I throw more flour on the prep table and begin kneading the dough again. It's still too sticky, too dense, and I know it has to be perfect before I even think about moulding it into the twist loaf I'm preparing.
Mother never settles for anything less than perfection with our bread, and in that, it's the one thing we agree on.
I steal a glance at my father, who is intently icing a cake for Madge Undersee's upcoming 16th birthday. We don't get very many commissions at the bakery, and on the occasions we do, it's almost always from the Mayor and his family.
I study the concentration on his face, the slight sheen of sweat on his forehead that curls his hair the same way it does mine. I watch both the strength and delicacy that's evident in his arms and hands as he carefully holds the piping bag to the bottom tier. I'm sometimes startled to see how much I resemble him, to see quite obviously how I'm going to look when I'm his age.
If I get to his age.
"Looking good, Dad," I call over to him, and I see the smile spread across his face.
"Thanks Peet. How you going with that bread?"
"It looks like crap at the moment, to be honest," I huff out a breath, blowing out the bits of hair falling over my forehead. He laughs softly.
"Get Arran to finish it. I need a hand with these cupcakes, anyway. You're the best out of the three of you for decorating, and we know Mayor Undersee only ever gets the best." He says it lightly, but I know there's an underlying message to his words. Mother always expects the best for the Mayor, and Dad knows I'm his best bet. Although I'm sure she'll find something wrong with what I do.
She always does.
My brothers' head pops around the door that leads into the shop front, a grin on his face.
"Ooh, someone's dad's favorite," he teases, coming into the back room and flicking me with a dishtowel. It slaps against my arm, a loud thwack accompanying it. You'd swear Aaran was 12 years old, rather than 17. I roll my eyes at him.
"Just get in there, Aaran. You know you're better at the twist loafs anyway, so dad's telling nothing but the truth." He grins, and pushes me out of the way.
It's good in the bakery on days like these. It's not very often mother is not here, but once a month she visits her elderly parents who live at the other end of town. She rarely returns before sundown.
I feel sorry for my grandparents on the days she visits.
On the occasions this happens, you can't feel the tension that normally envelops the bakery, its cold fingers wrapping around you like a vice. I'm fully aware – as I'm sure my father and brothers are - that it is not a friendly and welcoming environment to customers when Mother is here. You can almost feel the desire to be gone, and be gone quickly, pumping off their skin. I don't blame them at all.
But they seem to drift in here constantly when it's just the Mellark boys. They stay to chat, to eat their cupcakes while complimenting my father over the most recent cake he made, to gossip about whatever the most recent scandal is.
I don't think Mother has ever made the connection of the fact we always have our most profitable days when she isn't there.
Dad, Aaran, our older brother Ethen and I are relaxed, comfortable when it's just the four of us. We can forget that other days we're more likely to fall into an argument than talk about the upcoming wrestling tournament. We can forget, even for a short while, that most days we're walking on eggshells, worried we'll step out of line. We impersonate other merchants, we flick each other with dishcloths, we tell stupid jokes. We have fun together. On these days, we're like a normal family.
I make my way over to the counter dad is occupying, taking stock of the 20 un-iced cupcake waiting to be decorated. The mixing bowls and piping bags are already set out, as is the icing. He's picked a pale, pale pink, and a light summery green that makes me think of the leaves of the trees just outside the district border. I like the green. It makes me think of Katniss, and the one time I saw her heading into the woods.
I watched her as she glanced over her shoulder, checking for Peacekeepers. I wasn't normally this close to the Seam, but I'd gotten distracted following a bright red bird, trying to take in as many details as I could so I could sketch it later. I'd found myself close to the district border, but rather than scurrying away quickly, I'd caught sight of Katniss not 200 meters away and had been rooted to the spot. I must have gazed at her for too long, because she suddenly whirled around, catching me staring. Her eyes narrowed, and I know she was contemplating not crawling under the fence. I didn't want to stop her from doing that, so I quickly walk away; when I look back she's gone. When she arrives at our back door two hours later, game in hand, I'm glad I hadn't scared her off.
I look up to see Dad staring at me. "What do you want me to do with these ones?" I ask, red creeping across my cheeks. He doesn't know what I was thinking, but it still embarrasses me that I got caught daydreaming of Katniss. He smiles.
"You decide, Peet. Whatever you do will be great." I nod, and pick up the piping bag.
"Hey dad, I saw Ethen checking out the Waterson's oldest girl again yesterday," Aaran suddenly calls over his shoulder, his hands already skilfully twisting the dough into shape. Ethen glares at him from the other side of the kitchen, flinging open oven one and using a large slide to pull the finished loaves out. Dad laughs.
"Was he now?"
"Shut up, Aaran," Ethen warns. Dad and I grin at each other before we turn back to our tasks.
"What? You weren't making a secret of it when you-"
"SHUT UP AARAN!" He slams the slide on the counter with such force the loaves almost fall off the other side of the counter and strides over to Aaran. "Do you want me to tell Dad how I didn't catch you just checking out Missy Sanders but-" Aaran claps a flour and dough-covered hand across Ethen's mouth to stop him from going any further.
"Ok, ok, I get the hint. Jeez, relax! I was just kidding."
Ethen starts to turn away, and I can see him trying to hide a grin. He's the most serious of the three of us, and rarely lets his guard down. It's nice to see, when it happens.
He turns to face us completely, and Dad and I can't help but laugh. He's got a massive flour handprint across his mouth, with globs of dough stuck to his cheek and lip. He catches a glimpse of his reflection in the bakery window and groans.
"Shit, Aaran! You gonna wash my face now?"
I swear these guys could go on all day. And when they do, it's a good day.