Chap 14: Gravity Rides Everything
In the motions and the things that you say
It all will fall, fall right into place
-Modest Mouse, Gravity Rides Everything
It could be any ordinary Wednesday, except for the fact that finals start in two weeks, it's the first really warm day we've had all year, and I'm tapping a grim staccato on our living room rug where the carpet is worn thin, waiting for the mail truck to leave so I can go downstairs and check our box.
I never wait for the mail; it never contains anything I particularly want to see, only electric bills and tuition bills and the occasional credit card offer. Nevertheless, I'm waiting. And our elderly mail carrier (Prim started calling him Hufflepuff last fall, and now I can't look at him without laughing) is taking his sweet time.
I don't know why I'm so anxious. I have plenty of time. Peeta's final student-art exhibit, the one that's worth 40% of his final grade and that he's been obsessing over for a month, isn't until tonight. I still have time to write part of my final project for songwriting, and go over my notes for the rest of the tests. I have time to plan. I have time to prepare.
My mother is being released on Sunday.
Hufflepuff finally pushes his way back out to his mail truck and pulls slowly...slowly away from the curb. I bounce on my toes a few more times, then walk quickly down the stairs and push my way into the entry and fumble the tiny key into my mailbox...and there it is.
It's a narrow envelope, and I can't wait. I rip it open with my fingernails, and I read it, and I can't help it. A stupid grin creeps onto my face, spreading until I'm biting my lip to hold in the laughter.
I stuff the letter into my back pocket and take the stairs two at a time, trying to tamp down my giddiness. I may have fixed this. Or I may have fucked up royally. I won't know until I tell him.
I can't stop myself from pulling out the letter and reading it over and over at different times during the day. I get that same stupid grin on my face that I just can't suppress. And of course, that's how Prim finds me when she shows up, unexpectedly, at lunchtime.
I glance up as her key rattles in the lock and the door swings open. She stares at me for a moment before remarking, "Well, someone's having a good day."
I try to wipe the smile off of my face, and fail. No good. I try out my Stern Older Sister: "What are you doing here? Don't you have school?"
Prim shrugs, tossing her bag to the floor and leaning against the kitchen counter. "Do you really think I forgot what day this is? I wanted to wish you a happy-"
I let out a groan. "Please don't tell me you're skipping just because-"
She holds up her hand. "Relax. It's a teacher-development day. We got out at 11:30."
I relax, and let go of Stern Katniss. It's too much work to stay mad at Prim, anyway. "Well, I'm not really celebrating, so..."
"Then what's with the smiling?" She glances down the hallway. "I didn't interrupt anything, did I?"
I toss my pencil at her, and she ducks, laughing. "Stop it," I warn. "Peeta's holed up in the studio all day. His show is tonight."
"Okay, okay." She turns to open the fridge, surveys the carton of chocolate milk, half-empty container of taboule and elderly square of cheddar cheese, and closes the door again. "Hey..." Her face is suddenly serious, the vertical think-line creasing her forehead, and I sit up straighter, stuffing the letter between two pages of my book. "I want to talk to you about something."
She bites her lip, staring at the toes of her sneakers. "Mom's...she's..."
"Sunday," I supply.
"Yeah. Um..." She squints, looking back up at me. "Kat?"
"She can't live with Hamish."
I close my eyes, sighing. The plan, as it stands now, is that our Mom will take one of Uncle Hamish's empty rooms while she's trying to re-insert herself into her own life after prison. It's a shitty plan, as Hamish is probably the world's worst choice for sheltering a former addict. One who plans to stay clean, anyway. There's enough alcohol in that house to kill a small army, and their horses. "Yeah."
"I mean..." She's twisting her fingers together as she speaks, just like I do when I'm nervous. "He's her brother. And I'm sure he means well. But..."
"I know, Ducky. It'll end bad. She'll go back to..."
"Right." She bites her lip at me again before blurting, "I think we should ask Mom to live here. With us."
I just stare at her. Not because it's such an outlandish suggestion. It's not. I'm amazed, and a little pissed at myself, that I didn't think of it first.
Because my baby sister has just handed me the solution to the only barrier I had left.
