In honor of my fiftieth story published on Fanfiction, I wanted to do something special. So, I decided to do something I've never done before – a modern day Hunger Games fic and an allegory. So, we end up with this: a modern day allegory to Katniss and Peeta's romance through the Hunger Games trilogy. I debated whether splitting the parts into chapters, but I thought it worked better all together. This is Part I of a three parter that I hope comes across as mildly familiar but completely different, if that makes sense.
Disclaimer: I own nothing.
Do Not Go Gentle
But try not to judge me
'Cause we've walked down different paths
But it brought us here together
So I won't take that back
-Thompson Square, Glass
Panem Children's Hospital is an architectural masterpiece. The brick building has no edges, is nearly a complete circle, and looks like an oversized tidal wave. The cement awning over the ambulance bay is a rainbow with clouds at each end. If someone had told me they had plucked it right off a Saturday morning cartoon and inserted it into it's current location, I would probably believe them. It makes me wonder how many parents take comfort in the exterior when they bring their children here for the first time or if their only concerns are the white-coated doctors and sweet smiling nurses that litter the hallways.
I decide to finally walk inside and see if the outside is any indication of the interior decoration. I'm not disappointed when it looks like a crayon box exploded.
While slathering my hands with sanitizer, my eyes fall on a thin blonde volunteer dragging a plastic wagon with a bald toddler inside. She's attached to an IV pole that drags alongside the wagon and the little girl claps happily. I know she's smiling even through her facemask and her parents, who are dutifully following, look thrilled. It makes me smile a little, knowing that the volunteer is making the girl giggle, but it doesn't replace the churning in my stomach, knowing exactly why the little one is here in the first place.
I take a deep breath and try to take a step toward Information but my feet are stubbornly planted on the rainbow-tiled floors. One step. Two step. Three step. And finally I make it to the desk. The woman sitting there is just as colorful as the walls around her. Her suit is lime green. Her nails are the color of raspberries. Her nametag, which is twice the normal size, is bubblegum pink on the counter.
Effie Trinket, receptionist.
She sets the phone down and smiles up at me. "Yes?"
"I'm here to volunteer?"
Her eyes light up as if I've said the most exciting thing she's heard all day. Her hands fly up in the air and she goes to her computer, her long nails typing furiously away at her keyboard before looking back up at me. I think she'd be a beautiful woman, probably in her earlier thirties, if she didn't look so much like a clown.
"Peeta Mellark?" she asks.
I nod. That's me.
Her fingers go back to typing furiously away at her keypad while the phone wails around her. She sighs heavily and holds the call, and then another, before going back to whatever she has to do to sign me in. I have to admit, her job seems terrible dealing with visitors left and right as well as a wailing telephone. She must be looking for a promotion. Or a raise.
"Do you know where you'll be volunteering?" she asks, attempting to make small talk as she pages the volunteer coordinator to come get me.
"They're just showing me around today."
Effie nods and smiles at me. "Well, I would say neonatal, that's where everyone wants to go. I, in fact, would love to be the receptionist up there."
I just smile. I tell her it sounds wonderful because it seems that Effie isn't one to argue with – she looks like she deals with crabby people too often. However, I don't think I'd do well with neonatal. I'm the youngest of three boys. Don't get me wrong, I love kids, but holding someone's newborn seems like a bad idea for someone who's never been around babies before. Then again, I've never really been around sick kids before either.
I turn as Effie's phone screams again. She picks it up with a plastered grin and the fakest cheery voice I've ever heard. The woman standing at the desk beside me is tall and beautiful. I'm not short but she towers over me in her black heels. She has creamy mocha skin and a smile that instantly warms her. Unlike Effie, she seems to love her job.
"Hi, I'm Portia," she says, taking my outstretched hand in a shake before motioning me to follow her. "How are you?"
We exchange pleasantries and talk about the weather. It's unseasonably warm for October. Once we're inside the elevator, Portia smiles again and tells me where we'll start the tour.
The first place she shows me is the reading room. Inside there is a girl with blond hair in two braids reading a picture book to a group of little ones. Some look healthy and are dressed in street clothes, obviously siblings, and others have facemasks or IV poles and are in their pajamas. They are all sitting at her feet, mesmerized by her tale. She looks a bit young to be a volunteer – since the minimum age requirement is sixteen – so I wonder which one of the little kids is her sibling.
After that, Portia guides me to a large rec room. At a long table, little kids are coloring with two girls – one with dark hair and skin, similar in age to the young blond girl, and one with red hair and foxlike features. A tall dark-skinned boy helps a preteen with no hair kick soccer ball shaped pillows into a net against the far wall. I can do the rec room. I can draw and I play soccer at school. This room seems like a win-win.
Portia shows me a few more areas and then she guides me to her office to get the volunteer uniform, a simple navy collared shirt with the hospital logo on the left side.
"So, why did you decide to volunteer?"
My story is too long and drawn out to tell her. Parts of it are just plain stupid – like the part with my mother. Other parts are too personal – such as the picture of the bird I used to have hanging in my room. So, instead of divulging what could be hours of story onto the coordinator, whose desk clearly demonstrates that she has better things to do, I smile.
I tell her honestly, "I want to make a difference in someone's life."
Portia grins and hands me the shirt. "Good answer."
The second week of kindergarten, one of my classmates stopped coming to school. I didn't really notice all too much because, at five, I was concerned with having the best spot at the coloring table and beating my new best friend Hersh Donner to the playground at recess. However, in music class, when our teacher called out attendance and Katniss Everdeen was absent, I wondered where she was.
Delly Cartwright, who I had known since we were babies and hadn't realized was friendly with any of the girls in our class because she hung around Hersh and me, smiled up at our teacher. "She's sick today."
It was two days later that our kindergarten teacher sat us down and told us that Katniss was very sick, so sick that she wasn't going to be in school for a very long time. Then, she handed out a letter for us to bring to our parents and stuck a jar on her desk.
"This jar," she said, "is Katniss's Jar. We're going to collect any spare change and donate it to her family. So if you have any extra lunch money one day you can plop it right in this jar."
"Maybe I'll get sick," Hersh whispered while our teacher continued passing out the letters. "I could buy a lot with everyone's extra lunch money."
I laughed and thought about it as well. A day or two out of school and suddenly Katniss was getting money? It seemed like a great idea.
Only, I realized that Katniss never seemed to come back.
"Do you think what she has is catchy?" I asked Hersh and Delly while we played on the playground one day a month later at recess. Our teacher had told us to play extra hard because when we got back we were having art time in which we would be writing letters and making get well cards for Katniss. Now I didn't care about the money she was getting – I didn't want to be out of school for a month!
Delly shrugged. "My momma said she's gonna lose all her hair."
Hersh hesitantly raised his hand to his head. "I like my hair."
My card featured a bird on the front. I figured if she was losing all her hair she wouldn't want a picture of a puppy or kitten, since they had hair, and a bird had feathers instead. I didn't finish my card and I asked our teacher if I could finish it at home that night and give it to her in the morning. She seemed thrilled that I was so eager to work on it.
So, later that night, I sat at the decorator's table while my dad showed Rye how to ready the ovens at our family's bakery. He was nine turning ten and our mother thought it was high time he learned how to help. Of course, I noticed that my mother was nowhere to be found and was probably at home with her feet up watching the television but I didn't say anything. Dad had Leaven beating dough as he instructed Rye, and I sat at the table with my crayon box and Katniss's card. I didn't really know what to write in it though.
"Papa, what should I write?"
My father turned around for a split second so he could watch to ensure Rye didn't burn himself and at the same time address me.
"What are you writing, little guy?" he asked. Rye's arm got a little too close to the side of the oven and Dad pulled him slightly toward him.
"A letter to Katniss," I said. So far, the inside of my card was blank aside from Dear Katniss.
Rye stopped moving and looked up at my dad while he ran a hand through his hair. He motioned for Rye to help Leaven and then sat down next to me.
"What kind of letter are you writing?"
"A get better card!" I exclaimed. "She's very sick and our teacher told us a card might make her happy. I hope my card will make her feel better."
My dad nodded. "Why don't you just tell her that?"
"That I hope my card makes her better?" My father nodded and I wrote that down. Then I glanced up at him. "It's been a long time. Why isn't she better already?"
My father sighed and ruffled my hair. "The doctors are doing everything they can," he said. "Sometimes it takes a long time and sometimes there's nothing they can do."
"Is she ever going to get better?"
There was a silence that spread over the bakery. Even Rye and Leaven stopped pounding the dough to hear. My father sighed again. "Nobody knows yet, buddy," he said, almost too quiet for me to hear. "But I'm sure a nice card will do a world of good."
In that moment, I decided I would write to Katniss every day. If she was that sick it was going to take a lot of letters to make her better.
My first shift is in the rec room. Portia tells me to take my pick of any activity and the kids will flock. Especially the younger ones. New volunteers are always an interesting dynamic. I take a seat next to the tiny volunteer I saw on my tour the previous week and now that I'm up close I know she isn't sixteen. She looks more like she's twelve.
"Hey, I'm Peeta," I say.
"Rue," she says, laying out a few sheets of paper as a couple of kids come sit down.
It doesn't take long for me to decide that Rue will be my new confidante. Although she's young, Rue knows the inner workings of the place like the back of her hand. Her uncle is one of the surgeons and she's spent plenty of time here with volunteers being babysat like siblings of sick kids do and her uncle swung it so she could finally volunteer herself. So she sits here and colors everyday except Friday and watches the older volunteers from afar.
