What if... Peeta never gave Katniss the bread?
Warning: Major character death
Her cold grey eyes will haunt me 'til the day I die.
I was so young. So unbelievably young. So impossibly old. In that moment, I was everything and nothing. Nothing has ever been the same since.
I had just turned twelve. A day that meant slightly larger portions of stale bread and slightly less invective from my mother. I welcomed both eagerly, but it was my father who had made my twelfth birthday unforgettable. He must have scrimped and saved to afford it, saying nothing of how on earth he convinced my mother to agree; real paper and real pens and finally, I was a real artist.
The next few days were heavenly. I copied down anything and everything my eyes came across. Delly's new kitten, our lazy pigs, my schoolteacher's smile, my father hard at work. My brothers were always willing subjects, daring me to draw their likeness in every position imaginable, and I paraded my masterpieces around the house proudly. But not all of them, not those ones - the ones that spoke volumes in silence, of shiny black braids and a little red dress.
I had just turned twelve, and I was sitting at the bakery's front counter. I was sitting at the bakery's front counter and I was drawing. I was drawing and I did not want to stop.
I heard a crash, a slam, and my mother began to yell. I craned my neck, trying to catch a glimpse of the commotion. I could have gone over to take a look. I could have. But I was drawing and I did not want to stop.
My mother stomped past me, shaking the rain out of her hair, muttering curses to herself. I could have asked her what had just happened. I could have. But I was just glad that for once it wasn't my name under her breath.
As I readied myself for bed that night the rain pelted down in never-ending icy sheets. I could have pulled back the curtain to watch it fall. I could have. But I just hoped it would be dry by morning.
That night, as the rain poured down and the fireplace smouldered, the clock struck twelve. A new day began - one from which I will never escape.
It was my father, in the end, who found her. Morning light broke, and with it came the horror. I awoke to the sound of a panicked moan. There was a terror in his voice I had never heard before, nor since, and something was wrong. Something was very, very wrong. I raced downstairs and out the door to find my father curled over the trashcan, vomit on his chin and tears on his cheeks. He hoarsely ordered me back inside, right now Peeta, go! I didn't understand. I looked around for the source of my father's distress but he blocked my view with his body and forced me back into the bakery.
For a split-second, though, I could see over his shoulder. Why was somebody sitting under our apple tree so early in- Oh. The sad reality was that I had grown up seeing bodies lying prone and lifeless across the district. This winter had been particularly bad. The sight was never pleasant or easy to process, but it had never been so close to home before. Never right on our back doorstep.
The family gathered in the kitchen, silent and sombre and still. No explanations were given, but what could be possibly be said? My eldest brother was sent to fetch the Peacekeepers, the rest of us left to sit and wait.
Even my mother's face was ashen and her voice lacked its usual edge as she muttered 'Boys, one of you go cover it- cover her with a sheet. Quick, before the neighbours wake.' I immediately leapt to my feet – was it human concern or some kind of morbid curiosity that prompted me to volunteer? – but my father shot me a look that sent a lump of lead straight to my stomach. His voice strained and his hands shook as he told me 'Not you, Peeta. Not you.'
It felt like a million years had passed before the Peacekeepers finally arrived. Without a word, they began assembling a thin stretcher to transport the body. My mother and brothers disappeared inside, but I stayed, my father's body a flimsy barrier between myself and the horrible reality.
The lump under the threadbare sheet looked small, so small. A terrible thought crossed my mind: could it be one of my classmates? Winter's victims were usually either the very old or the very young, but the girl under the sheet – had my mother said her? I think so – didn't seem to be either. I turned to my father and whispered 'Papa...was it a little kid?'
A noise escaped his throat. A terrible noise, an indescribable noise. A noise that came from a well of pure sorrow and regret. He looked at me and shook his head, his red eyes unable to meet mine. He kneeled down in front of me and my heart began to race. Why was Papa so upset? What did this have to do with me? He grabbed my hand and squeezed it tightly. 'P-peeta... I- You-' he began to force the words out, but then it happened.
The Peacekeepers leant down and lifted the stretcher, and in the motion, the sheet shifted slightly. Something long and dark tumbled off the stretcher, but it didn't fall to the ground. It was...it was attached to the girl's head? It was a long, dark, shiny braid. It was-
My heart stopped.
I looked at my father in horror and saw him crumple before me. The word was out of my mouth before I knew, 'Katniss?!'. My voice sounded wrong, too high-pitched and panicky, but I didn't care. I had to know, I had to see. I wrested my arm from his grip and forced my way past the Peacekeepers.
My hand shook and my heart raced and my fingers pulled back the sheet in a flash.
Voices spoke and limbs moved and she was gone.
My heart beats and my lungs breathe, but in that moment I died.
And her grey eyes will haunt me until my body catches up.
When I try to replay my twelfth year in my head, it feels like the memories are...corrupted. There are flashes of recognition here and there, but so much time is lost to me. Days I spent in numb withdrawal, staring aimlessly out the window. Nights I spent fighting sleep, terrified of nightmares that raged behind my eyelids. Even now, twenty years later, whenever I close my eyes, I see hers.
Memories come to me unexpected, doubling me over in crippling pain.
The night I watched my father walk out of the house with a bag full of bread and return empty-handed, with coal dust on his socks and tears in his eyes.
The day I heard them whispering at school: about the dead girl and the crazy lady, about the other one being moved to the Home.
The night I snuck into the bakery and pocketed the biggest, freshest pastry I could possibly find and snuck it to her at recess. The tiny girl with slumped shoulders and bruised legs. She looked up at me through matted blonde hair and my stomach dropped. Her eyes were just as dead as her sister's.
The day she didn't turn up for school. All the days since she has never been heard from.
The night I threw it all in the fire and watched it melt away. All my paper, all my drawings, all of them. All but one. I scooped up the ashes and buried them in the backyard, along with my pens, under the apple tree.
Every day and every night the thought has plagued me: what if? On bad nights (are there ever any good nights?) I escape into a familiar fantasy, an alternate reality. A world in which I put down the damn pen and walked over to the door. I would have seen her, I could have helped her. I imagine a world in which we both were granted the luxury of adulthood. We both grow up, we survive the Reaping, we get married. I see a little girl: brown hair, blue eyes. A little boy: blonde hair, grey eyes. A life without crushing guilt and sorrow and pain and regret. A life with Katniss.
A life I never had.
The years passed, the world changed, but she remains seared into my consciousness: my very own bespoke ghost. I love my wife, I do. But I think she knows. I think she knows that sometimes when I run my fingers through her long blonde hair, I wish it were a dark braid instead. I think she knows that sometimes when I look down into her bright blue eyes, I see grey.
She named our daughter Katherine. I faked a smile and told her I loved it. I adore my baby girl, chubby and cheeky and me all over. I call her honey bear, sweetie pie, darling girl. I wonder if she knows. How long will it be until she notices that her father never once called her by her given name?
I love my family. I have a good life. It makes this so much harder to bear. But I am no stranger to sorrow and guilt. Her cold grey eyes will haunt me 'til the day I die.
She won't haunt me anymore tomorrow.