"I will remember the kisses, our lips raw with love, and how you gave me everything you had and how I offered you what was left of me." —Charles Bukowski
I stare at the television in shock, tears streaming down my face as my mind goes into overdrive imagining the many awful ways in which this all could end. Never would I have guessed that the situation would take a turn like this.
It's as if one of my worst nightmares has come to life.
Regardless of the truth of the newscast, the message is clear: I'm dead. We all will be as soon as they find out where we are, and I imagine they'll make our deaths as painful as possible, too. Snow will want his revenge for the shooting and, as sadistic as he is, will probably save me for last. He knows that the best way to hurt me is by forcing me to watch the prolonged and torturous deaths of the ones I love, knowing anything I say or do will only make it worse for them. The many times in which he'd threatened to kill Prim in horrific detail flash through my mind, and I have no doubt he'll stay true to his word if given the chance. At best, I might be presented with the option of giving her a quick death by killing her myself. The thought causes bile to rise up in my throat.
Placing my face in my trembling hands, I swallow hard, take a deep breath, and try my best to silence the haunting thoughts that invade my mind. They eventually fade out as Prim and Peeta's anxious voices grow louder in my ears and I feel Peeta's hand begin to rub the middle of my back.
"We need to let people know we're still alive!" Prim says. I can tell she's close to tears, even though she's trying to be strong. "They can't say we're dead, they don't even have bodies to prove it! Everyone needs to know they're lying!"
"I don't think that'll go over well," Peeta replies. "They said he had a concussion from a fall. If anything, he'll just say he blacked out and didn't see the person take you with him. Then he'll pretend to be overjoyed for your return and come out looking like the happy hero of the whole thing."
"But no one took us! If we just say our side of the story—"
"You really think they'll let you?"
"If we say it before they get to us, they can't really stop us."
"If you even get that far without them stopping you first, they'll tell people you have Stockholm syndrome or something. If you come out of hiding now, you'll just be right back in their clutches again and they'll force you to testify and lie against the person who took you. Which would be me," Peeta counters pointedly. It makes my gut tighten to hear the obvious worry in his voice. "I really think you guys should wait this out. The way Haymitch has been talking, it won't be long till Coin is arrested by the FBI, and this little incident will more than likely speed that process along. With as many enemies as they have, I don't think anyone's buying this bullshit story of theirs anyway. Believe me, most are probably taking this as more of a threat than a tragedy. If they'll kill their own family, what's stopping their families from being targeted next?"
"Peeta's right," I finally manage, my voice coming out weak and hoarse. I keep my eyes closed as I rub my temples in order to ease the stress-induced migraine I feel coming on. "This… it's all a trick. It's bait and they want us to bite."
"But what if they find us, though?" Prim argues. "They'll kill us!"
I remain silent because I know she has a point. If they find us, there's nothing at all to stop them from getting rid of us—and no one would know any different because they already think we're dead. This is probably their grand plan, actually. If we tell them where we are, like Peeta said, we'll be back in their clutches. They'll make our lives even worse than before, eventually killing us once everyone forgets about us again, and also bringing down Peeta—and possibly his father—in the process. On the other hand, if we don't say anything, they're free to track us down and murder us without a second thought. I know Prim is wise to all this from the barely concealed panic in her voice, and I don't know how to calm her fears because I'm just as scared as she is.
"As long as you stay in this apartment, they can't do a thing to you. There's a ton of security, and this isn't their jurisdiction. It'd be illegal if they came here to find you, and they have no basis anyway since they already said you were dead on live television," Peeta tries his best to reassure.
"The fact that it's illegal isn't going to faze them one bit, Peeta," I say with a cynical snort. I rub my eyes before I finally turn to him with a deep frown. "If they wanted us dead, they'd get it one way or another. I don't think that's what they're playing at, though. If that's what they wanted, they wouldn't have come up with such an elaborate lie to get us to come out of hiding."
"So what do you think they're trying to do?"
"I… don't know," I admit with a shake of my head and a shrug of my shoulders. "It doesn't really make sense. Maybe it's not supposed to. It just seems like… if they wanted us dead, they would've just kept quiet and tracked us down to kill us without the public being aware. There has to be some sort of method to their madness. Snow isn't very smart, but Coin always has a motive for his actions. "
"So, what? You think they wouldn't kill us if they found us?" Prim asks in a tone of confusion and disbelief.
