A/N: I should be glad this is over, because YAY i get to sleep now!, but actually I'm really kind of sad? Thank you all for the support last chapter and for the support throughout the entire story. Hopefully I can start review replying once I get the alternative ending written and posted. If you've enjoyed the story, be sure to stop by and let me know :) As always, thank you and happy reading!
It starts like this.
I stumble and fall against the wall, gasping outloud in pain as a sudden and intense tightening travels around my stomach. I stoop over, wrapping my arms around my stomach, my breath escaping me as the blinding pain continues. I wait until it passes, and then I swallow drily, panic weaving into me.
"Johanna!" I shriek, my voice tight with fear.
Her voice is muffled as it travels through her bedroom door and down the staircase, where I'm currently hunched over, only midway through my journey downstairs to get a glass of lemonade (a journey that will never be made now).
"You're in labor, aren't you?" She calls. She waits a moment for my response, but I'm suddenly too scared to talk, because that's exactly what I think is happening. She takes my silence as an affirmation. She sighs loudly and I hear the legs of her wooden chair scrape across the floor as she rises.
"Of course you go into labor the one time I make you go get the drinks." She grumbles. "Paula is going to yell."
I grip the banister and force myself into an upright position. The pain has faded, but it left a memory of the brief agony that terrifies me. It's then that I know this isn't going to be easy.
"The one time?" I ask incredulously. "Try almost every time!"
Thirty minutes later I'm tucked into bed by Paula and on the phone with Dr. Malone (who now insists I call her Remei as I am not her patient any longer, at least not officially). I feel a little comforted when she says that she's going to fly down as soon as possible with Aliza, but that comfort wanes bit by bit as I watch Paula slowly prepare for the delivery. She carries stacks of clean, perfectly folded white towels into the room. She sets them at the foot of the bed. She rolls in a tray table with instruments that look so terrifying that I decide I'm just not going to look at them at all. She forces Johanna to fill up one of the two buckets in the room with hot water. I'm supposed to be watching the clock and counting the time between each bout of pain, but my mind is too scattered for that. I focus on staying calm when I'm not in pain and digging my nails into my palm when I am.
Paula hovers over me after everything is set up, fussing, pressing warm washcloths to my forehead, pressing the end of a stethoscope to my stomach, and taking my pulse. She informs me that the baby has already begun its journey, and now we're just waiting for me to become fully dilated, which could take anywhere from six hours to two days.
I know deep down that the pain I endured in the hands of the Capitol doctors had to have been much worse, but I can't recall that pain when I'm in pain like this. My world narrows to it, and I find myself thinking that maybe I won't live through it. But then I laugh weakly, because how many times have I thought that?
Johanna sits in a chair beside the bed, making inappropriate comments any chance she gets. She seems completely at ease, unaffected by my yelps of pain or Paula's seriousness.
I throw a book from the bedside table at her when she rises and begins to walk to the end of the bed, where Paula has her head between my legs. Johanna dodges it easily and then pauses long enough to shoot me a look that makes it clear that she wasn't impressed by my throw. I start to yell at her, but a sudden wave of pain takes over me and I settle for gesturing for her to leave.
Her voice is overtly innocent when she speaks next.
"I'm just trying to understand how that-", she points at my stomach, "is going to come out of that." She points down at where Paula is.
I push my hair back from my face and exhale heavily, wishing it were possible to exhale pain.
"Me too!" I tell her sarcastically, and this makes her laugh so hard she has to bend over and place her hands on her legs.
The next four hours pass like this:
I grow more and more discouraged as the pain mounts and mounts, always expecting it to suddenly even out or lessen. Johanna leans back in the chair and props her feet up on the side of the bed, rambling on about diameters and every horror story she's ever heard about childbirth. Paula wanders in and out of the room, in a zone that can only be described as professional. I scream "Don't look at me!" each time Johanna rises, her curiosity pushing her forward.
She stomps her foot angrily the third time I yell this.
"It's just a vagina!" She insists.
My tolerance level for Johanna seems to weaken as each second ticks away. I lean over as best I can and hit her side.
"But it's my vagina, so go away!" I shriek, punctuating each word with a smack to her ribs. She looks at me in humor and shrugs, taking an easy half step out of my reach.