"Are all the volunteers nice?" I ask.
She shrugs and then looks around. She points to a blond boy and a dark-haired girl standing up against a wall, just watching a few kids playing but not engaging with them. "Those are the people you don't want to hang around with," she says. "Cato and Clove, and a few others too. We call them Careers."
The name almost makes me laugh. It's like we've got cliques here. "Careers?"
Rue nods her head. "They volunteer just for the application boost when they apply to college. You can tell because they don't really care."
I take note of that. Stay away from Careers.
"Since you volunteer on Tuesdays, you won't really see Thresh, but if you do, he's cool. He's from my town," she continues.
Thresh equals cool. Got it.
She goes on and on, saying name after name and before long I've lost track of everything. She tells me what to expect from each room I'm sent to volunteer in – little kids in the reading room, healthiest in the rec room, and once I've been here long enough they might have me passing out juice and buckets in the medication room. Of course, Rue will always be in the rec room at the coloring table – it's the only place she can be since she's twelve, unless she wants to go to the reading room and she'd rather draw.
By the end of my shift, I am no longer being glanced warily at by the kids. I am surrounded. One of them, a tiny girl with pale red hair who is being watched for asthma complications, has even decided to sit on my lap, her nurse chuckling and rolling her eyes.
"Posy is such a flirt," the nurse says, winking at Rue while Posy continues to color in the mockingbird she asked me to outline for her.
Rue grins and tells Posy she likes her drawing. The five-year-old smiles brightly and waves it in my face, asking me if I like it. I'm about to open my mouth without even looking but then my eyes land on her coloring job. I have to fight to keep the color from draining out of my face. The mockingbird I drew is colored in with blue crayon – dark blue feathers for the body and light blue feathers on the belly area. It has two beady black eyes with yellow surrounding them. I swallow the lump in my throat.
Posy has drawn a mockingjay.
Right before Christmas break, I got my first reply from Katniss. I had already written her multiple times, drawing different things on the cover of every card but making sure it never had hair. I would draw birds, mittens, balloons, fish, but I stayed away from things that might remind her that she was losing her hair. If I remembered her correctly, I knew she had pretty hair and was probably devastated to lose it.
My teacher handed me the letter with a smile. Every card I made went to her in the morning so she could mail them to where Katniss's family was staying. The reply came through her as well. I just about ran home, Rye having to yell at me four times to make me slow down and Leaven telling me that if I ran out in the street and got run over by a car our mother was going to kill me. I sat down at the kitchen table and waited patiently for our father to come home from the bakery. Our mother held the shop down during the afternoon and a few employees did the bread orders so my father could come home to watch us in the afternoons.
When he came through the door, I shoved the letter in his hands and insisted he read it to me.
"Alright, alright," he said, sitting down in his chair and pulling me in his lap.
He ruffled my hair and took out the letter. I was so eager to hear from Katniss. I wanted to know what it was like where she was. I told her all about what she was missing at home and school – like how we had a spelling test every Friday and how there was a cat hiding under the bakery porch that hissed at my brothers but not me. I asked her what I should name it and warned her that it was really ugly. I also told her that when she got better and came home, I would show it to her and that I bet it wouldn't hiss.
My father cleared his throat and unfolded the paper. I noticed it wasn't in a card like mine had been, but there was something colorful on the second piece of paper because I could see through the back of the sheet. Then my father read it.
Katniss is too weak to write you back herself, but she wanted me to tell you that she was very excited to receive your letters. She is very fortunate to have someone back home who is praying so hard for her recovery. If you have not named the cat under your porch yet, she said that Buttercup would be a lovely name. She has also given you one of the pages in her coloring book as a thank you for your letters. She waits on them and gets excited when one arrives. She truly enjoys having a pen pal.
Thank you so much for writing to our daughter. You have brightened her spirits and given her hope.
Mr. and Mrs. Everdeen
My dad set the letter portion down on the side table and held out the drawing so we could both look at it. It was a mockingbird but it was colored in with blue crayon. It had dark blue feathers and a light blue belly, yellow surrounding the black eyes. It looked more like a blue jay than a mockingbird, my father said. But, I liked it just the same. I asked him if he would hang it up in my room and I looked at it every day before leaving for school. After a while, I decided to call it a mockingjay.
I told Katniss about what I named it in my next letter.
I tell myself it is a big fat coincidence but it doesn't stop me from tearing my room apart in attempts of finding the picture of the mockingjay Katniss had sent me eleven years ago. I finally find it hidden in a box under my bed filled with old clothes I'll never fit in again. Katniss's coloring was sloppier than Posy's, but the basic concept was the same. Dark and light blue feathers. Yellow eyes.
My mind goes into overdrive, attempting to figure out what all this means, if it means anything at all. Knowing me, I am dramatizing it. Posy had merely used the same grouping of colors that Katniss had used more than a decade ago. There was no indication that Posy knew anything about what this bird was or who it had come from. Maybe, since Katniss's illness, the bird had gone around the hospital. Maybe every patient drew pictures of mockingjays.
Maybe I was going insane and Posy had just chosen the three crayons closest to her.
Besides, Katniss was long since healed or dead by this point. Eleven years? Surely she wasn't still there. No, I knew better. Katniss had died years ago or at least that's the rumor that went around town. The Everdeens had never come back. But I had scoured the obituaries in the newspaper like my father had when my grandmother died, waiting for the write up on the little girl in my class. It never came.
Suddenly, I feel my stomach sink. Had I stopped writing to a little girl who was still alive? Had she waited patiently for my next letter only to never receive one again? But, more importantly, was she still alive? I had just assumed for so long that she was dead but now –
My cell phone vibrates on the desk and I see it's Hersh, telling me soccer practice is canceled tomorrow. I type back a quick one-word response and then lay down in my bed, closing my eyes, and replaying that day in my head.
I had been writing my latest letter to Katniss, telling her about how the mayor's daughter was sick and for her to keep an eye out for her because she had to go to the hospital, when Mr. Cartwright came into the bakery. I liked Mr. Cartwright. He was good friends with my dad and he was a funny guy, still is, and Delly's father always had a good joke. That day, however, he looked soberly at my father as they chatted. I leaned my chair a bit closer to hear.
"Yeah, I heard that she's not doing well at all. Someone's watching the little one for now because they can't take the baby into ICU."
My father let out a breath. "That bad?"
"It's touch and go. Her fever was up to a hundred and four last night and she's having seizures. Meningitis, apparently. As if the kid doesn't have enough problems to deal with." Mr. Cartwright shook his head. "I don't know what I'm going to tell Delly when she dies. She's been talking all the time about her."
"Yeah, Peeta's been writing her letters. Maybe she'll pull through."
"Yeah, well, they're looking for a miracle right now."
I had torn up my letter after that. My letters hadn't worked. Katniss wasn't getting better. She was dying. I left the mockingjay hanging up in my room so I could look at it and hope Katniss's picture wouldn't be in the paper. However, after a while, I figured her parents just hadn't put it in. Then other kids started getting sick too and the whole atmosphere of the town changed.
I was in the second grade when statisticians, epidemiologists, and public health workers from the CDC and NIH declared that our town had a cancer cluster and evacuated eight hundred people who lived closest to the old mine. People remembered Katniss because she was the first one – the warning that a storm was rolling in. Now at school we get a day off once a year just to get blood drawn by state department workers. We call it the reaping because every year there's always one or two kids that show wacky results and get sent to Panem Children's to get the final word that they too have been diagnosed with the same cancer as Katniss and countless others. It's almost stopped now. Last year no one got reaped and I've been lucky to not have any friends or family immediately affected.
With a sigh, I lift the mockingjay picture back in my hands. It's going to nag me until I find out. I need to know if Katniss Everdeen is still alive and I know just who to ask. The girl who's been there the longest. The girl who knows everything. My confidante.
Wednesdays are not my day to volunteer. I volunteer on Tuesdays but that's because it's the only day my schedule allows. My mother is a psycho and insists that I'm busy from sun up to sun down. In fact, the only reason I was volunteering at Panem Children's was because she came up with a whacked out idea that it would look good on my college applications. So, I guess I technically started out as a Career. I don't really need anything else to boost them as I'm already so spread thin. I'm president of the junior senate, a varsity athlete, a member of the art club, the math team, and the key club, as well as being in the top of my class. When I'm not at school, I help my dad out at our family's bakery and, somehow, I manage to find time to read to kids at the library. Now I can add hospital volunteer to the ever-growing list.
And, apparently, I'm a super human that doesn't need sleep.
It doesn't matter to my mother, though, she's planning on me and my brothers making millions so we can pay for her to retire and move to some tropical island. She goes back and forth between hating our living situation and bragging to all her friends about how wonderful it is that I can't keep track. I'll be honest, our town's an old mining town. We're not wealthy, none of us are, but we're not poor either. Talking to my mother, you'd think we were the destitute of the destitute.
But the people that used to live near the old mine – oh, they're beneath us, Peeta.
I can't wait to go to college if it only means getting away from her even if I have to pay back loans until I'm forty.
"Hey, what are you doing after school?" Hersh asks, sliding into the chair beside me. We have history together and today we have a sub. I was planning on devising a plan that wouldn't make it look creepy to ask Rue if she knew a girl that got treated there when she was a toddler and not a volunteer yet. The more I think about it, the more the idea sounds terrible in my mind and I've convinced myself not to go twice already.
But I got to know if she's alive or not. If she's alive and I stopped writing to her I'm going to feel terrible. What I'm going to do with this information – besides feel guilty about not helping her more if she is alive – I don't really know.