"Oh, I think they would eventually, just not immediately. For one, they'll want to find out who else they need to silence first," I answer quietly, averting my eyes away from Peeta's. Before he can even reply, however, his cell phone begins to go off. Heaving a loud sigh, he pulls it from his pocket, and I send him a questioning glance as he narrows his eyes down at the caller ID.
"It's my dad," Peeta answers without me having to ask. He gazes up through his eyelashes, his jaw muscles tensing and releasing as he says hoarsely, "You know I have to tell him, right?"
My heart is beating hard against my chest, my throat is dry, my ribs hurt like hell, and there's a high-pitched ringing in my ears, but despite my anxiety over the fact that I have zero control in this entire situation, I manage to nod my head once before looking away and closing my eyes again. A moment later I feel the couch shift next to me and a tiny arm snake around my waist. This small gesture of comfort from Prim only causes a fresh wave of tears to form in my eyes, however. Neither of us say anything as I wrap my arms around her shoulders and she leans her head against my chest. As I rub her back, I feel the uneven rise and fall of her chest, the catch in her breath, and her subdued sniffles, and I know she's started crying too. I want to tell her everything will be all right, but I know that she's smart enough to know better. All I can do is hold her close and hope for the best… even if everything seems hopeless.
"Yeah, but it's not… they're not—Dad." I listen in silence as Peeta talks to his father on the phone, although it sounds as if he can barely speak a full sentence without being interrupted. "Please just calm down, it's not what you… fine, okay. Whatever. We'll talk when you get here then, but you should—" Peeta hangs up the phone with a groan of frustration and runs a shaky hand through his hair.
"Is your dad on his way here?" I ask quickly. "Does he know about the news?"
"Oh, he definitely knows," Peeta answers. "And yeah, he's on his way right now. He hung up as soon as he left the bakery parking lot—doesn't like talking on the phone while he drives."
"Does he already know we're here?" Prim asks before I can.
Peeta gives her a weary look and shakes his head.
"No, I tried to explain, but as I'm sure you probably overheard, I couldn't even get a word in edgewise. He said he was questioned this morning by an officer about his tire tracks being found at the scene, but that they didn't give any details about what happened to you guys. After the news, though, people started calling and coming in to the bakery to voice their sympathies, so he went online and saw it… and now he's on his way here. He sounded really upset, crying and everything… I tried to tell him you all were still alive, but…." He trails off and shrugs. "I guess he'll be in for a huge surprise when he gets here."
"How do you think he'll react?" I ask quietly.
"I don't really know," he replies, keeping his gaze fixed intently on the floor. "I'm sure he'll be overjoyed you guys are still alive, that goes without saying. I'm sure it'll be a shock, of course, but… I just worry when he sees your mom…."
The look on Peeta's face and in his eyes seems distant, pensive, tired, and for the most part, unreadable. A part of me wishes I could read his mind, but the other part of me fears what he's really thinking but is far too kind to ever say aloud… of how much he probably regrets taking me and my family in.
I glance down at his hands, noticing that he's begun wringing them together. I reach over and envelop them with one of my own, giving a strong, consoling squeeze – although I know it isn't really much of a comfort at the moment. Admittedly, as Peeta opens his palm against mine and twines our fingers together, it's just as much of a need for reassurance on my part. I need to know he doesn't hate me for all this. Even if coming here was his idea, I can't help feeling guilty about it, about putting him and his dad in the middle of everything. I find myself wishing I could take it all back, just so they could be safe again, but when it comes down to it, I know I never had any other choice besides this. If Peeta hadn't picked us up last night and brought us here, we more than likely would be ashes right now.
I kiss his shoulder before resting my forehead onto it, and he responds by bringing his arm around me and Prim, who still has her head against my chest and is encircling my waist with her arms. And for a few minutes, we all just sit there in complete silence, holding onto each other as if it might bring each other some sense of safety, or as if it could be the last time we ever get to. Then again, who's to say it isn't? The fear and tension is palpable without a word needing to be spoken, and we all know that the many questions we have are impossible to answer anyway.