I lean back on the pillows and sigh in frustration, but she takes her seat once more. She continues talking, but I'm suddenly determined to block her out completely. Part of me wants to make her leave, but another part of me is even more scared of that than the thought of her sticking around. Johanna and I fight like I have never fought with anyone my entire life, especially these last few weeks. The further along I got, the less patient I got. I stopped putting up with her jabs, her inappropriate comments, her habit of reaching out to touch my stomach just because she knew it bothered me the closer I got to the due date. And so, somewhere down the line, I decided that anything she gave I would give back just as good, if not better. She screamed at me and I screamed back. She threw a book and I threw a metal pitcher. But at the end of the day, she always ended up coming into my room, our spats forgotten. She would stretch out beside me on the bed and lie there, saying nothing, and I'd say nothing too. Sometimes when she came in I'd be in the middle of crying, but she always acted like I wasn't. Her company was helpful in a way I never expected. She gave me strength in a way I never expected. She never coddles me, never tells me what to do, never tries to take care of me. Everyone I have ever lived with or loved has done that. They've treated me like something fragile, like spun glass. Johanna treats me exactly like she treats everyone else: as something strong and unbreakable. She asks of me the same level of strength she asks of herself and never takes excuses. It's very hard, sometimes, because a few times she's been unnecessarily cruel to me when I've been hurting very badly. But even as tough as she is, she recognizes when she's made a mistake, and she's even offered up apologies (her own version, anyway). And she does comfort me in her own ways when I'm severely upset. I end up finding that, because she treats me like I'm strong and can handle anything, I begin to behave as if I am strong and can handle anything. I begin to believe it. Which is something I desperately needed, especially since the end of my pregnancy was harder than I imagined. Everything was difficult: standing, sitting up, walking, sleeping. Every night I lied awake in fear, my hand on my stomach, worried that I'd somehow harm the baby while sleeping. The bigger he got, the more I became aware of his presence. At night when I'd roll over onto my side, I could feel him shift inside of me, and it scared me to death. I'd sit up immediately, my hands traveling along the expanse, my heart pounding in concern. I was terrified of a mental image that I kept having: me rolling over, him shifting inside of me, the umbilical cord somehow getting twisted around his neck. He would become fitful when I cried, his twitching and turning get more restless, his kicks more impatient. He wouldn't calm until I did, until I was sane and calm enough to set my hands over him and recite poems his father wrote years ago that I still remember, poems about beautiful landscapes and a feeling of security that comes from unconditional love.
I don't go away to my own world as much anymore, but after a week of being back in this house, it started to happen again. I finally got to apologize to Finn there. But it's like once I apologized, that was that, and I didn't see him anymore. Every time I was there I would wander around the streets looking for him, but deep down I always knew he was avoiding me for my own good. Each time I slipped away I was always pulled back by the sensation of my baby nudging my ribs, almost as if to say: okay, that's enough. I'm here, remember?
I've been in labor for fifteen hours when I finally break down and start crying, too exhausted to keep a grip on myself. Paula pats my knee and strokes my tangled hair back from my face.
"Shh, I know." She coos. "I know it hurts. It will be over soon."
But it will never be over. I'm scared, and in pain, and what I want more than anything is Finnick. I don't want cool glasses of water, or mugs of hot chocolate, or even my blue blanket. I want Finnick's hand in mine. I want to see his excited smile. I want him to hug me and reassure me that everything will be okay (and it would, if he were there with me). But this is something I will never have. I will have to bring this baby into the world all by myself, and he will never know him.
"I want Finnick." I sob, weakened by the pain and the sudden attack of sorrow. Another contraction wraps its tight fingers around me, causing pain to shoot down my spine and down my legs, and I cry even harder.
I'm not okay, and nothing Paula murmurs or Johanna snaps changes that, because I am about to give birth and I don't want to anymore. Not because I don't want my baby, I do. But because I don't want to see my baby without Finnick there beside me. And I don't want my baby in a world as awful as this. At least, cramped inside of me, I can keep him safe. I can protect him there. He can't die like his father did.
I curl up on my side, wedging an arm underneath my stomach because I've learned that that keeps my baby from sliding so much, even though he hasn't been moving much these past few days (Paula says it's because he's grown so big there is practically no room for him to). I ignore Paula and Johanna and weep, periodically sliding my other arm out across the sheets as if maybe Finnick will show up after all. But my fingertips never graze any part of him. He doesn't show up, and the pain seems to get worse and worse. But as Paula keeps saying, it's not really getting worse. The contractions are just getting closer together. Johanna tries to force me to sit up, but Paula tells her that I still have a few hours and to leave me alone. For once, she listens. But not before pushing Finnick's notebook across the bed. I've already read it all the way through twice, but I still revisit it when I'm upset, in a way similar to how religious people revisit religious texts when they need reassurance and reminder of their purpose. I get upset almost every night, so I keep it close to me where I can reread it. It provides a type of comfort that I can't explain. It soothes the ache of missing him and encourages me all at once, easily. But right now I want nothing to do with it. I push it back across the bed towards Johanna, away from me, because I don't want his words today. I want him. Just him. Words are not a substitute for a husband or a father.
When Remei arrives, she knows exactly what to do. She reassures Paula and presses a kiss to my forehead before calling out to her daughter who, from the sound of small footsteps running up the stairs, was waiting downstairs. Remei ignores my protests and tucks the blue blanket around me, murmuring a pattern of the same three reassuring phrases: You are going to be just fine, you are strong enough for this, you can live through this.
She opens the door and leads Aliza into the room. She seems immune to the sense of sadness and fear that surrounds us all. She stands just inside of the doorway, her pale blue dress wrinkled from her travel, and when her dark eyes fall on me she darts over to me immediately. She climbs up onto the bed and throws her arms around my shoulders, her tiny nose cold against the back of my neck. I wait for a moment and then gently unwrap her arms from around me so I can sit back up again. Once I'm up, she leans into my side.
"Hey, Liza." I say. After she saw me crying one day, and her mother explained to her that I was crying because Finnick died in the war, she told us all she no longer wanted to be called Soldier Aliza. I guess she finally learned of the darkness of war.
