 'bout movin' it all for Madge n' the baby, but…" She shook her head. "They'd be happy. We still a family. We still together. That's what they wanted. We don't need a tie to remember that about them." She grinned. "'Specially one as ugly as that."
Katniss laughed sadly. "I know, baby. I know. I jus' can't stand the thought that one day I'm gonna walk by this room and think 'That's Madge's room' instead of Momma's."
"One day it's gonna be your room,"
Katniss looked over at her. "Hunh?"
"Well, Madge ain't gonna stay forever. She may think she tough as nails, but she gonna get married someday. And you gonna need your own space when Peeta comes over…" Prim coughed politely. "This place is our home, Kitty, but it is just a house. It's the people inside that are makin' it a home. That always gonna change. Only thing that ain't gonna change is that we love 'em."
"Prim," Katniss smiled. "I love you, okay? You remember that."
"I know, Kat. I love you too."
"Help me pack up, okay?"
Gale and Peeta packed up the boxes into Durum's truck the next week and. Katniss rode with Peeta but couldn't get out of the car when they dropped off the things to the thrift store and consignment shops. When they got back to the nearly emptied room, she sat down in the middle of the floor. She heard him leaning on the doorframe behind her.
Peeta came in and slowly sat down next to her. "Katniss, you gonna be okay. I know it ain't fair and sure as fuck ain't easy, but you're stronger than any woman I know. I think I admire you more'n anyone in this town."
She laughed. "You just tryin' to get me to put the baby swing together."
"Well, that's part of it."
She smiled as Gale appeared; dragging pieces of the swing they'd traded for. "I have no idea how to put this together."
"C'mon you fools. Can't be that hard." She helped Peeta up and dragged the rest of the baby furniture into the room.
Madge went into labor four days late on a hot August morning. She panicked as Katniss and Prim tried to get her down the stairs to the car.
"I'm not ready! I'm not ready!"
"Madge, ain't no time for that now!" Katniss yelled as she pulled on Madge's arm. Madge gripped onto the porch banister and refused to let go.
"I can't have no baby! I ain't gonna be no good!"
"Madge, you can do this! You'll be fine," Prim cooed as she tried to loosen her fingers' grip on the wood railing.
"What's goin' on?" Rory and Vick were on their front step a minute later. Posy stared in terror and ducked behind Vick. Madge hollered as a contraction hit her.
Gale brushed past them and jumped down the stairs. He ran over to her.
"Hunh?" She whimpered as she raised her eyes to meet his.
"You can do this."
"You can. You are gonna be a great mom. Okay?"
She stared at him. "I ain't," she whispered. "I'm a total fuck-up," she confessed tearfully. "I messed up everything and I gonna mess up this baby. I ain't even tol' my parents." She started to cry. "I want my momma."
"We'll call her, okay? We gonna call her and let her know she gonna be a grandma. But you gotta get in the car and go to the hospital so you can have this baby."
She wavered at his determination.
"I know you can do this, Madge," Gale said firmly. He reached over and took her hands off the banister. "Let's go, okay?"
She sniffled and nodded. "Okay."
Katniss handed him the keys and she got Madge into the back seat and slid along by her.
Prim climbed into the front seat passenger with Madge's overnight bag. "Prim, my phone's in the front pocket of that bag. Can you call my momma when we get to the hospital?"
Prim nodded and they sped off.
"It's a boy!" Madge's mother stepped out from the delivery room holding a small bundle in a blue knit blanket. Prim squealed and Katniss jumped up and hurried over.
"He's so small," she whispered as she looked at the smallest nose and ears she'd ever seen.
"He's perfect," Gale smiled over her shoulder. The baby squeaked as he stretched and squirmed. They grinned at his furrowed brow and toothless gums.
"How's Madge doin'?" Katniss asked.
"She's very tired," her mother smiled. "But she's doin' real well. She did a great job. You can see her soon, but she's gonna need to rest."
A nurse ushered Marjorie Undersee back to the delivery room and Katniss borrowed Madge's cell phone to call Peeta and tell him the good news. Gale convinced the nurses at their station to let him call his family on their phone.
They sat back on the vinyl benches in the waiting room and counted down the minutes until they could see Madge. The nurses let them go in two at a time, so Katniss and Prim headed in first.