She takes my silence for disapproval, and continues in a rush. "I mean, it would be so much better for her. And I know there's no space as it is, but you and I could go back to sharing a room. Or one of us could share with her. Something. I really think that if she's here, she could do it this time. She could be-"
She presses her lips together. "Yeah?"
"I think that's a great idea."
Her body sags, and her face relaxes into a smile. "Really?"
"I mean..." The foolish happiness is creeping back onto my face, and I can't stop it. "I think this time...you're right. She's different. I think if she has us, she could do it." Prim's chin is trembling. I get up, closing the letter inside my book for now, and enfold her in my arms. She buries her face in my shoulder, and I can feel her smiling.
"It would make me so happy. You have no idea." She's sniffling a bit.
I pull back and look up into her face, her lovely, delicate features trembling as the tears start to fall. I run my fingertips lightly underneath her eyes. It's been so long since she's had a real family, a real Mom. "Then we'll do it."
And then it hits me. I'm looking up. Into the face of my baby sister. Up.
"Hey," I say, wiping one more tear off of her cheek and stepping back, my hands resting on her shoulders. "Since when are you taller than me?"
She laughs again, the beautiful sound bubbling up and out of her. "I don't know. Since this winter, some time?"
"And...how did I not notice?"
"I don't know. You were a little bit, um, distracted." She shrugs as I glance away, embarrassed to admit she's right. "It's weird, right?"
"Yeah. A little weird." A lot weird. This tall, willowy, suddenly-mature creature in front of me can't be my Prim. She turns 15 later this month, and I haven't even thought about what that means. What I was doing when I was 15. How old I felt.
"Well...you didn't expect me to be Little Duck forever, did you?"
Yeah. I kind of did. "No. No, of course not." I shove her playfully, and she shoves me back, and we go back to joking.
But I watch her all through lunch, as she moves easily about the kitchen (Peeta's been teaching her), her movements graceful and careful, deliberate, measured. She talks like she moves: deliberate, understated, staggeringly mature and brilliant. This is my Little Duck, becoming the woman she's going to be.
My heart shifts: an exquisitely painful forward movement.
It's still too goddamn cold to go to the beach. But today, I manage it for my oldest friend.
"Hey." Madge greets me from our favorite rock, the one that's flat on top, snugged up against the tidewater jetty and just big enough across the top for three kids to sit on, with just enough space between them in the dark they can still feel each other's warmth. Barely.
East End Beach is almost deserted, today being a weekday and the temperature hovering in the high 50s. The windchill is about 10 degrees lower, and boy, is it blowing today. Loose strands of hair whip around my face as I squint against the salt spray. Madge is wrapped in her winter coat, shivering as she says, "Happy bir-"
"Don't even start." I point at her, raising my eyebrows.
She smiles that megawatt-Madge smile, pulling me into a hug. "Okay. Sorry. Sorry," she murmurs, as I pat her back awkwardly. "I know you don't like..." She trails off as we pull away and settle down next to each other. "I just, you know. You're actually legal now. It's kind of exciting."
I just raise an eyebrow at her, and we dissolve into laughter, from which we take our time recovering. It's weird, being here in the daylight. I can actually see how dinky and dirty and sad this beach is. At least at night, it was romantic and exciting slipping under the fence to hang out on the beach. We felt like rebels. Doing that now would be weird, and not just because of what's happened between me and Gale.
It would be weird because...well, I'm too old. I'm past it.
We're silent for a while before Madge finally says, "Crazy year, huh?"
I laugh silently, pressing my lips together. "You could say that."
"Crazy wonderful, for you."
"Yeah. Well, mostly."
"What do you mean 'mostly?' I'd say starting college, reconciling with your mom and meeting the man of your dreams rates more than a 'mostly.'"
"Please." I snort and look away, but that stupid smile is tugging at the corners of my lips again. It just won't let me go.
Madge sees, and nudges me with her elbow. "See? You know it."
"Whatever." I shake my head, looking out at the ocean. The wind is whipping the dusky blue waves into whitecaps, and I shiver against it, hugging my arms around myself. "Actually, I'm meeting him for an early dinner before his show tonight." I pull out my phone to glance at the time, and there's a text from him. Love you. So nervous! 5? My smile grows, and I slip it back into my pocket.
