AN: I started writing this months ago, but haven't added to it for a while. I thought maybe starting to publish might encourage me to actually get on with it, so if you've got any thoughts I'd love it if you would put them in a review. But it's fine if you don't want to. Nothing bad will happen. Promise.
For the first night in weeks, I am woken by my mother's screams.
At first, I think I have dreamed them myself, but when I'm sitting up in bed, heart thumping and definitely awake, I can still hear them. My mother is so strong and infallible in the daytime, it's hard to imagine these desperate, haunting cries coming from her, but I know that they are.
She begins to quieten down, so my father must be comforting her. The screams subside and are replaced by sobs. I lay back down again, feeling useless.
Then I hear low creaking sound, and a shaft of light appears at the edge of the doorway. I can see the outline of my little brother's face, and am not surprised to hear a loud sniffing sound. He's only six, and our mother's 'episodes' still scare him.
I sit back up again, and lean over to turn on my bedside light. "Jay," I say softly, "Come here."
He creeps the rest of the way into the room but doesn't meet my outstretched arms. He just stands there in the middle of the floor, looking so tiny and alone that I get out of bed and come and join him instead. His blond curls are sleep-ruffled and his eyes red from tears. He's shivering. I grab the soft blanket from the end of my bed and wrap it round his shoulders, then kneel down and pull him towards me.
"It's all right," I tell him, "Mommy's just had a bad dream. She'll be fine in the morning."
He sniffs again, burying his face into my shoulder. "I don't like it when she's sad."
"Neither do I. But she'll be okay."
We stay like that in silence for a little while. I don't know what else to say. What do you tell a kid whose mother is...ours? We've learnt some stuff about the Games in school, but I know hardly anything about my parents' personal involvement. I know they were part of the Rebellion, that my mother was practically the figurehead of it all, but as for what goes on in her tortured mind at night, I have no idea. I don't want to recall horrible memories for them, so I don't ask.
"You should try and go back to sleep, Mister," I say finally. "School in the morning, remember."
I try to escape what has become a vice-like grip around my ribcage but Jay is holding on for dear life. I sigh. "All right. You can come and sleep in my bed, just this once."
This seems to satisfy him and he lets go of me enough to allow me to pick him up and carry him over to the bed. Once the covers are wrapped around us I lean over and snap off the light.
I don't drift off to sleep until I hear the steady breathing which tells me Jay is already there.
Breakfast the next morning is strange. Both of my parents are making very obvious efforts to be normal and happy. Jay seems oblivious to it - in fact, he seems to have completely forgotten everything about last night - but I can tell they are putting on a front. I wonder why. They have never done this before; usually after a bad night mom is quiet and tired, but she doesn't pretend.
Jay is talking excitedly with my father about a school project to do with types of birds, in what I think is a cunning ploy to get dad to draw all the pictures for him, but dad is having none of it. He does say he'll do some examples for Jay to copy, though. There's more to the conversation but I don't really listen, I'm just watching my mother across the table.
She looks up and catches my eye, then smiles. "You're quiet, sweetie, is everything okay?"
I nod, because I am fine - it's she who obviously isn't. "Yep," I say with as much cheer as I can muster. She holds out her hand for my empty bowl and I give it to her. Then she turns to take it to the kitchen, but she lets the smile drop just a fraction of a second too soon and I catch a glimpse her drawn, miserable face before it disappears over her shoulder.
It's at that moment that I decide I want to know everything.
As usual, Jay and I leave the house together, but before we've reached the end of our road, he is way ahead of me, darting from bush to bush, pretending to be a spy. I grin as I watch him go. He can be an absolute terror when he wants to be, but I love my little brother more than just about anything.
I hear footsteps behind me and before I turn around, I know it's Zebedee Willard, because it always is.
"Morning, freak," he says loudly and I spin around to glare at him.
"You again," I snarl. "I told you to stay away from me!"
He jogs to catch me up. "And I ignored you." He grins. "Howzit?"
I laugh. Zeb is my best friend, has been ever since we were little. I'm not sure when this strange way of greeting each other started, but I can't remember us ever just saying "Hello" to one another. My other friends say it's obvious flirting, but then none of them really have any close friends who are boys, so they don't understand how it is between Zeb and me. It's just not like that at all.
"Good," I say, "How about you?"
"Good," he echoes. "Now, it won't surprise you to learn that I didn't do my homework for Nuthatch, so I'm going to need you to back me up on the otter story, yeah?"
I roll my eyes. Zeb is easily the smartest person in the school, but he's so incredibly lazy. I'm not saying I'm a perfect student, I'm not, but he doesn't even try to do well - always 'forgetting' homework, skipping lessons and making up the most stupid excuses. When it comes to a test, he'll ace every question if he feels like it, or sit there and doodle in the margins if he doesn't. I don't think he realises how frustrating this is for the rest of us, who try so much harder but rarely do as well as he can without even noticing.
"What's the otter story?" I enquire, but he shakes his head.
"Just go along with it when she asks me," he says confidently. I smile, but he frowns back at me, "You look strange."
"Thanks," I deadpan, "That's what I was going for."
Zeb catches hold of my braid and holds it up, forming a pair of scissors with his other hand and pretending he's about to cut it off. "Tell me what's wrong, Mellark, or the rat's tail gets it."
"Please, please, not my beautiful hair," I wail melodramatically, then return to my normal voice. "Nothing's wrong. I just..." his frown deepens, and I decide to cut the long argument and give in. "Okay. You know all that stuff...about my parents and the Games, and... all that?"
He drops my hair, "Not really, and neither do you. You always said you didn't want to know, because it was obviously really bad."
"I know," I sigh, "but I think I do want to know, now. I just want to understand why mom's...the way she is."
"So, what, you're going to go ahead and ask her?"
"No," I say hurriedly, "I don't want her to know I want to know. I thought I'd go to the Archives after school and see what they've got filed under 'Katniss Everdeen'."
Zeb looks at me. "Pearl..." he says, "I know you have a right to know about what happened and everything, but... Once you know it, you can't un-know it, if you know what I mean. And I think it's safe to say that the truth is probably even worse than you can imagine."
"We all know what the Hunger Games were, Zeb," I say impatiently. "The whole idea of it is basically as bad as it gets. I just want to know what happened specifically to my mother. And dad, too. Because they're me, but I hardly know anything about them. I know their favourite colours, their dates of birth, their shoe sizes, but none of that means anything. There's this whole chunk of their lives, the piece that made all the difference, and all I know is they won a game and helped win a war. That isn't enough anymore. I need to know."
There is a pause. "As long as you're sure," he finally says. "Nice speech, by the way. Did it take you long to write?"
"I've been practicing it in my head ever since I decided," I admit with a grin, "Though that was only this morning."
"Do you want me to come with you? To the Archives?" he offers.
I think for a moment, tempted. But something inside me really wants to do this on my own. "No," I tell him, "But thanks."
"No problem, freak," he says amiably. We're nearing school by now, and my friends Ty and Lara are yelling for us to wait up.
Zeb grimaces. Lara has a huge and not very subtle crush on him and he usually tries to avoid her company as much as possible. "Run," I tell him seriously, "Run, before it's too late."
"I think I just might," he agrees. "See you later."
"Bye," I call after him, then dutifully stop walking so the other two can catch me up. I let their constant chatter wash over me without paying much attention. In my mind, I'm already at the Archives, keying in my mother's name, and saying goodbye to my ignorance, my innocence. I can hardly keep my mind off it for the rest of the day.