Madge's hair was plastered to her forehead and her mother was wiping a damn cloth across her face.
"Hey Madge," Prim smiled quietly. "You look great."
"I look like shit," Madge laughed weakly.
"Margaret, language," her mother gently admonished her.
"Well I do," she smiled at her mom.
The baby let out another squeal from the basinet by the bed and Madge looked over. "Ain't he beautiful?"
"He really is," Katniss smiled. "Can't believe it. You're a mom, Madge."
"I know. I'm freakin' out," she mumbled.
"It's okay," her mother rested a hand on her shoulder. "I was a wreck when you were born. I think the nurses were ready to commit me I was so scared."
Madge smiled and closed her eyelids slowly.
"Hey, we better let you rest. Gale wants to see you," Katniss said.
"Oh, send him in. He was so good to get me here."
Katniss and Prim slipped outside. Gale closed the door quietly behind him.
They fell asleep on the bench waiting for him. Katniss woke up when Gale gently tapped her on the shoulder. He pressed his finger to his lips and pointed to where Prim snored gently. He sat down carefully to not wake her. He had a strange smile on his face.
"What?" she whispered.
He looked at her. She asked again.
"It's jus' funny, you know?" he whispered.
He looked away at the door to the maternity ward.. "Jus' all the bad shit out there. All the stuff I seen, people dyin'. Losin' your family, Peeta losin' his leg and brother. His momma leavin'. My momma raisin' four kids without my dad. All that's out there. But there's also this. There's that little boy right there. His daddy's long gone, but he's got love n' a family. And his momma adores him. Things keep happenin'. Life keeps movin'. It's jus' funny somehow. Like no matter how bad things is or can get. There's always gonna be a chance to start over."
"Is that her dad?"
A well-groomed and nervous-looking man was at the nurses' station, looking for directions.
"I think so," she murmured. "Looks like his ads, don't he?"
As Mr. Undersee approached, Gale stood up. "Councilman."
"Oh, yes. Hello," the man replied worriedly.
"Captain Hawthorne," Gale said quietly, reaching out to shake Mr. Undersee's hand. "Friend o' Madge's. This is Katniss Everdeen and her sister Prim's the sleepin' one there."
The Councilman nodded confusedly. He took a deep breath. Gale continued on. "She's doin' fine. You raised a fine woman, sir. Your grandson is very lucky to have a mother like her."
Mr. Undersee paused to take Gale in. "Thank you," he smiled softly. "Thank you." He disappeared inside his daughter's room.
Katniss was surprised to find Peeta waiting on her doorstep when Gale brought her and Prim home that night. "Hey!" she called as she slipped out of the car.
"Hey," he said. "I brought over some baby formula n' diapers so you guys are all set when she comes home. She's comin' back, right?"
"Yeah," Gale told him. "I'm sure her parents are gonna ask if she wanna come home, but I tol' her we want her here. Think she prefers it out here," he smiled.
"Good," Prim yawned. "I don't want her to go."
"You go to bed," Katniss said, gently pushing her in the door.
Gale waved good night and went to tell his family about the baby Madge had named Ellis.
"C'mon in," Katniss told Peeta, climbing the porch steps.
They sat in the living room listening to Prim start to snore again in the room at the end of the hall.
"How can someone so small make all that noise?" Peeta whispered with a grin.
"You get used to it," Katniss smiled. She leaned her head down on his shoulder. "Do I snore?"
"Don't think so. Never heard it anyway." Peeta stretched his arm around her shoulder to take her hand, threading their fingers together. "Kat?"
"Do you want kids?"
She frowned. "I dunno. Ain't something I thought 'bout before. I was always takin' care of Momma n' Prim, I guess…I figured I'd never have the chance. Why?"
"I just think about my leg n' all. Playin' with kids. My dad used to chase me n' my brothers. I can't run like I used to…" his voice trailed off.
"You gonna be a great dad, Peeta. Your leg don't mean nothin' to that, you know."
He sighed. "I hope not."
She sat up and looked at him. "You care to be a good dad. Tha's what matters."
He watched her. "You'd never leave your kids, right? No matter if it was bad?"
She swung her leg over his lap and took his face between her hands. "I would never leave, Peeta. I promise. I'd never leave you. And I know you'd never gimme a reason to."