I look up to find Madge watching me with a knowing smirk. "What time?"
She nods. "I'll give you a ride over, then. I'm dropping by, um." She stops, frowning.
"You're dropping by...to see who?"
She's dropped her head and is staring down at the sand, tracing her toes back and forth. I shake my head. "You can say his name, you know. It's all right." She bites her lip and won't look at me, and I am suddenly confused as shit. "So...what is he up to, these days?"
She shrugs. "Oh, um, nothing. I'm actually helping him move out."
"Oh." I frown and try to meet her eyes. "But..." And then. Then I see the look on her face. The barely-concealed panic. The nervous twitching. The blush. "Oh." I look away from her, back out at the waves, rising and falling with violent, restless motion. "Oh my god."
"Kat?" I look back and her face is pinched and terrified. "Please don't be mad."
My mouth drops open. I never even considered being mad. "Why would I be mad?" She visibly relaxes, her face falling and her body sagging. "And why didn't you ever tell me that you...that you two..."
"Kat. Please." She meets my eyes finally, and I see again the wry humor, a flash of my old friend Madge. "I just...I know, okay? I know you guys have a history. Hardly anyone didn't know..."
"Oh, great. Here I was thinking we were hiding it so well..."
"Well." She shrugs. "He's not the most subtle guy, you know. And you...everything you feel shows on your face. You can't help yourself."
I roll my eyes. "I'm not sure how much I actually felt," I mumble, wrapping my arms tighter around my midsection.
I feel her watching me, but I can't look. "Well, I know he loves you."
"Whatever." It's the first note of bitterness I've heard from her, and it makes me look at her sharply. But she's turned away. "There was never anyone else in the room, when you were there. Not for him. Everyone else might as well have disappeared. That doesn't just go away."
"Madge." Look at me. But she doesn't. "How long?" How long did you feel this for him? How long did you hurt? Because of me?
She shakes her head. "It doesn't matter. I just. I know what you're going to say." She's talking like she's already resigned. That we can't be friends any more, if this happens for her.
"No, you don't." I move closer to her and nudge her with my shoulder, an affectionate bump that's not a hug or a kiss or a cry, because Kat doesn't do that. All I can manage is the truth. "I never felt for him what...what I..."
"What you feel for Peeta?"
I bite my lip. This may be the first time I've admitted this, out loud. "No. I never felt for him what I feel for Peeta." I shiver, and it's not from the wind this time. "And I don't think Gale did, either. Not really. It was more...we both...needed something." Jesus. Words are not my strong suit. "And we thought that we could find it in each other. But in the end, we just. Couldn't."
When I look at her this time, her eyes hold this wild hope that makes my heart ache. "So you're not going to hate me. If..."
I shake my head, grinning. "No. I'm going to be really happy for you."
She pulls me into a sudden hug that smothers the breath from my lungs with a whoosh.
I hug back. Maybe I'm growing sentimental, in my old age.
There is just no way to make the first floor of the USM library look like an art gallery. They've done their level best: the usual displays have been pushed to the sides and the walls have been cleared. Temporary partitions divide the floor into sections, by class; Peeta's section is off to the side, near the elevators, and I see him as I make my way over there. His paintings are all over the walls; I recognize a few, but some are more recent, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he's done. He may be the most amazingly talented person I've ever known.
My pace slows; he is deep in discussion with one of his professors, his brow furrowed, arms crossed. He looks so sexy right now in the dimmed light, shaggy hair falling into his eyes (he won't cut it because he knows I love to bug him about it), jeans that are just the tiniest bit too tight. He's gained back some of the lost weight in the last few months, and his clothes have started to hug him again, around the chest and the seat of his pants.
My stomach gives a growl, and my mind flashes back to our dinner.
We never did get around to eating.
He catches sight of me and turns slightly, letting his eyes roam up and down. All I could manage was black jeans and the black top from the concert last fall; it's about as 'artsy' as I get. But I guess it works, because his tongue darts out to wet his lips and my kneecaps jump; he says something to the professor, inching away from her, and moves straight toward me, meeting my eyes with an dark and playful look.
