Never Coming Home

Reaction back home to Aspen Checkov's death

by Phoenix Refrain

"And what did he die of so young, Gretta? Consumption, was it?"

"I think he died for me," she answered.

James Joyce's The Dead

I wake up each morning, surprised that my brother isn't already humming or trying to wake me. Those are the blessed moments though, those are the moments before I wake up in front of the television and realize I've fallen asleep watching him in the arena again. Without fail, my heart thrums loudly in my ears as I stare at the screen until I'm given confirmation that he is alive. He is alive.

My hand reaches out and touches the screen where he's rising gaunt and wounded from lying beside Nella. He's slipping away from me. I can see it in each glance he exchanges with Nella, he's in love with her. He will die for her. He went because he loved me, because I'm going to be a father. He knew before I knew myself.

The shutters are pulled as we all sit around the room. People have been coming by to console us, to offer a part of their meager meals to us. Isabelle has not left my side since the reaping. Her fingers stay laced with mine.

Everyone falls asleep but Isabelle and I eventually. "Ara—Aspen," she looks into my eyes when she calls me my brother's name. "I know why he did it," her voice is soft and her eyes are overflowing with tears.

"Because he wanted to save me," I choke it out.

Her hands cup my face, "Because he wanted you to see your baby. He wanted you to be here when it's born. He did it so we didn't have to live without you." She leans her forehead against mine as she cries.

I'm going to be dad.

My heart aches as I watch him break camp. He's hurt and struggling. He's found someone to love at the end of the world—in a place only one of them can leave. I realize for the first time that he's not going to come home. Even if he wins, he'll never come home. He'll never be the same again.

The workday has been so terribly slow. It's not any different than normal except that I have this feeling of foreboding. I go through the cycle everyday—anger, depression, anxiety, emptiness, and rage. Acceptance never comes though. I keep telling myself it's all just a bad dream.

I want to go watch my brother. I want to spend every last moment with him—in case…I want him to be there for the wedding, for the birth—I want to see him happy, but instead I'm stuck here helpless in these woods waiting to know if he lives or dies.

The sound of hurrying footsteps makes me look around. A peacekeeper comes sprinting towards are work detail. He's breathless when he shouts, "Checkov!"

I put my axe down and turn towards him, "Sir?" I can feel something in the pit of stomach—something is happening.

"You're the tributes brother right?" I nod my head as he continues on, "He's fighting on screen in the square—that Armani girl."

For a moment my whole body shuts down. I can't think, I can't breath, and I can't move. Then everything sinks in. I'm running but no one stops me, I head straight to the square. He's alive. He can beat her. He can do it. He's going to be okay, I keep telling myself.

The square is crowded as I push forward to see the screen. Aleah opens up a cut across his chest, but Aspen draws a line of crimson across her stomach. They're standing there circling, menacing each other. He doesn't look anything like my brother. I last saw him on the screen this morning, but he looks so much worse.

He sinks the knife blade into her collarbone as her lips curl back, "What would your brother say about how you fight, Araucaria?"

She knows. Somehow, she knows. It's over for Aspen, for me…for all of us. Perfect clarity. We're all going to die. They're going to kill us all for this. We're going to be together again but not how I wanted.

I clutch my hands into fists as he throws down the axe. His words don't make sense. They don't register in my mind. He can't be telling her to kill him. He can't, but he is.

"It stays between us, Aleah. When I die…it's all just…over."

The vicious face relaxes as she approaches him. I want him to attack her, to finish her off. I want him to come home because I can't stand to live without him.

"I've never loved anyone that much." There's almost a look of regret in her eyes.

"Don't make my family suffer, please."

The tears pour down my face. He's giving up—giving in. He's dying for me—for us, for Nella.

"I won't hurt Nella."

"Thank you."

I fall to my knees as she draws the blade across his throat. A brilliant flash of colour pours out from his neck. Slowly, he falls. He's looking right into the camera, right at me for the last time. I try to brush back the tears, so that I can see him. We don't have much time left—I need to see him. I need to be strong until he's gone.

I can see the life leaving his eyes, I can see he's fading fast. He doesn't seem in pain. His lips fumble but no words come. I love you. I know that's what he's trying to say, "I know." My lips move to tell him though he can't really see me. "I love you."