"I'm going to Children's," I say.
Hersh raises an eyebrow. "You really like volunteering there, eh?" he asks. "Your mother will be really happy if you've decided to become Dr. Peeta."
I send him a look and he recoils. "Okay, leaving her out this. Got it. Why are you going? I thought we could have fun since practice got canceled."
Of course he did. That's what we usually do.
"Sorry," I tell him. "But I have to get some test done. It's standard procedure. You have to be healthy to volunteer with sick kids."
I perfected lying years ago by telling my mother I was joining the science club while I was really going to play with my friends. She's not a big fan of some of their families, says they're trash for having so many kids and then complaining about feeding them all. Most of these families live closer to the old mine than us and that's why she doesn't like them, not because they have a lot of kids because some of them don't. One of my brother's friends, Thom, is an only child and she makes the same comments about him.
"Makes sense," Hersh mutters. "But that shouldn't take too long. Text me when you're out and we'll hang."
I agree, but I don't plan on texting him.
The ride down the highway is excruciatingly long and Effie decides today is a wonderful day to tell me her life story while printing my nametag which will clear me to go upstairs. It takes her twenty minutes to tell me about how she was looking through her school yearbook last night and was still trying to block out the memory of dyeing her hair pink. I don't have the heart to stop her, mainly because I think Effie gets bored at her desk and partially because my excuse for leaving is pretty weak. Finally she lets me go when her phone starts ringing and I bolt to the elevators, greeting Darius the guard as I go.
"You volunteering more, Peeta?" he asks as he checks my tag and presses a button on the elevator.
"Nah, just visiting."
Darius shrugs. "Kids really like you, I hear. Portia was talking about it the other day."
Why am I not surprised Portia is on speaking terms with everyone in this hospital?
Rue is sitting right where I expect her to be. More than it has during any other time since its inception last night, my idea seems ludicrous. Rue would have been, what, not even two when Katniss was diagnosed. How would she know? Posy picked the colors randomly, Rue doesn't know Katniss, and I'm overreacting. I just have a feeling in my gut that tells me to go for it anyway. I'm here now. Might as well.
"Peeta!" Rue says when she sees me. She hands a crayon to the little boy beside her and smiles. "What are you doing here?"
Here goes nothing.
"Do you by any chance know any former patients here?" I ask. It seems okay until everything comes tumbling out. "It's just that I knew a girl that got treated here a long time ago and I want to know if she's still alive."
Rue shrugs. "You can try but it depends on how long ago it was."
Don't be disappointed when she has nothing for you.
"Her name was Katniss Everdeen."
Rue's eyes widen for a moment and then she smirks. "Katniss Everdeen?" she asks. Then she looks me up and down. "Did you know her well?"
I wrote her letters and then stopped because I thought she was dead.
"Not really," I admit. "She was in my kindergarten class."
Rue nods but the smile hasn't left her face. "Can you take my spot for a minute?" she asks, standing up and motioning for me to take her seat and help the kids coloring. "I'll be right back."
She doesn't take long but when she comes I notice she's brought the blond girl with the braids from the reading room. She looks just as young as Rue and both of them are eyeing me with eager interest.
"Hi," the blond says. "My name's Prim."
"Peeta," I tell her.
I want to turn to Rue, glare at her a little, and tell her I don't have time for games, but Prim crosses her arms over her chest in a protective manner and I immediately feel as if she's trying to threaten or scare me.
"So, Peeta," she says. "My sister never mentioned having any friends back home."
I raise an eyebrow. What?
"Let me explain," she continues. "I'm Primrose Everdeen and if you want to see my sister, you have to tell me just how you know her and why you're thinking about her now. I'm not letting you in until I know."
Oh my God. She's still alive.
Two weeks ago, if someone had asked me about Katniss Everdeen I would have said she was a little girl who died when I was in elementary school. There really wouldn't have been much else I could tell you about her. Maybe I could tell you that she named the cat that spent three months under our porch recuperating from a fight Buttercup, or that she had pretty dark hair. I couldn't tell you the color of her eyes or even point her out in a crowd.
However, after Prim drags me halfway across the city, I know instantly the girl sitting on the steps of the porch is Katniss Everdeen. Dark hair tied in a braid over her shoulder. Her nose pressed in a book that she doesn't seem to be enjoying all too much. Her feet barefoot next to a backpack. A soft hum echoing out of her lips that sounds just as beautiful as the birds chirping along in a nearby bush.
And, I can tell you, in this moment, that I wholeheartedly believe in love at first sight.
"Katniss!" Prim says to get her attention.
I never really anticipated what might happen if I actually met Katniss. When I was five I thought I would meet her, show her Buttercup, and then we'd be friends. I thought having another girl in our group might be good for Delly. However, Buttercup left and Katniss never came back so I kind of forgot, but not really I guess because here I am hoping Katniss will look up, recognize me, and – as much as I don't want to admit it – say she's been in love with me for years.
Oh, man, this is not good.
Katniss looks up from her book and Prim nudges my arm as her sister eyes me with curiosity. "This is Peeta Mellark!" Prim states.
Katniss's eyes widen with recognition and I know instantly that she remembers me. That's a good sign, right? A laundry list of reactions runs through my head as my stomach flops and we make eye contact. I try to remember movies that Delly's made me watch over the years where one of the characters has almost died. Katniss is a survivor. I don't have any idea what that entails for her personality. I'm kind of assuming she's nice and appreciates the world around her now that she knows how easy it is to be taken away.
I am not prepared for her to slam her book shut, grab her backpack, and storm into the house without saying a word.
Prim sighs beside me. "Sorry," she mumbles. "Katniss isn't a people person."
Yeah, you can say that again. But, I suppose it makes sense that she might be guarded. She's probably seen a lot of death and that hardens a person. Look at my mother – any ounce of compassion left her body when my grandparents died.
"That's okay," I tell her. "This is more than I expected anyway. I just wanted to know that she was alright."
Prim smiles. "She's fine. She's been in remission for four years now. That's the longest she's ever gone!"
That information makes my heart soar and tumble at the same time. I'm glad she's healthy but at the same time I wish I had done more. My letters might have helped her once, but her life was never easy. Prim's statement leads me to believe that Katniss has seen her fair share of days on the inside of a hospital room. She could've used her pen pal.
"It's going to take some work," Prim continues. "But, if you want to be her friend, it will be worth it, I swear!"
One look at Prim and I know the request isn't because she thinks I want to be friends with her sister. She wants me to be friends with her sister. It makes me wonder how many friends Katniss Everdeen really has if her twelve-year-old sister is begging a stranger to take her under his wing.
"Well, it's your lucky day, Prim," I tell her. "I'm a hard worker."
I never knew a little girl could smile so widely.
Homecoming is fast upon us and Delly decides to campaign for a circus theme.
"Are you kidding?" Hersh complains, tearing apart a cinnamon roll while the two sit at the counter, entertaining me while I work my Saturday shift. "Circus? What, do we all show up in fancy costumes and parade around like wild animals?"
Delly glares. "I thought it was original."
"Well, it's stupid."
I can feel their eyes on me before I even look up from doodling on a cake order slip. Delly looks at me with wide eyes, wanting me to agree with her, while Hersh's eyes clearly state that the opinion is trash and if I agree with Delly he's going to tell the soccer team about how big a wimp I am.
I decide to segue into a different conversation – because a circus theme is stupid and I don't feel like picking sides right now.
"Are we allowed to bring dates from other schools?"
Not like I'm going to get Katniss to trust me or even particularly like me – romantically or platonically – in the next few weeks. The only contact we've had with each other is a slammed door. It's just a question to fuel my one-sided love affair. It unnerves me to no end that I haven't been able to stop thinking about her in the three days it's been since Prim took me to their house. I have dreams about running my fingers through her braid, untangling the dark tresses and feeling the softness with my scarred baker's skin. One too many times I've woken up in a cold sweat thinking about the color of her skin, which is so much darker than mine, and how soft I imagine it to be. My fingers begin to tingle in excitement just thinking about –
"Hello? Earth to Peeta?" Hersh says, waving a hand in my face. "Geez, this volunteer must be gorgeous."
"Peeta?" Delly asks, her eyes wide. Hersh may be oblivious, but Delly can read me like a book – scouring the pages to find all the hidden meanings between every line, every deliberate metaphor that I haven't laid out yet and probably don't need to. She doesn't know I've met Katniss or even that I still remember her, but she can see through me the minute my face drops at Hersh's mention of volunteer.
She knows my love interest isn't a volunteer. She just doesn't know the patient isn't sick anymore.
Hersh laughs and pats my shoulder before going back to his cinnamon bun. "Dude, it's fine. After that gnarly break up with Bristel last year, you need to get yourself back out there."
Gnarly isn't a strong enough word for what happened between me and Bristel. It had been a week of me, a lowly sophomore, being noticed by a beautiful senior when my mother found out from Leaven, who had been Bristel's classmate, when he accidently made a reference to where she lived in a jab at me during dinner. It was made clear that night that under no circumstance were any of the Mellark brothers to engage in any activity with anyone that lived even a fraction of a hair closer to the old mine than we did – this included Leaven's long time girlfriend, the florist's daughter, that lived next door to us but on the wrong side until my father set her straight. Bristel and me, however, were a no go and apparently beautiful senior girls do not take well to sophomore boys trying to tell them sorry, my mother says you're not good enough. Of course, I didn't say it in so many words, but everyone in town knows my mother's opinions.
"Peeta, are you sure this is a good idea?" Delly asks.