It isn't long before Mr. Mellark arrives, and since he's a cosigner on the lease of the apartment, he's able to get through the gates and security measures without a hitch. When the doorbell rings, my stomach immediately twists into a nervous knot, and I can tell Prim feels the same by the way she squeezes my hand. While all I can do is hope for the best, there's no way in telling how Peeta's dad will react to us being here… especially since he's evidently been marked as a 'suspect' in our deaths.
"Peeta?" I ask quickly as he places his hand on the door knob. He turns to me and raises his eyebrows in question. "Do you want us to hide out in Mom's room so you can explain things to him first?"
He nods slowly, chewing nervously on his bottom lip, "Yeah. Maybe that'd be for the best. Just for a little while, at least, until I can explain the gist of everything. Might make it less of a shock if I ease him into it."
Mom's asleep when we enter the room, but soon opens her eyes and starts saying something about golden birds.
I leave the door open a crack and sit down next to it, trying to overhear as much of the conversation between Peeta and his dad as I can. Prim, however, goes over to the bed, takes Mom's hand in hers, and then lies down next to her, whispering words of consolation.
At first, it's hard to make out what's being said, though I can tell from his tone and disjointed sobs that Mr. Mellark is extremely distraught. Peeta says something that makes him stop crying all of a sudden, however, and the silence that follows is so thick you could cut it with a knife. He finally asks something, although it's barely audible – a mere whisper, and Peeta replies with a short answer.
And then more silence.
As their conversation begins once more, I lean closer to the crack in the door so that I might hear a bit better, but move back just as quickly when their footsteps begin to draw nearer.
"Peeta…" Mr. Mellark warns, his voice sounding so raspy that it's nearly gone. "This is serious—no, it's beyond that. You could be arrested, sent to prison. Hell, you could even be…" He stops himself mid-sentence, sighs loudly, and continues, "I just hope you know what the hell you're—"
"I do! I know exactly what I'm getting myself into," Peeta assures before his father can finish. "You've seen what I have! He hurt them all the time, they were being starved… I have no doubt that he would've killed them, Dad! He tried to, actually… before they came here, but Katniss shot him before he could. Unfortunately, the asshole survived. If they go back now, things will be even worse for them, and I can't let that happen! I won't let that happen."
Silence for a moment, and then Mr. Mellark sighs heavily and says, "Well, at least I'm beginning to see why you wanted this particular apartment so much, and so quickly."
"You would've done the same," Peeta says, emphasis in his tone. "If someone you loved was being hurt, when it came down to it, you'd do anything to protect them. Right?" I move my head closer to the door again, but I don't hear an audible answer. Still, Peeta continues a moment later, his voice shaky yet adamant, "Dad… if anything happened to Katniss or her sister, I'd never be able to forgive myself, knowing I could've done something to help and didn't. I mean, how did you feel when you saw that newscast? Regret? Sorrow? Anger? If I can make their lives better in any way possible, I'm going to. I don't care what it costs me!"
"I know," Mr. Mellark replies, and though I can't see it, from the muffled quality of his voice, I'm pretty sure he's hugging Peeta. "You're a good kid, Peet. You've always had a good heart. Unfortunately bad people will use that as a weapon against you. I just don't know how I feel about you getting mixed up in all this. These men aren't out to make friends—"
"Neither am I!" Peeta counters, his voice strong and defensive. "And being a good person doesn't make me weak!"
"I never said it did. You're one of the strongest people I know. It takes an amazing amount of strength to do the right thing and stand up against people like that. All I'm saying is Coin is a very corrupt man, everyone in town has known it for years; he's not someone to mess around with—"
"So what are you suggesting? That I just give up and turn over Katniss and her family? I'm not going to—"
"No, that's not what I'm suggesting at all," Mr. Mellark interrupts, his voice grave. "What I'm saying is that you need to act as if nothing is different. Go to school, go to work, don't act like a suspect. I'm sure they'll ask you about your tire tracks being at the scene like they did with me. You'll tell them you dropped the girls off that evening from work… and that's it. The bare minimum. If they ask for more, you call a lawyer, and if it comes down to it, you let me take the fall for this. You hear me?"