I wrap my arm around her shoulders and hug her to my side, smiling despite the fact that I've got tears still leaking from the corners of my eyes. I grew to love Aliza fiercely the last few months I was in 13. She was, for a while, the only bright part of my day, the only thing that could bring smiles or laughter. We talk on the phone once a week now (I think Remei will eventually end up moving here as her and her husband are separated and there's nothing left for her in 13), and I've begun to think of Aliza as the niece I never got to have.
"Annie, are you okay?" She asks. She lifts her head and looks up at me, her curved, dark eyebrows pursed in concern. I nod, sniff, try to dab at the tears clouding my vision. It doesn't do much good when more take their places.
She sits up and rests her hands on my stomach. For the first time in the past few months, I don't jerk away violently. I guess my body recognizes that she could never be a threat to the child inside of me.
"Is Manny okay?" She asks innocently, her eyes trained on where she now knows my baby lives. She asks questions about him all the time, questions like: how old does he have to be before he can play with me? When will he talk? Do you know what his favorite movie is right now even though he is in your tummy?
I was unsure what I wanted to call my baby for the longest time, even after picking a name. It was Aliza who eventually got Manny to stick. She started using it all the time. Remei started using it because she did, and then Johanna started using it because she heard them both using it over the phone, and then suddenly he just became that. It turned from a name that I was very unsure about to a name that just seems to fit what I know of the child inside of my stomach.
Remei reenters the room, a glass of juice in her hand. She grows concerned when she sees Aliza's hands on my stomach. She knows about my recent aversion to anyone's hands on me. She shoots me an apologetic look and starts over to pull Aliza away, but I give her a nod to let her know that it's okay.
Remei hands her daughter the glass of juice. Aliza takes it eagerly, suddenly becoming indifferent to everything but the apple juice in front of her. Remei smooths back a loose piece of hair that fell out of her pony tail.
"She's going to have the baby soon." Remei explains to her daughter.
Aliza lowers the glass and runs the back of her hand over her mouth. She peers at me thoughtfully, examining my stomach, mulling over something. I expect her to ask the inevitable question (how is it getting out?) because that's something I'm still wondering, but she asks something completely different when she meets my eyes.
"Do you wanna play dolls with me? I brought Capucine and Martine!"
I can't help but laugh at that. But then the laughter turns into a cry of pain as the worst contraction yet comes over me. I shut my eyes and grip the sheets, my breath leaving me and pain clouding my every thought.
I hear Paula whisper something to Remei, and then she picks up a complaining Aliza.
"Let's go down to the beach for a bit, yeah?" Remei suggests to her struggling daughter.
"No! I wanna play dolls with Annie!" Aliza shrieks.
I hear the door slam after them and Remei's admonishing voice as she carries Aliza downstairs, her cries reaching us even as they head into the kitchen. Paula lifts the blankets and pulls my legs up, and Johanna joins her. I'm too weary from the contraction to care any longer.
"It's going to be a long time before she's playing anything, kid!" Johanna yells down to Aliza. Paula scolds her.
Johanna has a newfound sympathy for me. She climbs up on the bed and pushes my hair back from my face. The action is so motherly that I'm automatically suspicious. I narrow my eyes and turn towards her, trying to read her intentions.
"Just remember that whatever rips can be sewn back." She tells me, in what is supposed to be a sugary and reassuring tone. I look at Paula in horror. She glares at Johanna.
"Ignore her. You're fine." She says.
Johanna makes a noise of disbelief and I turn to look at her. She reaches behind her and pats the pillows thoughtfully, as if she's preparing to go to sleep.
"You're fine, sure, but there's no coming back from this." She mutters underneath her breath. She pauses thoughtfully after that statement. "But then again, I guess that doesn't matter anyway, because you know..." She trails off and nods at the closet she knows is Finnick's, making it clear that her gesture is referring to Finnick's utter absence.
Normally a comment like that would devastate me, as all references to his death do, but I can feel another contraction squeezing its way through me and by the time that passes, I'm furious. Furious because I'm in pain- physically and emotionally- and I don't need this from her right now.
"Is this just the way you handle the stress of an emotional situation? With cruel humor, careless to who you upset?" I demand. I sit up a bit so I can grip my knees as pain overcomes me once more. I have to cry out this time, because I am sure I'm dying for a moment. After it passes I'm in a daze and can only exhale heavily, my back aching and my eyes shut.
When I'm feeling a bit better, I'm still coursing with anger and, for once, I don't feel bad about venting it. Paula says Johanna is rubbing off on me, and it must be at least partway true, because I find I can lash out without feeling badly for it much more frequently.
"I mean couldn't you take up a hobby-" I stop in the middle of my sentence, a contraction so intense it makes my vision go black for a moment washing over me. I briefly register Johanna's hand in mine. I'm still angry though, so I don't try to be gentle. I squeeze down on it until it actually helps a bit. I lay my head back on the pillow and pick up my lost sentence.
"Like knitting or hunting for instance?" I suggest angrily.
"Okay, we're almost ready to start pushing." Paula speaks up calmly.
I don't know who this "we" is, because as far as I know, I'm the only one who is going to be doing the pushing. And I'm suddenly sure I can't. I think about how much work it's going to be, and I don't think I have that level of strength inside of me. I feel absolutely drained then, drained from the weight of knowing that even after I go through all of this, Finnick will not be back. He is never coming back. Suddenly the weight of that knowledge is heavier than it's ever been. It weighs down more on my spine than our child inside of me does, and I have an urge to curl up into myself once again. I start to retreat inside of myself, but Paula taps my leg.