Hersh rolls his eyes. "Delly, it's not like they have to get married," he hisses. "Besides, if you get your way, it won't even be a dance. It'll be a bunch of kids pretending to be lions jumping through rings of fire."
"Sorry if not wanting another stupid red carpet theme is ruining your life," Delly retorts before turning back to me. "But she's okay, right?"
It's not a question. It's a demand. She doesn't want to see me get hurt and is probably thinking the worst – gullible Peeta has unknowingly fallen under the spell of a girl marked for death. She's already imagining Romeo and Juliet, Daisy and Gatsby, and every other pair of star-crossed lovers we've covered in our English class. Delly is all too willing to parallel me and my unknown (and unrequited) love to each and every one of these literary tragedies.
"She's fine," I say.
Delly drops it for now. I will be getting an earful at some point. Today is not the day though, not with Hersh sitting next to us wondering how he can manage to volunteer with me to meet some beautiful girl like I have. Delly smacks the back of his head and I can't help but grin.
Prim and Rue are friends. It does not surprise me in the slightest. Not only are they the same age, but they are very similar in many ways. Both are caring individuals who feel a need to reach out and lend a helping hand. Apparently, they've known each other for a while. Rue had told me that she used to go to the reading room when she was younger and it was the reason she started to volunteer. It never clicked in my head, until Prim mentioned it when she took me to her house, that they would meet there – Rue, the doctor's niece, and Prim, the sister of the patient.
On Tuesday, Rue has a huge grin on her face when I arrive. Prim conned one of the volunteers in the rec room to take her spot in the reading room so she could sit with me and Rue at the coloring table.
"So, we've decided how you're going to start your mission," Prim announces when she sits down in front of us. She smiles at a little boy and hands him a crayon.
"Mission?" I ask.
Rue giggles. "Mission Befriend Katniss, of course."
I feel like she wants to add in a long duh but refrains.
"You just need to talk to her," Prim states. The way she says it is almost like she's asking me to drink a glass of water. How do I just talk to a girl I never see? We don't live in the same area. We never see each other. The only time I could ever possibly meet up with her is if I went to her house.
Which, as it turns out, is exactly our mission.
"You're going to drive Prim home," Rue instructs. "She'll invite you in for a drink and snack as a gracious host. Katniss will be there, you strike up conversation, and there we go."
"I have to warn you," Prim interjects. "Talking to Katniss is like pulling teeth sometimes."
Why does this not surprise me? Call me the Great Masochist. I fell for a functional mute and my personality thrives on conversation. I suppose it fits the model of opposites attract. Oh, if only Hersh could see my situation now, he'd never beg me for an application form again. Two twelve-year-olds are setting me up. The situation is so pathetic I kind of want to laugh.
As the plan goes, I drive Prim home. She's so into it that she asks me to come in for apple cider and cookies while we're still in the truck and not within hearing range of any other human. I humor her and she leads me up the steps. To be honest, the last time I was so focused on Katniss I didn't notice their house. It's a beautiful Victorian with a large front porch and stately entrance. There is nothing about this house that I will find when I drive home to an old mining town with houses bursting at the seams with people. I secretly wonder how Katniss's parents can afford a place like this after all the medical bills that I can imagine piled up with a daughter as sick as she was. Prim, however, bounces up the steps with a spring in her gait so I don't bring her down from her high by prying into business that isn't mine.
As soon as the front door opens, Katniss comes into view.
"Prim, you're home early!" she exclaims, standing up from her spot at the bottom of the steps. She notices me and frowns, her eyes going to Prim. The little blond smiles but turns away. The plan suddenly seems like a sinking ship.
"Kat, you remember Peeta, right?" she asks, too slow for someone as confident as Prim had been just moments ago in the truck. "I invited him for cider and cookies."
Prim grabs Katniss's hand and leads her into the kitchen, beginning her talk of her day that seems like a routine for them – telling Katniss something about a teacher, a boy named Rory, and finally how she volunteered at the coloring table and how nice it was that I offered to give her a ride home so she didn't have to walk.
Katniss eyes me curiously, but doesn't say a word.
I watch as Prim opens the fridge, pulling out the apple cider she's been talking about and three glasses. She then takes out two plates, takes two cookies out of a glass display, and puts them in front of me and Katniss, taking her own drink in her hand and smirking.
"I'm going to go say hi to Haymitch," she sings as she bounces off out of the room.
Suddenly I am completely alone with the girl I've been thinking about nonstop for almost a week and I have nothing to say. So, I draw on what Prim said. "Who's Haymitch?"
Katniss eyes me again. I've never really had anyone look at me warily before but that's the overwhelming emotion I'm getting from her. She shrugs. "My lifeline," she answers. Vague and completely mysterious. I'm no closer to knowing who Haymitch is than I am meeting the president.
Again, we fall into an awkward silence I don't know how to break. As I try to think of anything and everything to say, Katniss opens her mouth. But before she can speak, a loud set of footsteps, followed by another pair of smaller ones, echo through the home.
I am suddenly met with the face of Haymitch Abernathy.
He's a pretty big legend back home so I'm surprised the name didn't click in my head when I heard it. He made millions shooting archery at the Olympic level, winning sponsorships like no tomorrow. He's the only person who really did anything from our town worth mentioning. However, he fell in a bottle when his wife died in some freak accident, and everyone in town spread rumors about how he was just some washed up deadbeat. He looks exactly the same as he does in the picture hanging up in the front lobby of the high school, only older. He's got dark hair, gray eyes, and a tall lumbering build that could intimidate anyone. He's got the same features as Katniss in a way.
"Well, well, well," he chortles, his hand clasping a glass that reeks of alcohol. He doesn't seem drunk, though, so I suppose that's a good thing. "Sweetheart, you made a friend! I'm so proud of you."
Prim elbows him and he spills his drink – rum and coke, it looks like – on the tile floor.
"Uncle Haymitch," she says. "Don't make fun of her!"
Uncle Haymitch. Explains the house, I guess.
Prim's obviously not too offended by Haymitch's jeers at her sister because she's fighting back giggles. Katniss, on the other hand, glares at him. They stare at each other, communicating silently, before Haymitch laughs and pulls a bottle of scotch out of the cooler in the island Katniss and I are sitting at. He pours it into his glass and slams the bottle on the table.
"Now, where'd you come from, kid?"
It's takes me a second too long to realize the question is directed at me. Prim answers instead.
"Peeta volunteers with me," she says. "And he knew Katniss from back home."
Haymitch nearly spits his drink out and looks at Katniss with newfound knowledge. He looks back and forth between us, trying to figure out the connection. "Must be intense," he says slowly, testing the waters. "If you, uh, last saw each other when you five."
I don't know their relationship, but I know just from the look he's giving her that he thinks Katniss is pulling a fast one on him. At least, that's what it looks like. I can't really read the guy, just like I can't read Katniss. Speaking of the dark-haired beauty, she stands up and storms out of the room and out the door. I look to Prim, asking her what to do with the expression on my face, but it's Haymitch who mentors me on how to handle it.
"Go," he says, taking another sip of his scotch. "But, be warned, there's nothing worse than a pissed off Katniss."
He turns and pats Prim's head. "Let's go, blondie. I think one of the geese is pregnant."
I'm beginning to wonder just exactly what I'm getting myself into.
Katniss is sitting on the porch swing when I step outside. I stand a good distance away, not sure what wrath to expect or what exactly happened to get her so upset. I decide it's up to her to take the lead with this. It doesn't take long for her fists to clench and for her to stand, walking right up to get in my face. I'm not exceptionally tall, but I've got a good head on her in height and it still doesn't make her any less intimidating.
"Fire away," I tell her, hoping to ignite the flame I can nearly see growing inside the little spitfire.
And she does.
"You have no right!" she screams. "No right coming here after all these years. You don't even talk to me for a decade and suddenly, what, you're here? Making friends with Prim? What is this?" Her face contorts into a knowing glare. "It's a dare. Go find the sick girl from kindergarten and bring her back as some prize. What do you want from me?"
At some point between me having no right and making friends with Prim, she started beating my chest with her fists.
"I want to be your friend," I say.
This is the wrong thing to say because I am shoved backwards and land in a potted plant. My hand is slashed by a shard of broken pottery and starts bleeding down my arm. Katniss looks green for a minute, as if she's sorry, and then shakes her head.
"I have no friends," she says. "So just leave me alone."
One of the perks of getting to know Effie is that when I walk into Children's to see if I could get help there, she calls down to one of her friends at the triage desk in the ER. I am shuffled down to one of the medical students, who are on break in the lounge, and she looks at me without even asking for my information, so I'm not charged with an ER visit. I just have to come down and get the stitches out next Tuesday.
Delly's circus theme loses miserably and, for the third year in a row, the chosen theme is red carpet. I think people just enjoy pretending their famous Hollywood actors. The red carpet theme is about as close as any of us will ever get to Los Angeles, let alone staring in a feature film.
And, since Mission Befriend Katniss failed epically and I haven't seen her in weeks, I'm going stag. Hersh doesn't understand what happened to my gorgeous co-volunteer and Delly's convinced my date died. I don't have the ego to tell them I never had a date in the first place, nor how I ended up with stitches in my hand.
However, before the dance, we have the big soccer game to win.
Since our school has no football team – which, by the way, is unheard of in our football fanatic section of the country – our homecoming surrounds a big soccer match up. When our team advanced in the district play to send us to the state championships, the school voted to move homecoming to after that. No pressure, but no one really wanted to go to homecoming if we lost, so it was basically incentive from the student body to win.