"No one's going to be taking a fall besides them," Peeta replies, and I can tell from his tone that he's agitated. "I hired a private investigator and supposedly the FBI is—"
"A what? You hired a complete stranger to help you, but didn't tell me a damn thing? Peeta, what the hell? Why am I just now finding out about all of this?" Mr. Mellark exclaims, obviously exasperated and in bitter disbelief of what he's hearing. It's unnerving to hear how upset he is, especially since he's usually so jovial and calm, knowing his irritation is basically all my fault. I feel as if I should defend Peeta or something, but I know it'd probably just make things worse, so I remain where I am, my body tense and my breath held. I jump slightly as Prim comes over and sits down next to me. She holds my hand and leans her head against my shoulder, and I can't seem to tell where the trembling in my body stops and where hers begins.
"Because… I promised I wouldn't tell," Peeta answers quietly and trails off.
"Katniss," Peeta answers in a small voice. My stomach twists as guilt washes over me. "Look, I know it sounds silly now—"
"No, it doesn't sound silly, it sounds senseless! I know it's a normal thing for teenagers to think with their dicks and keep secrets from their parents, but this is…" Mr. Mellark pauses for a moment before continuing in a softer tone, "Peeta, I've always thought of you as responsible, but this… it's completely reckless. I don't know why or when you started feeling like you couldn't trust me with important things, but never doubt that I'd do anything in my power to protect you."
"I know…" Peeta says. "And I never stopped trusting you. Sometimes it's just easier to keep secrets than it is to tell them, especially when they're not mine to tell."
There's a moment of silence again before Mr. Mellark replies strongly, "Well, I think maybe it's time we sat down and you explain to me in detail what's going on. This isn't a time for keeping secrets anymore, son."
"Sure, okay," Peeta agrees, releasing a breath. "It's a really long story, though."
"The bakery is closed for the rest of the day. I have plenty of time. If I'm being involved in some crooked conspiracy, I want to know exactly what the hell it's all about."
I try my best to keep listening through the crack in the doorway, but as their footsteps move farther away, their voices become nothing more than low, clipped tones and I can't make out a word they're saying.
I have no idea how much time passes… 15 minutes, 30 minutes, maybe an hour… but it seems like forever.
As angry as Mr. Mellark seemed to be about Peeta keeping him in the dark about everything, he also took it a lot better than I imagined he would. It doesn't sound like he's going to turn us over to Snow and Coin, anyway, and as senseless as it probably was to think he might, I'm relieved by it.
When I hear them finally make their way down the hall to us, Prim and I scramble to our feet and give each other anxious looks. As they approach the door, neither of them say anything, and I have no idea what to expect after they've been talking for so long. Mr. Mellark could have changed his mind completely, knowing what sort of danger this puts them in, and I wouldn't blame him.
"I warn you, Dad, it's… not going to be a very happy reunion," Peeta says, his voice soft and sympathetic. "She's not how you remember her. She's in pretty bad shape."
I close my eyes to keep tears from filling them. This is it. This is when Mr. Mellark, my mother's best childhood friend, gets to finally see the shell she's become. The change has been gradual for me, sure, but not any less heartbreaking, especially when I think of the beautiful person—inside and out—that she used to be. He has no idea what he's about to see, though, none at all, and I know it'll be a shock. I try to imagine myself in his shoes. What if it was me walking into this room and Peeta was in that bed? It'd absolutely kill me.
"I want to see her," Mr. Mellark whispers.
As soon as the door opens, Prim rushes forward and wraps her arms around Mr. Mellark's waist. He looks down in bewilderment, immediately returning her hug as tears begin rolling down his flushed cheeks at the gesture. I'm taken aback when he reaches his arms out for me to walk into. I glance at him questioningly and then avert my eyes to Peeta, who nods and gives a small, tense smile that doesn't quite meet his eyes. Still, I timidly move forward and give Mr. Mellark a hug. As his arms embrace me and Prim and he continues to sob, I can't help but feel a bit awkward. I'm not used to people hugging me, besides Prim and Peeta, and it's a very strange feeling, though not completely uncomfortable or unwelcome.