"Annie, come on. It's going to be okay." She insists.
Johanna speaks up then, continuing our previous conversation, indifferent to my sudden resignation and Paula's worry.
"I could get a hobby, but picking on you is much easier. It's my revenge on Finnick for being an idiot and dying."
These words incite only a twinge of pain. They do, though, enrage me once more. I lift my head and turn to look at Johanna, shocked by her nerve to say the things she's saying, highly considering slapping her across the face. I'm so furious that I can't even feel fear as Paula tells me it's time. I'm so angry suddenly. Angry at Johanna, at Finnick for not being here, at life for taking him from me, at me for putting myself through this.
Johanna pulls her hand from mine and places the side of the pillow in my grasp instead. Her voice comes from the bottom of the bed a moment later.
"Oh, okay, it's not that bad!" She says, almost sounding impressed. "The human body is adaptable."
I scream again, and her next comment covers Paula's encouragements.
"God, Annie, I'll help you summon that bastard's ghost so you can punch him in the face for this if you want." She offers.
"Stop talking about Finnick!" Paula yells at her.
Johanna ignores her. I feel her hand on my knee. Paula keeps telling me to push more and more, but all I can feel is pain and my head aches and I am seeing light behind my eyelids and I think I might pass out.
"No but really, you should be a little glad he isn't here. You're cute and all, but this is not attractive." She adds.
The outrage I feel at that statement, at her continued casual talk of Finnick's absence, like it's just a trite, common event and not the end of my world, causes me to lose control.
"I hate you! Shut your mouth!" I shriek, without thought to what I'm saying. Paula pats my calf and murmurs something that sounds like "Almost there!" and then I hear Johanna make another comment ("He'd probably be pacing a hole through the floor right now anyway, he was such an anxious idiot when it came to you."). The use of the past tense when referring to Finnick's love for me has me screaming, and at first I'm screaming at her, but then I'm just screaming in pain. My voice breaks and it takes me a moment to realize that, over the pounding in my head, I can hear another voice screaming even though I've stopped.
I register the emptiness and the sudden stillness of my body, and then I'm struggling to get up. Johanna reaches out a hand, places it on my shoulder, and pushes me back down.
"Stay there. He's fine. You're fine. Rest." She orders, all joking and humor from her voice. I can hear the small, high-pitched cry, and I push Johanna away from me, trying to sit up again. I am aching aching, but I don't care, because that's my baby and he's actually making a sound. I sit up and lower my legs, growing impatient when I see that Paula's back is to me.
I can hear her talking to him in a soft voice, and he's still crying his head off. My heart is too large for my body and all I want is for her to give him to me, because he's probably terrified, and he needs me. I hear the splash of water as she gently cleans him off. And then Johanna passes her one of the towels, and then the blue blanket, and Paula walks slowly over to me, her hands carefully cradling my baby. Johanna reaches over and lifts my head up, sliding the other pillow underneath it so I can see better, and then Paula is lowering the crying bundle into my arms.
At first I'm unsure how to hold him, terrified of the fragility of his small neck and the weight of his small head, but then he's position so his head is resting in the crook of my left elbow. He fits perfectly there, and I'm amazed by the fact that he isn't longer than my forearm. I wrap my left hand around his tiny foot, suddenly overcome by wonder just at that small sight. I count his toes carefully, somehow aware that if one is missing it is all my fault, breathless with relief when I count all ten. I pull back the soft blue blanket and eye his tiny kneecaps, brush my fingers over his stomach. I know deep down that I'm avoiding looking at his face, suddenly absurdly frightened to look. Frightened that I will look and he won't look like my baby, he won't feel like he belongs to me at all. But when I wrap him back up again and turn my eyes to his face, I'm tasting tears when I part my lips to smile, because, oh, he's mine all right. He's Finnick's all right. He's still crying, the small features of his face scrunched up as he wails, but he has a good amount of dark brown hair and a nose and facial structure that already reminds me of his father, even this early in his life. I suddenly can't breathe, overwhelmed with the knowledge that I almost chose to die. I almost chose to die and he never would have been born, I never would have met him. I clutch his tiny body closer, amazed that he still feels like he fits with me always, even if he isn't inside of me anymore. I lean down and press a kiss to his damp hair, and he falls silent moments after that, his cries slowly dwindling down to silence. I lift my head and look down at him, and I feel a shock run through me when I realize he's opened his eyes. They're still the typical gray of newborn's eyes, but I know like I knew he was a boy that his are going to be green. He peers up at me, his eyes wide and alert, and suddenly it isn't hard at all to merge this image with the mental image I had of my baby who kicked me in the ribs all night long. Suddenly this is the only image I ever had, this is my baby in every reality.
I almost cry when Paula gently pulls him away from me. I protest, my eyes burning and my heart aching, but she's quick to reassure.
"You'll get to see him very soon, Annie." She promises me. "We've got to get you taken care of first."