I told Prim and Rue they were invited to come, since it was in the state capitol where Prim lives and I figured she'd want someone to come with her – and there was no way in my mind that Katniss would show even if Prim begged for a companion.
Our team, the Rebels, is slated to play the Mutts, a team I know nothing about. So, it surprises me when I see that Cato and Marvel, two of my fellow volunteers – Careers, as Rue would call them – play for the Mutts. We even talk formalities during warm up. Rue waves to me from the stands. It's like a regular reunion. I do notice Prim isn't there and she hasn't brought Katniss, but I don't let it bother me. I have a game to play.
Halfway through the first half, I'm doing fairly well. I play defense and have been tackling Cato all night. He's getting pretty perturbed actually that he can't get by me to shoot on our goalie. The score is stalemated at zero-zero when I see two sisters that look nothing alike walk into the stadium. The blond skips ahead while the dark-haired one walks slower with her arms over her chest. She clearly doesn't want to be here.
But she is here and I get so distracted Marvel pushes by me and I'm knocked to the ground, having to lift myself up to backtrack and make up lost ground. Suddenly, now that I know she's here and can see me, I feel like I have something to prove.
During halftime, I try to catch her eye but she deliberately looks anywhere but me. Prim and Rue, on the other hand, wave wholeheartedly and my team wolf-whistles and laughs about how I've got babies crushing on me. I decide, as I take my spot back out on the field, that this game is for Katniss. I'm playing to show her I'm dedicated to the sport, showing some character I think she'd appreciate. After the game I can talk to her, show her that I'm not such a terrible person after all.
It's around the time that I'm getting excited – because if she came it must mean something – that I slide tackle Cato and the two of us end up a mess of sprawling limbs, the source of a pig pile of Mutt offense and Rebel defense.
Around the time my eyes are covered by a body, a pop explodes in my knee and I begin to see stars. Then, my head hits a cleat, the stars disappear, and my world fades into blackness.
When I wake up, the first thing I see is a Newfoundland-sized elephant on the wall and I think I've lost my mind. Then I feel the prick in my arm and let my eyes travel up the tube to the IV pole and see I'm attached to a bag of morphine. My mouth emits a low groan without my instructions and I hear a sigh of relief. When I turn, I'm greeted with the sight of my parents.
My father looks thrilled but my mother just looks conflicted.
"Welcome back, kiddo," Dad says.
The rest of the day goes by in a blur of white coats and long phrases. I meet with a surgeon. I meet with the neurologist. Nothing of what either of them says goes through my head. Then, they let me go home with the instructions to stay off my feet for a few weeks and, once the swelling in my knee goes down, I can have surgery to reconstruct my ACL. My parents have to wake me up every few hours through the night for my concussion. But, otherwise, I'm totally fine.
It's three days later, when Hersh and Delly stop by with some homework, that I realize I missed homecoming. Hersh says it was lame anyway.
It takes two weeks for the swelling to go down enough for the doctors to operate. To be honest, by the time the doctors deem me ready, I don't even want it anymore. It's expensive and my parents have been arguing since we got home about it. My mother thinks it's unnecessary – she saw a show on television once where the patient just had rehab and didn't need surgery. My father is siding with the surgeon – I've busted it enough that, without surgery, I may not be able to walk on it. Ultimately, my father wins but my mother doesn't come to see me into surgery claiming someone has to watch the bakery while my father plays nurse.
Dr. Chaff introduces me to his team that will be with me during the surgery but the only one I really remember is the anesthesiologist, a woman who insists I don't call her doctor, but by her first name, Cecelia. As they wheel me in, she tells me stories of her three kids and tells me I remind her of them. She fixes a mask over my face and tells me to count down from sixty. A minute, she says, and the entire surgery will be over.
I make it down to fifty before I'm surrounded by wilderness, similar to the woods near my home.
The next time I wake up is in post-op. Unlike every other part of Panem Children's, the room is stark white with nothing on the walls but a thick layer of boring paint. It doesn't take me long to close my eyes and fall back under.
Finnick Odair is a young guy unlike Dr. Chaff, Cecelia, and my day nurse Seeder. He doesn't look much older than Rye and he acts younger than Leaven. I think that may be why I like him so much. He's a jokester, likes to flirt with Seeder when she wheels me down from my room to the rehabilitation floor, and tells me that he doesn't take cash for his services, but secrets. I told him he was going to end up being a very poor physical therapist. He told me I wasn't looking at things the right way.
The first week and a half after my surgery is torture.
"Come on, Peeta," Finnick says. I'm doing supported bilateral calf-raises. If anyone saw me nearly crying while trying to stand on my toes for more than five seconds, I'd be the laughing stock of the whole school. I feel absolutely pathetic. Finnick has to basically hold me up.
Then, when I see someone walk in I never thought I'd ever see again, Finnick takes all my weight. Luckily, he's strong and already worried about me giving out on him because he probably wasn't expecting me to go 'dead weight' on him so quickly.
"You're lucky you have me and not Johanna," Finnick says. It's a joke, but not really. "She'd have already taken away your crutches."
I don't respond and Finnick eyes me for a moment before turning around to follow my line of vision.
"Katniss!" he exclaims. "I thought I told you to never show your face around here again!"
The more I think about it, the more I realize Katniss probably isn't here to see me. I'm not exactly sure why she would be here though so my brain is going through hyper drive trying to figure out what she could possibly be doing. It's not like she had some sort of tumor that had to be removed and would require her to do PT. She had leukemia, just like everyone else in town affected by the cluster, and I'm not sure why she would need PT for that – of course, I'm not an expert by any means.
"Hello, Finnick," Katniss says. She's still scowling like every time I've seen her, but her lips upturn in a tiny smile when Finnick sets me down in my wheelchair to go over to her. My crutches lay forgotten on the floor and I wish more than anything my arms weren't sore and chafed from using them. Being seen in a wheelchair by Katniss is not at the top of my most wanted list.
"Do you have any secrets for me, sugar?" he asks, batting his eyes like a toddler trying to get out of trouble.
"Sorry, you already know I'm an open book."
Well, that's news to me. I can't read Katniss at all. However, Finnick agrees, throwing an arm over her shoulder and laughing about how all her secrets show on her face. Katniss ducks out of his arm, pushing him away like she did to me the last time we talked, only she's not trying to push him into some potted plant and Finnick barely moves.
Then, she looks at me and I swear in that moment I could do the calf-raises all by myself.
"What are you doing here?" I ask.
She shrugs. "Prim wanted to say hi," she says, her eyes looking down at her feet. She's wearing her winter boots, even though we haven't seen the first snow yet because it's unseasonably warm, and despite being clunky, she's soundless as she walks. "But, she's not allowed down here, so I told her I'd do it."
"You're not allowed down here either, brainless," a voice says behind me. Johanna Mason, one of the other physical therapists, walks by us with her lunch bag over her shoulder. I'm not afraid to admit that I'm glad I got assigned Finnick instead of her. Like Finnick said earlier, I'd probably be walking without my crutches by now, but she's a little rough around the edges.
Finnick chuckles and Johanna sends Katniss a smirk, reaching forward to pinch her cheek. "Just because you have this whole place wired to your every beck and call doesn't mean we all want to see you."
"Aww, leave her alone, Jo," Finnick says in a voice that could get him hired as a toddler's television show host. "I love seeing former patients. Makes me feel all ooey and gooey inside knowing I helped 'em."
Johanna rolls her eyes and walks out of the room toward the lounge.
Finnick smirks and looks between Katniss and me before grabbing his clipboard. "We were almost done, Peeta. I'll let you go early and we'll go long tonight." And, with that, he takes his lunch and just about sprints after Johanna. Not for the first time am I extremely thankful for Finnick's lack of professionalism.
We're silent while we wait for Seeder to come back for me. Katniss bounces on her toes, back and forth, back and forth. It's soothing to watch her move because, even in her frantic motions, she's exceedingly graceful. However, it doesn't take my mind off the fact she gave Prim as an excuse for her visit. Prim's been up to visit me a few times since my surgery, stopping by my room after her volunteering with Rue. She keeps an optimistic face, telling me I'll be good as new in no time and that I'll feel so much better once these first two weeks are over and I can start the outpatient part of the rehabilitation program.
"So, what are you really here for?"
Katniss looks up like a deer caught in headlights. She bites her lip and shrugs. I'm about to change the subject when her voice, quiet and almost unsure, says, "You wrote me letters once."
If this was Delly or Hersh, or anyone else for that matter, I would have come up with some humorous response, but with Katniss I don't know how to respond. This is obviously important to her if she came here. And, the fact that she mentioned the letters I wrote to her years ago makes me wonder what she's thinking.
"Did you write me a letter?" I say with a smile.
She shakes her head. "No," she whispers. "I'm not very good with words."
Again, we stay in silence, me in my chair, Katniss bouncing from the balls of her feet back to her heels. Normally, I'm a chatty mess, but Katniss came here for a reason and something tells me a lot of chatter will scare her away. I feel as if I'm dealing with a wild animal – cautiously watching and waiting for it to either fight or take flight.
"You said you wanted to be my friend," she says. I look up and nod. "Why?"
Well, there are plenty of reasons why, none of which are suitable to tell her. I don't want to say Prim wanted her to have a friend. I definitely don't want to tell her I'm attracted to her – I can just see that ending miserably.
"What made you think of me after all these years?" she presses, a little annoyed that I haven't responded.
Then, my mouth becomes unattached to my brain.