He kissed her hard, wrapping an arm around her waist and another around her shoulder blades to pull her to him. She felt wild and contained all at once as he held her firmly to him. She pressed down against his groin, feeling him want her like this.
He gasped as she pulled back, pushing her hands against his chest. She listened carefully down the hall to make sure Prim was still asleep, then slipped her hands under her shirt and pulled it over her head. He stared as she unhooked her bra and let it fall to the floor behind them. She leaned back in to kiss him again and felt his hands slide up to touch her bare skin. She growled eagerly at his touch and yanked at the hem of his shirt.
When he pulled off his own shirt, she slid backwards onto the floor giggling. She unbuttoned her jean shorts and kicked them off with a flourish that made him have to stifle his laugh. He reached for her underwear when she stilled his hand.
"I ain't done this before," she confessed. "Just…third base."
He nodded. "I only done this once. Sorta."
"With who?" She sat up stubbornly, crossing her arms over her bare chest.
His face turned bright red. "We was at a wrestling competition out o' state, and there was this cheerleader an'…" he dropped his voice. "I didn't really….get that far…before…" She didn't think his face could get redder.
She pulled him to her again. "As long as you was thinkin' of me."
He grinned. "I was," he said, kissing her again and pulling down her underwear.
"Um, just…go slow, okay?" she asked nervously. He nodded.
He slipped his hand between her legs and her arm shot out and knocked over a stack of Prim's videos. They froze and then dissolved; laughing, kissing and rolling over one another. He bent his mouth to her flesh and she covered her mouth to groan. Her fingers scraped at the living room rug while she arched her back to press herself against his tongue and lips.
He paused to unzip his pants and she sat up to help him. She started to push them down his hips.
"Wait, wait," he said, twisting his hips away from her hands. "Umm…I wanna leave 'em on."
He didn't meet her eye. "I just don't wanna…take 'em off."
She watched his downcast face. "You can show me."
"I don't want to."
He pulled away and sat against the sofa, his hands still gripping the waist band of his long pants. "I…I…" he stopped and shook his head.
"It's you, Peeta. I don't care 'cause it's you." He didn't look up.
She gently stretched out her hands to pull his free from the waist band. He protested at first, but then let her tug gently. She thought he almost looked frightened as he lifted up so she could pull them down past his prosthesis.
She looked down at the metal and plastic leg and let her fingers glide over the cool, oddly smooth surface. She could feel him watching her, so she shifted to sit next to him, pressing her bare skin to his. "Show me how to take it off."
His breath was shaky as he reached for the brace strap. He released the prosthesis from his leg and she gently worked it away from him. She set it down and saw him gently touch the stump of folded flesh.
"I don't think I want to anymore," he said, trying to reach past her for the leg. "I should go home."
"No, no, no," she said desperately, climbing onto his lap again. "Peeta, please."
He blinked away tears and she kissed his cheeks. "I love you," she whispered into his ear before kissing the lobe. "Show me you love me too."
He looked back to her and kissed her again. She felt his arms return to her and she reached between them to pull down his undershorts.
She lay down on the carpet as he pulled his shorts the rest of the way off. "Do you have somethin'?" she asked. "I ain't on the pill."
"Oh. Oh! Yeah," he said. "Vick tol' me to bring some for him and I ain't give 'em to him yet." He yanked over the bookbag he'd left by the front door and found the box of condoms he's stashed inside.
"Hah, good luck with that, Vick," she laughed.
Peeta laughed as he returned to her. "You sure? We can stop 'f you wanna."
"I'm sure, Peeta. I love you."
"Okay," he mumbled as he flushed with a smile. His hands were shaking as he unwrapped the condom and rolled it on. He knelt between her legs and she raised her knees to his sides.
He was very slow and gentle. A slight pain gave way to an indescribable pleasure that made her claw at his back for more. She arched into him, pleading his name. He grunted her name into her ear as he bore down deeper and she curled her toes behind his back. Her skin grew hot where it touched his. She kissed the sweat from his forehead.
He paused to catch his breath and leaned down to kiss her. "I love you crazy," he said against her lips.
His thrusts got shallow and fast and he buried his face in her hair while he released. He pulled away from her, panting and moved down between her legs again until her fingers were tangled in his hair and she covered her mouth with a pillow to scream.