He grabs my hand and spins me around toward the elevator, punching the Up button and grabbing a shopping bag from the floor.
"Hey," I say, laughing, and tug back on his hand. "What are you doing? I want to see your stuff."
"You will," he tells me. "In a while." The elevator door opens; he glances over his shoulder, and then pulls me in after him, hitting the button for the top floor. I look out just before the doors close, but no one seems to have noticed us leaving, or if they have, they don't care. "I have something for you, first."
We start to rise, and I cross my arms and scowl at him.
He shakes his head. "Come on. You honestly didn't think I'd realize what day this is? What kind of boyfriend would I be-"
"I don't like to make a big deal out of it," I say through my teeth. But the smile won't stay away. I take a step toward him. "Besides. I thought you gave me my present earlier."
He takes a step toward me. "Oh. But that was only part of your gift."
I bite my lip, snaking my arms around his neck. "Wow."
The doors open on the top floor of the library, and we are greeted by...darkness. Empty space, dotted with pillars. The smell of fresh paint. There are floor-to-ceiling windows all around; they look out onto the lights of the city on the hill, the darkened campus, the highway. The blue glow of early evening; our favorite light.
"Nice view." I step out into the empty, echoey space, smiling back at him.
"I know...they're re-doing this floor." He leans against a pillar as I wander over to a window. The glass is cold against my palm; the city is dark and, from this height, quiet. "Not quite done yet, thought. The art shows next year will be up here."
The art shows next year: the ones he won't be a part of. Because he's leaving Portland.
I hear the crinkling of the shopping bag behind me, and when I turn around, Peeta's holding a small square package about the size of a book, wrapped in silver paper.
I frown at him. "What the fuck did you do?" He just smiles. "You didn't have to. This is your night-"
"This is your birthday." He walks toward me, and I shift so that my back is against a cold metal divider between two windows. "And I wanted to." He stops very close to me, and holds out the box. "Open it."
I smirk at him, grab the present and tear the paper.
It's a small notebook, hand-bound with elaborately braided twine; the cover is some kind of soft wood, laminated and covered over with real, pressed flowers, worked into the wood, somehow, like they grew there. Violets and lilies, primrose and...I squint, then recognize the three white petals.
"Katniss?" I ask, grinning and shaking my head.
"The one and only."
"Where the hell did it come from?"
"I had my brother get it. From the woods. I owe him big, now."
I stare at him. "Did you make this? With the flowers?"
"Yup." He smiles at the floor. "Open it."
I do, and the blank pages inside are some kind of thick, cloth-like paper, very sturdy. Anything written here will last a long time. Inside the front cover, something is written in black ink; I recognize Peeta's tiny, neat handwriting. I have to bring the book close and squint to see it.
Katniss Grace, it says.
I raise my head and he's right there, a breath away from my lips. "I love it. Thank you."
He nods. "It's for...songwriting. You know, if you want."
I nod slowly, closing the inches between us. "I want."
We crash together, the way we always do. It's heat and tongues and his warm hands on my hips, then my back and then my ass, pressing me back against the divider. I clutch the book in one hand and plunge my other hand into the hair at the back of his neck, losing myself in the feeling of this with a long moan.
He pushes me harder against the wall and I hook one ankle around his good leg; he sneaks a hand up underneath my shirt.
"Wait," I mumble, pulling away. His lips travel down past my chin, catching me just under my jaw, and I gasp. "Wait...wait."
"Why?" he breathes. His knuckles brush the underside of my breast. "We have time...a little bit."
"Just..." He caresses me underneath my shirt, and I bite my lip to stifle any sound I would have made. "Hold on. Okay?" He pulls back and regards me with the puppy-dog eyes; I throw my head back, laughing silently, and he kisses my throat again. "I have..." I gasp and gulp, then try again. "I have something for you, too."
He raises one eyebrow in what could only be called a leer, and I roll my eyes as I reach into my back pocket and pull out the letter.
It's amazing, how easy it is to hand it to him. After I've been agonizing over this for months.
It terrifies me, how easy this is.
He frowns, taking the paper and unfolding it, smoothing the creases it's acquired from its day in my pocket. I watch his face as he begins to read; his frown smooths into surprise as his eyes take in the words I have, by now, memorized.