"It's funny really when you think about it," I say. "There was this little girl at the coloring table and she asked me to draw her a mockingbird that she could color in so I outlined one and gave it to her. When she picked out the colors and showed it to me, I was reminded of the picture you sent to me when I first started sending you letters."
Katniss frowns and presses her fingers to the bridge of her nose. "You remember that?" she says, but it's more to herself than to me.
I answer anyway. "Yeah, I found the picture of the mockingjay at home and looked at it for a few minutes and I just had to find out if you…"
And then I die out. How do I finish that sentence? I had to make sure you weren't dead. Real charming.
"A mockingjay," Katniss says, opening her eyes and staring at me. They're gray, a stunning gray that is so clear they nearly blend into the white and echo with a million emotions. "I can't believe you remember."
"Of course I remember," I laugh. "I coined the name, after all."
She opens her mouth to say something else when Seeder comes into the room to collect me. I like Seeder and all, she's my favorite nurse, but I want to know what Katniss had to say. She's skittish so she's going to run now. I just know it. However, when Seeder goes to take my chair, Katniss beats her to it.
"I got it," she says.
Seeder eyes me for a minute and I just shrug. She's going to want to hear all about this girlfriend I told her I didn't have when Katniss leaves. I just don't know what I'm going to say. What is Katniss to me? Are we friends now?
We eat lunch in almost complete silence. Well, I eat, Katniss watches. I'm exhausted after from the physical therapy – and probably a little from figuring out Katniss – and fight to keep my eyes open.
When I open my eyes, Katniss is gone, but in her wake is a bouquet of dandelions, the last of the weed before it goes dormant for winter.
Despite the fact that my room is just as bright and colorful as every other section of the hospital, Katniss calls it the cave. When she arrives the next day at the same time, watching me and Finnick finish the last of my therapy and then following Seeder back up to my room, I'm surprised but I'm not going to say anything to question it. When she comes a third day, walking beside me as I crutch to the elevator, I'm through the moon.
It's that third day, when I'm basically falling asleep on her, as I tend to do after the grueling exercises Finnick helps me with, that she divulges the information.
"After my relapse, Prim and I would shut off all the lights and pull the blinds down. Then we'd climb under the sheets and hide," Katniss says. "We pretended we were in a cave, shutting out the rest of the world and everything bad that was going on around us."
"When was this?"
Katniss smiles. She has a far off look that makes it seem like she's a thousand miles away. "I was eleven. Prim was seven."
I nod and piece together the information. "So, that's why you call it a cave."
"It makes it a little less scary," she admits. "Instead of being in a hospital room with death looming over my head, it was like playing a game. Reality wasn't important. It made it seem like I could do anything…be anything I wanted."
The idea of the cave engulfs me. It did sound like the perfect place to hide from everything. And here I was, doing just that. My parents came every so often, my father nearly every night, my mother not so much with her busy schedule of book clubs and PTA meetings. I had yet to think about the homework piling on one of my chair, Delly had even done some of it for me. All I cared about was getting through Phase 1 of my physical therapy and getting off crutches so I could do the outpatient program.
And the added bonus of getting to know Katniss Everdeen.
She looks up at me with a jerk of her head, as if she had forgotten I was in the room at all. A somber smile plays on her lips.
"Yeah, well," she says. "Reality always comes back, you know. You can only escape for so long."
I yawn and Katniss starts to get up. She moves to the door but pauses, turning around and staring at me. "How much longer before they discharge you?"
"A few days. Finnick thinks I might be able to go home tomorrow."
She nods and looks almost sad for a minute. Then, she turns her head and walks out the door. I wonder if I'm ever going to see her again or if, like my letters so many years ago, Katniss's aid was only intended to inspire hope and then leave me waiting for more.
Before I'm allowed to leave, I have to fill out a survey and meet with a hospital board official. Mr. Crane eyes me intently as I answered all his questions. The rehabilitation program I benefited from is only a pilot program for an addition to the hospital. The hospital's president, Mr. Snow, wants to add a pediatric inpatient rehabilitation center to Panem Children's but before he can pass the measure he has to ensure it will work. Now I understand why my parents weren't fretting about a two week hospital stay's costs – in exchange for being part of the pilot (which I probably didn't need to be an inpatient for anyway) Mr. Snow paid the bill right out of his big fat pocket to make sure I made his idea seem legit.
Then, I'm free to leave but they may ask me to give more opinions when the time comes to pass the measure. Suddenly I have become the poster child for Snow's new project and I haven't even met the guy. But, if he's going to foot the bill, I suppose I owe him that much.
On my way out, I stop by to tell Portia I've been discharged and Finnick says I'm cleared to sit and color with the kiddies. I don't use Finnick's words, but his voice echoes through my head when I tell her I'll be back on Tuesday.
That's when I slam right into Prim.
"Peeta!" she exclaims, wrapping her little arms around my waist.
"Hey, Prim," I say, patting her head. "What's up?"
Prim smiles and looks up at me. Now I'm thankful for the exercises Finnick had me doing. My leg is shaking with Prim's grasp but not unbearably so and I just can't pull myself away. She looks so happy.
"I wanted to say thank you," she says.
If it's possible, Prim's smile grows even wider. "For Katniss."
My smile falters and I become increasingly confused. For Katniss? What have I done to her now? But, Prim's happy so it couldn't have been anything too terrible. However, when she left my room – the cave – yesterday she looked glum. And, of course, she hadn't come by today.
Prim lets go of me and starts bouncing in excitement. I can't help but think about how much different she is from her sister. Not just in appearance either. Prim is so light while Katniss walks around as if she has the weight of the world on her shoulders. Prim is open, making friends with everyone and anything that moves. Katniss still has me questioning if we're friends or not.
"You really got through to her," Prim continues, as if she hasn't seen my confusion. Or, maybe she says it because she has seen my confusion. "She must care about you. She's smiling and everything. All the time! She hasn't smiled since –"
"Oh, Prim, I don't think that was me."
A tiny smirk spreads on her lips, overtaking the enthusiastic smile. "She's stubborn and she won't say it in so many words," Prim tells me, "but you can't give up on her."
Am I giving up on her? Not really, I don't think. But, then I realize I won't see her anymore. She won't come to my rehab so she can walk with me back up to my room and sit with me until I fall asleep. I won't see her when I volunteer. Now, I can see why Prim might think I'm giving up.
"Don't be a stranger," Prim says, turning to walk away so I can't argue back. She waves over her shoulder, a knowing smirk playing on her lips. "Katniss doesn't go to school. Uncle Haymitch has her homeschooled, so she's always at the house because she doesn't ever go anywhere."
Is this really happening?
"And Uncle Haymitch doesn't care if we have company!" Prim shouts when she gets to the end of the hall.
With soccer over, even without my injury, my afternoons free up immensely. I still have meetings before school and during lunch period, but I have bigger chunks of free time that, in the past, I've used to log hours at the bakery. This year, I have to go to see Finnick three times a week, so my work with my dad is sporadic at most. He doesn't mind. The fact that my limp is improving by the first snowfall of December is better than my free labor.
And, when Christmas comes around, I'm not sure if I should get anything for Katniss.
Katniss, of all people, comes to my rehab. She sits in a chair, encouraging me while Finnick aides me in my exercises. She and Finnick just about screamed in celebration when I could finally do a full squat on my own. It's been great encouragement to have her there although, at times, she can get on Finnick's nerves. If she sees I'm hurting too much she insists he stops pushing me to which he'll tell her he's doing his job.
Judging by that, it would seem we've hit it off. Not even close. Aside from the rehab, we don't see each other. She nearly sprints out of the training center while I'm signing out and, when I drop Prim off at their home on Tuesdays, she hides in her room with the door closed. Once I tried knocking at Prim's insistence but she told me she was doing an online test and it was timed so she couldn't talk.
She's living somewhat of a double life with me. Encouraging friend at rehab, chilly foe everywhere else.
There's also the issue that I know nothing about her. I know that when she was sick she and Prim played cave in her hospital bed. I know her life has been nothing but hardship. She lives with her sister and their usually drunk uncle, and I've never been brave enough to ask Prim what happened to their parents so I don't know why. I know that every time I see her, my stomach burns with a hunger I've never felt before, but I don't even know her favorite color.
Prim's invitation for me to get to know Katniss has resulted in Katniss shutting me out completely. The only reason how I know she celebrates Christmas – because we haven't conversed about anything other than my progress at rehab – is because Prim comes into the hospital wearing reindeer ears two Tuesdays before and, when she comes to see me and Rue, tells us about boxes the UPS man delivers to her house that she's sure Haymitch has bought to go under the tree they got the previous weekend.
"Was it fun?" Rue asks. "I've always wanted to chop my own tree."
Prim shakes her head. "No, not really. Katniss got cold and Uncle Haymitch got bored. We picked the first decent tree we came across so we could get Katniss some hot chocolate. They're both pretty impatient. Uncle Haymitch wants to buy a plastic one next year."
The comment makes me laugh. I can definitely picture Katniss and Haymitch, their arms crossed over their chests with scowls on their faces, watching Prim dance through the snow covered field of trees. I try to imagine Haymitch in a woolen hat too but the idea can't even form in my mind.
While Rue and Prim giggle about what they're asking for, I let my mind wander to what gift – if I do decide to get one – Katniss would like. It can't be too expensive, since I don't really have the money for that. Something tells me she's not into that anyway. Something else tells me she's not a jewelry or girly-type of gift-getter. I just don't see her getting excited about a dress like Prim, who's been gushing about one she saw for almost ten minutes now.