When they were lying on the couch together, partially redressed and falling asleep in each other's arms she realized he hadn't tried to put the prosthetic back on. She smiled as she fell into dream.
Looking back, Katniss knew Gale was right but at the time, it was hard to see just how right he was. Things could always start over. It was barely winter when Gale started looking for a place where he and Madge could move in together. He'd taken to the baby so fast people were assuming it was his anyway and he didn't mind. Madge stopped painting swear words on her sneakers and made Gale quit the smoking he'd started in Iraq. It had been Durum's idea for Gale and Madge to rent the upstairs of his house; Rye had met a girl he wanted to stay in West Virginia for and Peeta unofficially lived with Katniss already. Peeta told them it was fine with him as long as they didn't go to work for Durum convincing Katniss to give him a grandchild.
Gale found work supervising the equipment at the reopened mine without having to be down in them all the time. He made it his first priority to get better pressure equipment. Bristel was so adamant that Vick didn't go work in the mines that she got her mother to give him a job at the ammunition supply store. Katniss realized that with Bristel around she didn't need to worry over Vick. She did find herself worrying over Rory and Prim. She'd caught them making out on the couch one too many times that fall for her comfort, but Prim reassured her she wasn't going to get into trouble. Katniss still left Madge's pregnancy magazines under Prim's pillow.
She tried to remember when exactly Peeta had moved in, but all she could remember was when the last of Madge's things were at her new place, she simply mixed her clothes with the ones Peeta left over in the closet when she moved to the bedroom that once belonged to her parents. He was just simply there, as though he had always been.
She and Madge were sitting on the porch listening to Posy read slowly to Ellis from her summer reading assignment when Prim ran up with the ugliest cat she'd ever seen.
"He looks hurt, can we keep 'im?"
"Prim, that cat looks like it's about t' die," she frowned at the yowling orange cat with yellow eyes.
"We can make him better. Please?" Prim held the squashed little face to Katniss'.
"I don't know," she said, looking at the thing struggle in Prim's arms. "Oh, fine," she sighed. "I guess so. See 'f Rory can take you to the vet."
"Thank you!" Prim kissed the mangy cat on the nose. "I'm going to call him Buttercup."
Madge laughed as Prim ran the cat over to the Hazelle's house, shouting for Rory.
"Oh, you think it's funny?" Katniss asked, swiveling to look at her.
"I do. I think it's funny that ev'ryone gets a second chance. Even the ugliest cat I ever seen."
Katniss swiveled to look at her. "We do, don't we?" She watched leaves slip from their branches and flutter down.
"Y'know," Madge said thoughtfully. "For all those damn soaps I watched with your sister, I'm right glad there ain't no such thing as a happy ending."
"Why'd you say that?"
"It ain't interesting. It ain't real. I mean, life ain't never gonna be perfect. When we find Ellis' daddy to get Gale custody it gonna be a mess, when Prim and Rory get married you gonna be a mess, when Peeta's too easy on your kids and you's too hard on 'em it's gonna be a mess. But life is a mess. And that's the best part of it. You get to go through the mess and come out on the other side."
Katniss sat for a minute and thought. "I think you just might be on t' something there. But I don't think I'da gotten through this mess without you. All o' you."
"Well, I am pretty bitchin'."
Katniss pushed Madge's knee with her sneaker toe.
"So you pregnant yet?"
"No, Madge. God, you sound like Durum. 'Least lemme get married first."
"Okay." Madge chewed her thumbnail. "How 'bout now?"
Peeta poked his head out of the screen door. "Hey Kitty, Dad just called. We got four orders for wild turkey," he said as he pulled on his coat. "I'm gonna go help stock. Madge, we gonna need some Thanksgivin' help again if you got time." He gave Katniss a kiss as he walked over to his bike. "If you go huntin' get some more squirrel, I got a new thing to try. Love you crazy!" He waved as he clicked the helmet on a started down the hill.
"How 'bout now?" Madge grinned as she and Katniss waved Peeta goodbye.
Katniss sighed and stood up to collect her rifle from the shed. "I'm goin' to go start fillin' those orders for wild turkey. You either shut up or go home."
"How 'bout now?"
Laughter followed her into the woods.