I don't think of anything but my tiny son until he's back in my arms an hour later. I'm dressed in a warm, fluffy robe now, feeling much better, and I think he's been bathed from the sweet smell of his hair. I kiss his tiny nose, his tiny cheeks, his forehead, his chubby hands, laughing in delight when he yawns widely, his eyes shutting briefly for the first time since I had him in my arms again. He becomes sleepy quickly, his eyes drifting shut. I lean down and press my lips to his soft hair once more, turning my head and gently resting my cheek there.
"I love you, I love you," I whisper to him. He makes a small sound in his sleep and I want to scream because I love him so, much more than I ever thought possible, and they were all right when they said that to me. I didn't or couldn't believe them at the time, riddled with pain, under the subconscious impression that to love anything ever again was a betrayal to Finnick. They always said that when I held him suddenly everything would be different, but if anything they underestimated the impact of this tiny child on my heart. Now, everything is startling simple. I know exactly what to do. I am going to do whatever is best for this child. I am going to love him and take care of him, and be so happy doing it.
I'm afraid to doze off with him in my arms, terrified that I'll accidentally drop him, so I force myself to keep my eyes open even though I'm starting to hurt again and can barely stay conscious. I watch the rise and fall of his chest, feel the tiny pulse beneath the soft skin of his wrist, examine each fingernail. He sleeps innocently, without worry, as if he has no idea that things are different. He sleeps safely like he trusts me to guard him with my life (he should, he should).
Johanna enters the room quietly an hour later, around the same time that sadness starts to enter my heart again. I just wish that Finnick were here. I wish he were here to see this child that is so much a mixture of us. I wish he were here to feel the joy that I feel.
Johanna sits beside me. She peers down at him, her expression peaceful for the first time since I've met her.
"He's beautiful." She tells me honestly.
I smile so hugely at that. I look back down at him, already missing the sight of him from just the few seconds that I spared to glance at Johanna.
"He is, isn't he?" I whisper. I reach up and stroke a finger down his little nose. It twitches a bit in his sleep. "Who would have thought that Finnick and I were such a good mixture?"
Johanna brushes his hair lightly, quickly, then retreats her hand like she's afraid to touch him.
"Everyone thought that." She finally tells me. "Everyone."
This makes me cry, even though I'm happy. You can be happy and sad. I learned that for the hundredth time today.
I cry as quietly as I can, but eventually it wakes my son. His eyelids flutter up and his lower lip trembles and then he begins wailing. I remember when he was inside of me, and how he'd kick like his life depended on it when I cried and wouldn't stop until I was calm again, and I know it will be like that again. I force my tears to stop and I reposition him in my arms, pressing him to me. I kiss the crown of his head a few times.
"You're okay, Manny." I tell him. I make sure the blue blanket is tight around him so he's not cold. "And I'm okay, too."
He quiets a minute later. I do as well. I look at Johanna then, who has been quietly observing the scene, and I wonder why she hasn't made any rude comments so far. She seems completely free of the indifferent attitude she had while I was giving birth. In fact, she seemed devoid of it the very moment it was all over. A sudden thought hits me, and I look at her in surprise.
"What?" She says defensively.
"Were you...psyching me up?" I demand in disbelief.
She starts to deny it, rolling her eyes like that's absurd, but then she just gives up. She throws her hands up into the air and sighs.
"Fine, you caught me! I'm not as much of a bitch as you thought! I had to, though. It takes power to push a human being out of your body and you were so dejected I honestly thought we were going to have to cut your stomach open and rip it out of you. But then I remembered how different you are when I piss you off, and I figured that was the best move." She says.
My heart is still swollen from the miracle of today, but somehow I find it warming even more. I am strangely touched by this, even though before I was so hurt and angered by her words. All the anger has left me, and I'm understanding that she was probably right to assume that I couldn't have done it without her pushing me to the edge.
I can't help myself; I reach over and set my hand on her forearm.
"Thank you." I tell her sincerely. And then before I can stop myself, the words slip out. "I love you just as much as I hate you."
A strange mixture between a grimace and a smile covers her face.
"I'm going to ignore your use of the "L word" seeing as though you're currently flying high with endorphins. I hate you just as much, Cresta." She tells me. I grin at that.
"It's Odair." I correct her. I look down at Manny and place my finger in his tiny hand, smiling even wider when he tightens his fist around it. "Isn't that right, Manny?"
His tiny nose scrunches up, and this makes both Johanna and I laugh.
I'm too tired for visitors outside of Remei and Aliza for a while. I spend three days in bed recovering. I cradle Manny and chat with Remei or Paula or Johanna. Aliza curls up on the bed with us and has hour long conversations with him, not stopping even when he's obviously asleep. I feed him and change him and recite those same poems to him when he's upset. He is truly the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Everything is perfect about him, from his small, barely discernible eyebrows to his itty-bitty toenails. He sleeps in a bassinet right beside the bed at night, but I admit I don't sleep much. I drift off until I jerk awake in a fright, terrified from a nightmare in which Snow sneaks into the house and steals him away from me. I usually give up on sleeping by four AM and hold him instead. I let Remei and Paula hold him whenever they like, but I don't let them take him from the room, because I'm still not ready to have him that far from me. Johanna refuses to hold him, but she let him wrap his hand around her finger once and left it there for an hour while he slept. He effortlessly has everyone in the room wrapped around his finger. He'll be just like his father in that way, too.