"I'm so relieved, so happy, you girls are okay," Mr. Mellark murmurs into my hair. "I saw the news earlier and thought you were really…"
He trails off and his body becomes rigid all of a sudden. As his arms drop heavily down to his sides, and I step back to look at his face, I know exactly why his demeanor has changed so abruptly...
He's finally seen my mother.
His blood-shot eyes widen as if seeing a ghost and his mouth drops open as if to say something, but he can't find the words. Though none of it is spoken aloud, a wide array of emotions register on his face in a matter of seconds: shock, anger, disbelief, grief, nostalgia, guilt...
He shakes his head and closes his eyes as if he can't believe what he' seeing. He steps closer and opens his eyes again, and I see they are full of tears and confusion. He clenches his jaw, his lips begin to quiver, and when he finally speaks, the only thing he can manage is a heartrending and broken whisper, "…Iris…?"
In one swift movement, he's sitting beside her on the bed, weeping as he takes her hands in his and rubs her palms gently with his thumbs as if to circulate warmth into them. She only stares at him blankly, however, as if she doesn't recognize him. A doleful sob escapes Mr. Mellark as he turns her skeletal hand over in his and twines their fingers together. He kisses the top of her hand, closing his eyes tightly as tears continue to fall from his lashes onto her pale, sickly skin.
"What did… he do… to you," he whispers through broken sobs as he reaches forward and gently caresses her cheek with his fingertips. She brings a hand up to his cheek as well, looking almost like a confused, curious child. He holds her hand against his face for a moment before bringing it to his lips. "I'm so sorry… so sorry. I should have... I should've done things so differently. I wish... I could take it all back."
Mr. Mellark shakes his head and looks up at the ceiling for a moment, trying to keep his composure, but completely failing at it—not that I blame him. Leaning over, he envelops my mother in his arms and brings her onto his lap, cradling her and kissing her forehead… not unlike the way Peeta had done with me last night. I close my eyes, feeling as if I might completely break down myself, and reach over for Peeta's hand. He instantly knots our fingers together, giving me a consoling squeeze. I glance over at him to see his face hard, but tears pouring down his cheeks as he watches our parents, so happy and healthy and in love at one time, and now seemingly broken beyond repair.
I look around for Prim, and notice that she's already left the room.
"Iris… it's Avory. Remember me?" I hear Mr. Mellark whisper near my mother's ear as he continues to rock her in his arms. He presses their palms together and sprawls his fingers out against hers before entwining them again and rubbing the top of her hand with his thumb. "We used to be best friends… used to be neighbors… used to spend every day together. You loved goats, made the best sugar cookies, your favorite band was Heart, you played piano beautifully and could sing like an angel. Your favorite color was pink, hated brown. Always loved the snow, too. Every winter it was a tradition that we'd make a snowman from the first big snowfall, and… you said if you ever had children, you'd do the same with them…" Mr. Mellark smiles sadly down at her as if expecting some sort of reaction or reply, but she only gazes back at him with empty eyes. "They need you, Iris. I need you… to remember. Please."
Each winter, with every first snowfall, without fail, my mother and father would build a snowman with me. Well, more like a snow-family. Mom taught me how to make snow angels, and Dad and I would always have a snowball fight. Afterwards, we'd come inside, change into some warm flannel, and sit by the fireplace with cocoa and eat deliciously sweet flavored snow, usually with some sort of baked treat. I recall listening intently, without a care in the world, as my parents would tell happy stories from their youth, read a book, or we'd watch one of my favorite movies.
Times like that seem so distant now; like a completely different life. It doesn't seem real that we were once so happy.
I don't want to hear anymore.
As much as it hurts that my mom seems to have forgotten these beautiful times we shared in the past and these important aspects of her own personality, I almost envy her for it. Sometimes the best memories hurt the worst because you know you can never have those moments back. Dead forever, yet lingering like ghosts with unfinished business, reminding of happier times, and making the present seem even more desolate and dreary by contrast.
I look over at Peeta again, and as if reading my mind, he nods and leads me out of the room, closing the door behind him. As soon as we're in the hallway, he envelops me within his warm arms, holding me there for a while as if afraid of letting go.