Dear Ms Everdeen, he's reading. We are pleased to welcome you to West Virginia State University as a transfer student for the 2013-2014 academic year. Your first year credits already earned from the University of Southern Maine will be fully applicable toward a bachelor's degree at our Charleston campus...
He finishes reading. When he looks up at me again, his expression is carefully blank, but his eyes give him away. The wild hope.
"You're...coming with me?"
I don't hesitate for an instant. "Yes." I take a deep breath and nod. "Yeah, I am. I, um...I just applied, on the off chance. You know." I shrug. He's just staring at me. He's starting to make me nervous, so I do what I always do when I'm nervous. I babble. "I mean, if...if you'll have me, I guess. I know it's a huge...I mean, I'd understand, if you didn't...want me to-"
He cuts me off with a crushing embrace; he's holding both me and the letter tightly. "If I'll have you?" His voice is shaking. "Katniss. Holy shit. I hated the thought of leaving you. This..." He kisses me then, hard and desperate. "This is all I could want," he says against my lips, and I close my eyes and just drink in this moment.
I want to freeze this moment.
"Are you sure..." He gulps, then frames my face with his two hands so I have to look at him. "Are you sure this is what you want? You'd be leaving so much. Your home. And Prim? Have you thought about-"
"I've thought about everything." I take a deep breath, and lean up to kiss him softly. "For a long time. It's going to work out, for everyone up here. But for me? It's...I need this." I look into his eyes, willing him to understand. "I need you."
He shakes his head, slowly, but he's smiling, and his hand grips my free hand, strong, warm and steady. "I love you."
I know he means it.
I mean it, too. It's going to work out. Mom and Prim will keep each other sane and safe. Madge will get her chance with Gale. The school will go along just fine without the two of us.
And after a little while...or maybe a long while...I won't miss this place.
I have one more dream, before I leave.
I dream of a green meadow, dotted with dandelions, with the woods beyond. Shadowy figures jump and cavort in the grass, turning cartwheels, dancing, and chasing each other. I can't see them clearly: they are hazy, ethereal. Not quite real, yet.
But it's so warm, the dream. The sun on my shoulders is so warm, the breeze so fresh, the grass so green. The sensory pleasure is so immediate that it's a sin to wake.
But I do, because I know what's real.
Memorial Day weekend is a shitty time to pack up your car and move. Hamish tells us over and over that we're crazy to try it, that we'll get jammed up on the Maine Turnpike, and again on the Mass Pike, and again on 84 in New York. It will take us forever to drive all the way to West Virginia.
But that's what we're doing.
I kept the goodbyes to a minimum. It's not like I'll never be back.
I do okay as long as we're still in Maine, but I hold my breath that morning as we cross the Piscataqua River bridge; once we are on the other side, we will be in New Hampshire.
And then, we are.
I twist around in my seat as we leave my home state behind us; my hand finds Peeta's as the bridge retreats, growing smaller and smaller through the back window, barely visible through the boxes and laundry bags, poster tubes and guitar case, books and backpacks piled high. He squeezes my hand, and I lean in to plant a kiss on the corner of his mouth, the one that's slightly upturned.
I don't know what awaits me, down there. In that place that he's called home. I know there are problems to overcome, that it's not perfect and it never will be, that the obstacles are large enough to form a yawning gulf between us.
But somehow, they don't.
I feel the earth moving beneath me as we drive, my center of gravity shifting. Away from the people I've known and the place that's weighed me down with memories, toward something scary and wonderful and new. I feel a lightness in the very center of me, a weight lifting.
Or a weight being lifted. Being shared. The gravity of the whole world, divided by two.
I keep my eyes on that bridge until it's out of sight, watching its lazy curve fade farther into the distance, its lights blending with other lights, the cold steel finally disappearing behind the gentle swell of the earth.
A/N Thank you. Thank you all for coming on this journey with me. This grew to be so much more than I thought it was when I started writing. I can't believe how many faves/follows/reviews I've earned. I hope the ending is satisfying in some way. I hope this made you smile. I'm smiling right now. Please send feedback. More to come from me in the future, but for now...
Much love from, JW