My first visitors outside of those I'm closest to show up five days after Manny's birth. Remei and Johanna stay close to my side faithfully, both aware of my fear of being alone with men (even now).
Two months after getting back to 4, I made Johanna walk with me to a vaguely familiar house. I winded the path automatically, my feet remembering taking it even if the memories have long faded. I rested my hands on the top of my stomach after ringing the doorbell and waited. I heard brief arguing inside, and then the door was opened with an air of impatience. This shifted to an air of disbelief as we examined each other. After a moment of assessing that we were both okay, Marv pulled me into his arms, laughing joyfully.
"Henry!" He called into the house when he pulled back. "It's Annie!"
Marv laughed and asked me a string of questions that all blurred together, leaving me no time to answer them, and then Henry approached from behind. The relief I felt seeing him was stronger than I expected, because I wasn't sure if he was alive. The memories of the last time I saw him were uncertain to me. I couldn't access them. I found that as painful memories piled on top of my other memories, it became impossible to remember them with any great clarity. The painful memories weigh the most. After Finnick's death, it was almost impossible for me to look underneath that painful memory to see anything else.
Henry had a visible scar running down the left side of his face, a result of being clubbed violently by the Peacekeeper who came to take me to the Capitol, but he was okay besides. Greatly shocked by seeing me pregnant, but okay. It turns out the two of them forged an odd friendship over those months during the Rebellion. They were able to put their dislike aside due to the fact that there was no one else who really understood the mess they were in with my family. Although that mess is over now.
They're both timid now, stepping into the room, sweat shining on their faces and making their cotton shirts damp from the walk over here. Manny was a summer baby, just like his father.
Remei rises and throws a window open, trying to let some of the cool breeze off the ocean in. I can hear seagulls outside, and the distant sound of waves, and I'm suddenly more content than I have been in a long time. I run my fingers over Manny's hair, look down at his sleeping face, and smile because I am happy. Really, truly happy. Despite it all.
Marv and Henry sit at the foot of the bed. They stay for a while, talking and looking at Manny, getting excited over the prospect of maybe one day taking him fishing. I know they're saying things like this to make me feel better about him not having a father, but I'm not concerned about that right now. Manny will be magnificent, just as his father was. It never hindered Finnick any that he didn't have a father growing up.
Paula brings bowls of stew up when the sky begins to dim. I listen to the waves, the sound of the spoons hitting against the bowls, Manny's quiet breathing as he sleeps in the bassinet beside me. I watch the sky slowly darken, like pale blue fabric getting lowered slowly into a basin of water. I listen to Marv and Remei's easy conversation, glare at Johanna in embarrassment as she scolds Henry for "flirting with me" ("She literally just squeezed a baby out of her vagina, you need to learn better timing! Not that timing matters much in your case. She's pretty much sworn off men forever."), smile at Manny as he makes a small whimper in his sleep. I know then. It hits me so powerfully that I almost feel the need to share it with everyone in the room, but I don't. I know that everything is going to be just fine. Better than fine. Everything is going to be wonderful.
Manny is five the first time he asks me why he was named Manning.
We're seated on the floor in front of the fireplace, trying to keep warm against the chill that's taken over District 4 recently. We're wearing thick sweaters and wool socks, and Manny is leaning against my side, his eyes trained on the colorful book in his lap. I'm busy filling out another form and my hand is already cramping. Marv and I are in the process of reopening my family's store, both feeling like it's a personal duty (me because I am the last Cresta alive, him because he was supposed to take over it with Cora- before they all died, that is). Money isn't particularly good either. Once the Capitol was overthrown, so were the financial compensations sent to each victor, and now that Manny's started school and needs pencils and notebooks and nice clothes I've realized the necessity of getting a job of some sort. I'd much prefer opening back up the shop, because I'm familiar with it and it's best for me to work alongside a friend who knows that sometimes when I stare off into space I'm not really here at all.
I set down the pen and flex my fingers, deciding to take a break from the paperwork. I place the clipboard to the side and reach up, brushing some of Manny's dark hair out of his eyes. He's going to need a haircut soon. He leans closer to me and smiles when I kiss his head.
"I forgot to tell you what we did after recess today," He tells me. His voice is calm, unhurried. He is a soft child, gentle in most every way you can be. He shows excitement by grinning so hugely his eyes crease up and gripping my hand tightly. He seemed annoyed by his classmates the first day of school, who show their excitement by running around their parents in circles, yelling at the top of their lungs. He is intelligent when it comes to things he cares about and almost frustratingly indifferent when it comes to the things he doesn't. The first time he ever got truly angry at me was the second week of school, when I told him he had to complete his math worksheet even if he didn't like it. He got so upset and cried, refusing to talk to me for two hours. This bewildered me, because I was the child who always did my homework, even if for no other reason than I was told to do it. Manny needs a reason. He needs to understand why he should have to do something he doesn't want to do in order to do it. This is something I know comes straight from his father. He's an interesting mix of shy and charismatic. He doesn't favor the company of strangers, but can walk into a room full of them, bat his dark eyelashes once, and they're all going on about how wonderful he is. That's also something he gets from his father. He gets a lot of things from him.