That's when it strikes me. Katniss is the type of person that would appreciate something homemade.
When I get home that night I pull out my sketchbook and the charcoal I bought with my allowance before it all started going toward Finnick's paycheck. I spend a few hours every day on it until I've deemed it perfect. I just have to decide whether or not to give it to her.
I debate this, back and forth, the entire time I'm volunteering. I debate this as I grab Prim and we drive to her house. I debate it as I park.
"Merry Christmas, Peeta," she says softly, flipping the hood on her coat as she opens the door.
I watch the little blond disappear in the small flurry of snow blowing in the wind as she carefully walks up through the icy walkway. When she gets to the front door, she opens it and turns, waving to me as she has every time I've dropped her off since Katniss wouldn't open the door to her room. I hadn't gone inside since and Prim hadn't bothered me about it, seeming to understand I could only try so hard to get through to her sister if she didn't want me back.
My head turns to the backpack I know holds the folder with the drawing. I look back and forth between the snowy walk and my backpack before putting the truck in drive. The radio screams Christmas carols and tiny children play in the fresh snow, building forts and chucking snowballs, all the things I used to do when I was younger. Hersh and I would be soldiers on the front lines behind our forts, pretending we were in trenches during World War I as our brothers or friends pounded us from another fort. Delly even joined in some of the times, pretending to nurse us back to health when we were mortally wounded in battle.
The more I think about this, the more I think about Katniss. I wonder if she ever got the chance to play in the snow. I'm sure with her immune system weakened with chemo, like the kids that wear masks when they color, her parents never let her outside on cold winter days. My eyes dance back to my backpack and I try to imagine her right now – Prim showing her all the gifts she received at the volunteer holiday party.
I feel a lump in my throat when I realize I'm Katniss's only friend, whether she wants me or not. She's not going to get the gifts that Prim will. My stomach lurches unpleasantly at the thought. Although we never do much, Hersh, Delly and I always get a little something for each other. Sometimes kids pass out homemade fudge at school, my dad usually sends a cookie to every kid in our tiny town despite my mother's protests, and yesterday I was treated to some peppermint bark the mayor sent.
My truck comes to a stop outside the Abernathy-Everdeen abode once more.
I don't take my whole backpack, just the folder, and walk carefully up the walk, trying not to slip and fall. Finnick would have a field day if I told him how I fell and ruined all the progress we'd made. It takes longer than it should, but I eventually get to the door and beat on the old-fashioned knocker.
"Coming!" Prim's voice echoes as the door unlatches and her smiling face replaces it. Her eyes go to the folder in my hand. "Peeta!"
"Hey, I have something for your sister."
Just as I expected, all of Prim's gifts are spread out over the hardwood floor, covering it with hair ribbons and nail polishes. Prim, I'll admit, wasn't hard to shop for. She's gotten Haymitch to tie one of the bows she received in his hair as he sips on a glass of eggnog. Although Prim is always talking about how much he drinks, he seems like a good guardian. A man who doesn't let on that he cares as much as he does. Again, I'm drawn to the similarities between him and Katniss – as I'm sure she cares about Finnick and me as friends but would never admit it.
And, there she is, sitting on the couch with her feet tucked up under her, smirking at Haymitch's dark bowed locks as he glares at her. The look on his face is almost daring her to make a comment. Katniss is enjoying herself. Her eyes are closed as she tries to fight the giggles.
"Katniss, you have a visitor," Prim says.
She spins around in shock and, when she sees me, her face drops any and all excitement it held only moments ago. My mind is telling me to abort the mission. But, then I look back down at all the silly gifts Prim received at the party, my mind going to my backpack full of gifts in the truck, and I pull up every ounce of courage not to run. Katniss, of anyone I've ever met, deserves to have a little something good in her life.
"Hi," I say, tapping the folder in my hand with my fingers.
She nods her head in unspoken greeting and I let out a breath. This isn't our relationship. Our relationship is one of encouragement. I sent her letters when she was sick and she cheers me on when I'm rehabbing my knee. With Katniss, it's all about routine. She comes every day at the same time. She does the same thing. She does what she feels she owes me – encouragement.
Coming to her house with a gift is out of her comfort zone.
I take a deep intake of breath and lift the folder. "I, uh, wanted you to have this," I say, walking the least number of steps as I can to get close enough to hand it to her. She looks at the folder and then back up at me, her eyes wide.
Dealing with Katniss is like dealing with a skittish animal. When she's out of her usual territory, she doesn't know how to react. Small gestures frighten her. It's best to leave before she gets too freaked out.
"Merry Christmas, Katniss."
I go to turn and as I'm walking out, she says, "But I didn't get you anything."
A small chuckle gets caught in my throat. "I know. I wasn't expecting you to," I say. I wave to the two on the couch. "Mr. Abernathy. Katniss. Merry Christmas." Before I leave, I pat Prim's head and then I excuse myself out the door, going to sit in my truck for a few minutes listening to a Christmas tune echo.
…So this is Christmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one just begun
And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear ones
The old and the young…
The engine starts with a jerk as it does when it's cold and I try to get Katniss's face out of my head. What's done is done. I'll find out what she thought of it at my next date with Finnick. If she's there, then I suppose it was a good idea. If she's not, I know I've scared her away. As much as I try not to, I think about her the entire forty-five minutes it takes to get home, hoping, even if she doesn't appreciate my gift, she at least has a decent Christmas.
…A very merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear…
New Years rings in with an anticlimactic party at the Donners'. Between Hersh and his brothers, the basement is full of people reaping the benefits of Hersh's older brother's recent twenty-first birthday. When it becomes all too suffocating, I step out and sit in the old tire swing hanging off the tree house.
Katniss didn't come to my only rehab session after Christmas before New Years. Finnick took some time off to go visit his wife's family and, instead of leaving me with a grumpy Johanna, he told me as long as I continued my exercises he was giving me a vacation. I had one session and she didn't show.
It shouldn't be affecting me this much. But it is and I just want it to stop.
"You look cold."
I look up to see Delly standing in front of me, dressed to the nines in her winter gear. I'm in my jacket, but the weather hadn't been my main thought.
"How can you see? It's pitch black," I say.
Delly sighs and comes to stand next to the swing, resting her mitten-protected hands on my own. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah," I say. Delly sighs again. She's known me forever and she can read me like a book, so I relent. It'll be easier if I don't try to lie to her. "No. I'm not."
She doesn't say anything. Delly and I are both talkers. We hate silence. A silence between us has purpose. The purpose of this silence, as it usually is when one of us is upset, is for Delly to show me that she'll wait for me to tell her what's bothering me.
"I met this…amazing girl."
And then I let it rip. Without even thinking, I tell her everything. The whole story spills right out of my mouth and Delly doesn't say anything the entire time. She listens intently, nodding when she should even though I can barely make out her features in the night.
"But, she's so guarded that I just…I can't get through no matter what I try to do. It's like she enjoys solitude. Even her sister doesn't understand it."
Delly clucks her tongue. "Peeta, maybe you're looking at it the wrong way."
"What do you mean?"
Another sigh exits her lips. I'm just glad she no longer thinks I want to marry a dying girl. Now she knows who this girl I can't stop thinking about is and it feels like a weight off my shoulders but I'm nervous for what I've missed that Delly has apparently seen.
"I'm just…she lives with her uncle," Delly says. "That means her parents probably aren't in the picture anymore. And, so she doesn't go to school to meet friends but she's been in and out of a hospital filled with other kids. Maybe she's not a loner like you think, but she had friends and lost them."
For the first time, Katniss Everdeen makes sense. The whole time, I was just looking at the situation through rose-colored glasses. I thought that Katniss was guarding herself not because she was afraid to lose but because she didn't want to gain. I looked at her the way I wanted to see it, making it easier for me to forget if she was pushing me away because she didn't care.
I feel terrible for pushing her.
"Don't look so crestfallen," Delly says. "Just show her that you're not going anywhere. Maybe that will help."
Our unseasonably warm fall brings the bitterest January. Finnick returns on the seventh and my sessions start up again in anticipation for me to move onto Phase 3 of my rehabilitation. The final exercise Finnick introduces me to is the stork stand, which looks just as ridiculous as it sounds. I glide right through it, moving from assisted to unassisted.
One day, while I'm doing a ten-second stork stand with my eyes closed, I hear a soft giggle and, despite Finnick's insistence for me to keep them closed, I open them.
She stands off to the side by the door, as if she's not sure if she's allowed near me. Her arms are crossed over her front in a protective stance. Her hair is in her usual braid over her shoulder. However, on her face is the tiniest smile, hidden within a scowl that's falling apart on her face.
"I should start calling you lover boy," Finnick says.
He finds my glare hilarious because he breaks right down into chuckles, turning his back to help Johanna with a kid with a clubfoot. To be honest, Finnick's physical therapy doesn't just seem to be working on my knee alone, his rehab is benefiting my heart as well – and he knows it too. I'm never going to hear the end of this, especially when he tells his coworker, which is what I'm sure he's doing now under the appearance of helping the other kid.
When I nod, Katniss sits down in the chair before me, which has been empty for the few weeks Katniss has disappeared on me.
"Hi," I say.
The foot on my good leg taps nervously on the floor as she looks up from her feet. "Looks like you're doing well," she says, starting a conversation for once instead of me. My eyebrows jump into my hairline, burrowing deeper in my hair as she continues. "Before long you'll be running victory laps."
"I've been using the stationary bike," I tell her.