Acacia is screaming beside me, and Ashe is still and pale holding on to Acacia's arm. I can hear my mother sobbing, and my father makes no sound at all. Isabelle helps him stand along with Aidan, but there's no sounds of comfort. There's just ragged breathing emanating from the screen.

I watch his hand move up to his chest, he taps it the way he used to at past reapings. I am safe. I'm fine. I'm still your brother.

I tap my chest back at him, as the light leaves his eyes. A small trickle of blood goes down the corner of his mouth and he's gone, just like that. I just kneel there listening to the sobs around me, only to realize it's me that's making that sound. He's gone. I feel so empty. He's gone.

It's a warm evening as I stand on the platform, brushing back hair from my face. The door opens and out comes Aspen's coffin. The Peacekeeper's help to carry it to her our home, until he can be buried tomorrow. It still hasn't sunk in. He's dead.

The coffin is set down in the middle of the room where Arau presses his face to the smooth wood and cries. Up under that lid lies the brother that was thinking of me in his final moments—who remembered what our signal from his first reaping.

I can't believe he's gone.

Hours pass and finally, I'm left alone with him. Everyone is asleep but me. My hand touches the wood, "I won't leave you."

I open the lid, not because I want to remember him like this—but because I need to accept that it's real. His eyes are closed, his face is peaceful. My hand reaches in to wipe he blood away from his mouth. The ice cold of his skin chills me.

The tears begin to pour as I run my hand in his hair, "I'm sorry." I whisper it, "I I—if Acacia had taken tessarae…" I can't stop the tears from rolling. "I can't believe this is the last time I'll see you. You can't be go-gone. The world can't keep living without you."

I kiss his cheek lightly, "She didn't make it, Aspen." I brush his hair back. "She's with you now." I bite my lip to try to stop it from trembling. "I hope you're happy together. I hope you found each other." I lay my head against his chest, something that used to comfort me but now only reminds me of the absence of his heartbeat.

I take a deep breath, my voice breaks but I promised this to him. It's the last thing I can do. My voice cracks and warbles as I try to keep my promise:

"I'll come back to you

My promise rings true

This isn't how it was meant to be

Not in a box to bury me

The day they came

Who'd believe they call my name?

A token, a lock of your hair

Something of you, to take with me there

I'll come back to you

My promise rings true

This isn't how it was meant to be

Not in a box to bury me

Eyes to the sky

Life flashing by

Scenes of "could have been"

But all dreams must end

I kept my promise true.

I'll come back to you

This isn't how it was meant to be

Not in a box to bury me."

I shut my eyes and lay there against his chest. It's the last time I'll be able to touch him, to see him and I don't want to let go.

Ashe sang him the old banned song, and after she came to me to cry. I stroked her hair and held her close. I can't comfort her when I can't even comfort myself, but we are sisters and that means something.

When the lights creep into the windows, we say our final goodbyes to Aspen. We close the lid back over him, sealing him off from us forever. We make our way down to the graveyard where Nella's family is waiting. We lay them side by side in the one grave where they can rest together.

Each clod that drops is like a knell to my ears, to my heart. He's gone. He's gone forever…

Arau and Isabelle get married the next day. Seven months later, she has a beautiful boy. He comes into the world screaming, and it's the first time I've seen Arau smile since Aspen died. They name him Jonah Aspen Checkov. Everyone thinks he's named after his father and not the uncle who died in the games.

We never take tessarae again. Eventually Ashe falls in love with Aiden and they are married before her last reaping. The reaping comes and goes, and my family remains intact for the most part.

Ever since Aspen died there's been a void that nothing could feel. We eat all our meals together still, and my mother sets the plate for him as if he could be coming in that door any moment. Sometimes, I see her watching the door until I put my hand in hers. She comes back to us then.

Ashe has a child with Aidan after a year, a beautiful boy named Adam Blight. I never marry. I never love anyone the way my siblings did—well not anymore, not since Cedar Burchalynn married someone else. It was too painful for us to be around each other after Aspen and Nella died. Somehow, our happy ending faded away with theirs.

Years have passed, and I can still see the loss in Arau's eyes. Sometimes, I catch him staring at his reflection in a mirror and pretending that Aspen is still there to talk to. He never has a chance to forget—to get past it when everyone calls him his brother's name everyday.

Somehow, we get by. Somehow, we do live the rest of our lives until Adam Blight is reaped.

The reactions are from Arau, Ashe, and then Acacia's POV.