"What'd you do?" I ask him. I watch him turn the page of the book and then peek down at him, smiling at how intent he gets. The book was a gift from Johanna (who will openly admit now that Manny is her weak spot). Manny has been taken with sea turtles since a few weeks after he turned four. I think his obsession has a lot to do with the fact that I've been telling him Finnick's sea turtle story for years. Wherever it comes from, it's his favorite topic. We go onto Marv's boat every weekend to try and spot them. The first time Manny asked me if we could go on the boat, I hid in my room and cried, terrified to say yes but also terrified to say no. The idea of my baby on a boat, the last place my family was, terrified me to the point of sickness. But I kept thinking about how excited his smile was, and I knew I couldn't refuse him that just because of what happened in the past. But there was no way he was going without me, so I tag along every time now, knowing good and well that if the boat does begin to sink, there's probably no one more qualified to swim and save him than me. I did win my Games that way, after all.
The book he's looking at now tells all about them. It's got thick, glossy pages, with handpainted, vividly colorful illustrations. He turns his head to look at me, his green eyes curious. He begins his explanation, telling me all about how they did an activity about names after recess. Each student had to stand in front of the class and recite their full name, explaining where it came from, and then the teacher referenced a book and told them what their name meant. Manny said that when he stood in front of the class, he could tell them that his middle name was his father's, but that Miss Ruth could not find his name in the book, nor was he sure why his name was Manning in the first place.
"Why was everyone else's there?" He asks me now.
I am absurdly pained by the mental image of this scenario. I see my son, short and small for his age, standing in front of the crowd in his tan pants with the small patch above the right ankle and his favorite jade green sweater, given to him on the first day of school. I see him reciting his name quietly, but calmly and steadily, without a hint of nervousness, in a voice that I know one day will have people begging him to do radio shows. I see him standing there patiently, looking out the window at the clouds with interest, waiting for Miss Ruth to tell him what I know (that his name is a homage to his late father). And then I watch his ears turn pink as Miss Ruth says there's no name to be found, watch his face fall a bit as he wonders suddenly if his name isn't even real at all, because why is it that everyone else's name has meaning and his doesn't?
"Your name came from a name book a lot like the book Miss Ruth was looking at, but the book was from District 13." I explain. "The book Miss Ruth was looking at was from District 4. We have different names here than they do in District 13."
I briefly considered trying to get everyone to call him Seadon when I first registered him for school, because I realized suddenly that he might stick out a bit. District 4 traditional names have always been names like Meredith, Kai, Mare, Adrian, Caspian, Dylan- names that have old meaning tied to the sea. When I was born people were throwing older names into the mix, names that had nothing to do with the sea (like Annie, a name that means "grace"), so it wasn't too odd to have a name not listed in the traditional name book. But the rebellion sparked a fever of District 4 pride. After everything settled down here, people began to name their children the traditional sea names once more, as if to celebrate in that fact that our district is still standing and there's peace after all these years. And so Manny became the black sheep among hundreds of Merediths. I just couldn't change him name at that point, though. He is a Manning. He's no more a Seadon than Finnick was.
Manny considers this.
"That's where Liza is from?" He asks. I nod.
"That's where I lived when you were in my tummy. Remei gave me the book. It has a meaning in District 13, though. Do you want to hear it?"
He smiles at this, his eyes lighting up.
"Yes!" He says.
I lean over and pull the book from his lap, shutting it gently. I set it to the side and open my arms, my heart warming as he moves into my lap immediately, like he's missed me and has been waiting to be held. It reminds me of his first day of school, which was one of the hardest days for me in a while. He clung to me and kept begging me not to leave him, and even though I knew where I was leaving him was a good place, it broke my heart. I cried the entire walk home and the entire day. I was only comforted when I picked him up from school and he ran full speed towards me, locking his arms tightly around my neck when I picked him up. It always feels wrong to have my son away from me, but I know it's something I'm going to have to get used to, even if it scares me to death.
He rests his cheek against my shoulder and I hug him tightly, comforted by the scent of his hair. Manny has always known something was missing, even if I tried my hardest to fill the gap in his life with our friends, who I now consider extended family. He understands that I cry every day on Finnick's birthday because I miss him. He's never asked me why he doesn't have a father, though. I tell him about him all the time, about how much he loved us, about how he wanted to be with us very badly. But I've never told him how he died, or even that he did. Manny just understands that he isn't here with us physically, but his love for us is always there. He doesn't ask why he isn't here, and I don't want to tell him, because somehow I find beauty in his view of the situation. Finnick is real to him in a way that he might not be anymore once I tell him what happened. He's real to him precisely because he has never been real to him. He knows Finnick will never come back, but since he doesn't know the extent to which he's gone, doesn't have memories of him walking around, talking, living, Manny just thinks of him as a beloved character in a book, someone who loved him very much, and is somehow always there, but can never die because he was never real to begin with.
"Manning means 'little boy who needs a bath'." I finally tell Manny, smiling into his hair. I can tell he's growing tired, because his laughter is thick with sleep.
"Does not!" He argues. His breath is warm as he giggles.
"Does too! And Seadon means 'in the sea'. Little boy who needs a bath in the sea Odair." I tease.
He laughs louder at that one.
"Can Odair mean 'with the sea turtles'?" He asks.
I'm laughing along with him then.
"Little boy who needs a bath in the sea with the sea turtles!" I exclaim.