She smiles, the first genuine smile I've seen on her face, not hidden behind a single scowling line. "That's wonderful. You'll be better in no time."
"I've still got a long way to go."
It's true. I've still got at least another nine months to a year before I'm back to normal and can stop visiting Finnick.
We're silent for the rest of the session, the only noise shared between us being Katniss's encouragement. I go to sign out, expecting her to be gone when I turn around, but I'm surprised to see her waiting at the door, talking to Johanna as she leaves for her lunch break.
"Do you need a ride home?" I ask when I make my way over to her.
Katniss nods and I lead her to my truck. She hops in the passenger's side and, unlike the days I bring Prim home, the car isn't filled with banter from the Everdeen beside me. Katniss stares out the window as I drive through the city, stopping at her house and putting the car in park. She looks at the keys still in the ignition before looking up at me.
"Do you want to come in?"
My body temperature has just increased and I pull the keys out instantly. Katniss gives a breathy laugh before opening the door and walking toward the front entrance. Her walk is slippery with snow but I make it safely to her porch. Without words, she leads me up the stairs and opens the door to her room.
I now know her favorite color.
The walls are painted a light green and her bedspread, which is a single plain color, is also green, but darker. I look around, struck by how stark it is. Whereas my walls are covered with everything and anything from drawings to posters to school awards, Katniss's walls are bare. She has the minimum amount of furniture – a dresser, a desk, a trunk at the end of her bed – and everything is neat. Her desk has a MacBook with a lime green cover and beside it is a pile of books. Biology. American History. Textbooks because, I realize, her school is this room and that desk.
I didn't make my bed this morning and the thought runs through my head as I take in hers. It looks as if she's presenting it at a store – perfectly tucked with her pillows stacked. My mother would love her and make her teach me how to be organized. But something about her room strikes me as odd. She's neat, I suppose, but then it hits me like a load of bricks. Katniss's room is neat because it's nearly empty.
With an uncle like Haymitch Abernathy who could probably buy her the world, the room is shockingly bare. Her dresser has a hairbrush, a picture of her and Prim when they were younger, and a few elastic bands. The far corner houses an old wooden bow that looks like it was probably Haymitch's from years ago. Her bedside table has an alarm clock.
The shelving unit near her far window strikes me. It's a bookshelf that has a few bestsellers and textbooks but is empty otherwise. The top row, however, has what looks like a scrapbook and a picture framed in glass. It's a drawing done in charcoal of a girl placing dandelions in a hospital room chair. It only takes me a minute to realize this picture is the one I gave her for Christmas.
It looks better framed. I should have thought of that.
"You have a remarkable memory," Katniss says, walking to the bookshelf and taking the framed picture I drew in her hands.
I shake my head. "I don't remember that. I was sleeping. I just figured it was you."
"No," she says. Her fingers touch the glass lightly, looking up at me and then back down at the frame. "You remembered what I was wearing that day. I barely even remember."
I look down into the picture. She's in a shirt and jeans. If I had drawn it in color, the loose top she'd been in would have been red. The headband she'd had on was plaid and matched it. That day, her hair had been in two plaits instead of one. I think it stuck with me so much because later that day Prim had visited me and she'd been wearing something similar, only in navy, her hair also in two braids, her headband also plaid. She'd laughed because she told me she loved matching Katniss and Katniss rarely wore things that were girly at all. So, when she'd seen her sister while they were getting ready that morning, she'd changed her clothes quickly before going to school.
"I suppose it's easy to remember when the subject is as lovely as mine."
She sucks in a breath and shakes her head, setting the frame back down on the shelf. "I'm not all that lovely. I think you have me mistaken with Prim."
Being here, in her house, in her room, makes me particularly daring. I reach forward and take the end of her braid in my fingers. It's just as soft as I imagined. "You don't understand the effect you have," I tell her.
Again, she sucks in a breath and it's time for me to backtrack my forwardness.
"I'll be whatever you want me to be," I say. "Whatever that is, I'll do it. I'm not going anywhere unless you tell me to."
Her eyes glaze for a moment and then she shakes her head. "You scare me."
I take a step back, my fingers dropping her braid and my eyes wide at her whispered admission. I scare her? What have I done to scare her? I know I've bothered her. I've given her gifts when she doesn't want them. I've shown up in her life after not being in it for years. Sure, I can see annoying her. But scare her? How did I possibly scare her?
"How?" I ask, my voice cracking with nerves.
She swallows before looking up at me. "Because I don't want you to go anywhere."
We're friends, I think.
I still volunteer on Tuesdays and visit Finnick twice a week but the other two days I still drive the forty-five minutes it takes to get to the state capitol. Most of the time we do our homework. I'm usually sprawled out on the hardwood of her floor, biting my eraser trying to finish math problems, and she sits at her desk on her laptop inserting answers into an online spreadsheet or something. She tells me the only time she ever went to school were the few weeks of kindergarten back home. Other than that, she's been taught informally or taught by herself.
"How come you didn't go to school here?" I asked her once.
She shrugged. "I didn't like being teased."
I never asked her about school again.
Instead, I tried to learn more about her. I asked her questions about how she took her tea – she doesn't like hot tea or sweet tea but she'll drink iced tea if she has to – or if she sleeps with her windows shut or open – shut, even in the summer, which I find suffocating – or if she likes to paint, draw, or bake like me – she doesn't, by the way, and Haymitch nearly killed her after she set one of their cookbooks on fire while trying to help Prim make cookies for a bake sale two years ago. The talk is quiet and almost inane but by February I feel like I really know her rather than the girl I thought she was when I first found out she was still alive.
It does nothing to cure my feelings for her. If anything it only intensifies them.
I'm tying my shoelaces one day after rehab when she points to them. "You always do that," she says.
"Double knot your shoelaces," she tells me. I never really noticed. It was just the way I was taught. "Haymitch never double knots his and he always ends up tripping when they come undone."
We both share a chuckle. I lead her to my truck, letting her get in before going around to my side. It's a Friday, so we won't see each other until Monday. And then Valentine's Day is on Tuesday, something I shouldn't even be thinking about.
"What do you do on the weekends?" Katniss asks, going to fiddle with my radio. She skips through three country stations until she settles on a station playing the top forty and then changes her mind and sets it to oldies. I roll my eyes and she sticks her tongue out at me.
"Nothing really," I say once she's stopped fiddling. I put the truck in drive and start toward her house, taking the long route Prim showed me last week. If Katniss notices my new route she doesn't say anything. "We used to play pick up soccer when the snow disappeared but…well, that's out now. I usually just hang around at the bakery, take a shift or two."
She nods and turns toward me. My eyes are focused on the road, making sure I don't take a wrong turn and get us lost in the side streets, but I can see her in my periphery vision.
"You know, I haven't been there since I got sick."
My heart starts pounding in my chest. Is she asking me to take her there sometime? Our town – well, my town, her old town – is nothing special. It's getting smaller and smaller by the day with the mines closed down and, because of its size, it's full of gossip, my mother being the ringleader. There's really not much to show.
My mind flickers to Prim. Whenever she talks about Miner Falls she calls it home, even though she left when she was one. She introduced me to Haymitch, and various friends she's brought home from school, as a 'boy from back home'. Maybe Katniss feels the same way. The state capitol is where they live because it's near the hospital, it's where Haymitch lives, it's not their home.
"I can take you there."
Katniss nods her head. "I just have to tell Haymitch where I'm going."
Oh, she wants to go now. Okay. I try to think while she runs in the house to tell her uncle where she's going. My parents will just be leaving when we get there. They're heading out to some wedding banquet a few towns over to bring the cake and desserts. I could just drive around, show her the woods, get as close to where the old mine was before they collapsed it. I suppose I could introduce her to Delly and Hersh. I'll have the bakery to myself, maybe I could teach her how to bake and not catch things on fire.
Katniss jumps back in and smiles. "He said have fun."
"Great. Let's hit the road."
In the forty-five minutes it takes to get there, she changes the radio station a hundred times. Once we get off the highway, her head is glued to the window. I realize this is probably a big step for her. She didn't casually leave. When she left home, she wasn't vacationing. She went off to fight for her life and, even as young as she was, she probably figured she might not come back.
The town square is already festive for Valentine's Day, the shop windows filled with huge pink hearts and banners stretch from light pole to light pole. I drive around a bit, pointing out various places of interest. I show her the school, the road that leads to the old mine, the mayor's house. There are three churches on our route and the volunteer fire department. Finally, we stop in front of the bakery and I turn the truck off, smiling as she takes in the place she might still call home.
I step out of my side and go to open her door. She's still looking around when I offer up my hand. After a small intake of breath, she hesitantly reaches forward and locks her fingers in mine. I try to ignore the balls of fire shooting up my arm.
"Welcome home," I tell her.
She opens her mouth, as if to correct me, but then shakes her head. We stand in front of my truck for a minute, hands still entwined, and I'm trying to figure out what this means when I hear my dad shout from inside the bakery for me to come help. Katniss squeezes my hand, holding on tightly, and I find myself dreading the moment when I finally have to let go.
The title of this story is taken from the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas' villanelle Do not go gentle into that good night. The Christmas carol Peeta listens to in the truck is Happy Xmas (War is Over) by Celine Dion. Any and all lines that sound familiar to you, such as Katniss saying "You have a remarkable memory" come from Suzanne Collins and are not mine. Also, I've never had an ACL reconstructed, so all my information is coming from internet research. I'm sorry if it's not accurate.
Let me know what you think! I'm halfway through Part II right now and hope to post it within the week. Let me know what you think so far!