After our laughter fades, I hug him closer, and he seems to sense that I'm about to get serious. Manny has always been intuned with my moods. He can tell my thinking face from my Far Away face instantly, can sense when I've been crying, knows when Johanna makes me angry. He pulls me from my other world by taking my hand and kisses my cheek when I'm sad. As his mother, I am proud to say that I can always do the same for him. Despite the fact that, long ago, I was known as The Mad Girl, I take care of Manny just as well as any "sane" mother would. I am just Mommy to him, and that's the best role of all.
"Manning means 'son of the hero'." I tell him finally. My throat tightens a bit with sadness.
"For real?" He asks me after a few moments.
"For real." I affirm.
He lifts his head then and peers up at me, meeting my glance as I look down at him. He offers me a sweet smile.
"It's a good name, 'cause you are a hero, Mommy." He tells me. I pull him back to me in a tight hug, my eyes definitely filling with tears now.
"Thank you, baby, but I'm not a hero. Your father was the hero."
It's then, with him in my arms and my eyes wet, that I give him an abridged version about the war and how his father died. I don't bring up the Games at all, because that's something I don't want him to know about for a long time, but I tell him that there was a war and his father went to fight to keep us safe. He's quiet as I tell it, and after I finish I worry that maybe he's fallen asleep, but then he speaks up again.
"Can we change it?" He asks me, his voice tired.
At first it's a punch to the gut. I lift my head from where I had my cheek resting against the top of his head and peer down at him.
"I don't know. Why?" I finally ask.
His voice is matter-of-fact.
"'Cause it should be son of the heroes. Like two. 'Cause even when you are sad at night you laugh at all my jokes. And you take me on Marv's boat even though it's scary."
He falls asleep in my arms a few minutes later. I carry him up the stairs, ignoring Johanna as she comes out of the kitchen and asks if I need help. I'm determined to do it by myself. I tuck him into his bed, pulling an extra blanket from the closet and placing it on top of his comforter just in case. I pick up his blue blanket from the floor and lift the blankets long enough to place it near his arms. He wakes up sometimes looking for it. I turn on his sea turtle night light, check the closet and underneath his bed for monsters for my own benefit, double check that there's nothing on the floor that might trip him if he gets up in the night. After I deem his room safe, I sit on the edge and push his hair back. I press a kiss to his forehead, jumping a bit when his other hand rises suddenly to rest on my shoulder.
"Mommy?" He whispers. His eyes are still shut, which lets me know that he's probably still half asleep.
I sit up and take his hand that's on my shoulder.
"Yes?" I ask.
He yawns a bit and then rolls over onto his side, his hand pulling from mine. I adjust the blankets around him and rise, thinking he's fallen further into sleep and forgotten, but he continues.
"I can't wait to tell my friends about my dad tomorrow." He says.
My eyes burn and my heart cannot hold anymore love. It wouldn't be possible.
"He was the best." I tell him.
His voice is so garbled with sleep that I almost can't make out his next statement.
"Yeah, the coolest." He agrees.
I linger near the door, eyeing his room one more time to make sure nothing is lurking in the shadows.
"Goodnight, Manny. I love you to the moon and back." I whisper. I tell him this every night, even when he's already asleep. I'm scared that it might make his dreams different if I break the habit.
"Love you to there too." He murmurs.
Later that night, after Johanna is in bed and I check on Manny, I open up my notebook and write the date at the top.
Today Manny said you are "the coolest". All that time you worried about being a bad dad, and you're the coolest ever to our five year old without even having met him once. You would have had nothing to worry about.
Still miss you so much I can't stand it sometimes. Still love you with all my heart. Still dream about you every night. Nothing new there. But I'm okay, just like I promised you.
Today Katniss called. She sounds pretty bad, but she's doing better overall. She asked me a bad question. She asked me why I held on. I told her because I was pregnant, because of my son. She then asked why I was still holding on. I thought about it for a while, and you know what I realized? I am holding on for Manny, of course, because he needs me and I love him so much. And I'm holding on for you. But there's another reason too. I am holding on because there is something I want everyone to know, something I stay alive to teach our son. It's that you can live far past whatever you think will kill you. There are things that you tell yourself you cannot handle, that if they were to occur, your heart would surely give out and the world would absolutely end. I know because that's what I thought about losing you, Finn. I am here to say that that's not true. You can live far past the limits you give yourself. You can do absolutely anything and you can survive anything. When our son doubts this, or if anyone ever doubt this, I want them to remember the girl who almost drowned and the man who saved her. And remember Cora who tried her hardest her entire life only to die before she knew just how much she was appreciated, remember Arnav who died a compassionate little boy who will never become a compassionate man, remember my mother and father, who loved and sacrificed and suffered for their three children. And remember Mags, who took two almost grown children under her arm and protected them from the cold, who gave them a mother when theirs were taken. But most of all, I want them to remember you, Finn. You sold yourself and everything you stood for to protect the people you loved. You held me together the many years I knew you. You saved my life. And you died so that everyone would be free to love as you loved. I want people to remember how important all these people were to me, especially you, and then remember that I am still here to write this.
I know you are going to be so proud of me when I see you again. And you know what? I think I might be proud of me too.
Maybe Manny's right. We are a family of heroes.
I love you, I love you, I love you,