A little preview of a story set for regular postings this fall. It's a special one for me. I was once an exchange student, and I've been hoping to weave such an experience into a love story for a very long time. Although there are some details that came from my own background, most of this is simply inspiration. Ultimately, this is Everlark's story, not mine.
Thank you to Chelzie, iLoVeRynMar, Court81981, and misshoneywell. And to Ro Nordmann for the pretty banner!
Disclaimer: I do not own THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy. It belongs to Suzanne Collins. I merely want to spend more time with her characters.
I could just let the tide pull me under. The moment is perfect, the moon's rays scuttling across my arms, the taste of saltwater on my lips, and a thread of seaweed grazing the side of my breast. The waves jostle me around, practically begging me to let go. I float and glide and plop beneath the surface. I blow bubbles, then break through and suck in a mouthful of humid air. I lose myself in the sea and feel invincible.
Yes, I could let the tide take me. Or I could pretend to put up a fight, arms cutting through the water until I'm too tired to do anything else but die happy. The coral reefs are waiting for me to sink. They're waiting to catch me in a sharp, pink hug and slice me to ribbons.
In a few minutes, I could drown and be with her again. Then I could gather primroses for her, and we could smile at the significance of it and live the rest of our lives on a new type of island forever...or not. Getting into Heaven would be a challenge for someone like me. And if I even did crack the secret password and step over that threshold, my sister would be furious to see me. I had better not do it if it means getting reprimanded by her in the afterlife. Or perhaps I'll simply wait for another night.
Sigh. Life would be much more interesting as a mermaid or a piece of buried treasure.
I bob in place and glance at the foam stretching across the beach in the distance. Panem Island's cliffs and peaks are green during the day, black at night. The thin-necked silhouettes of palm trees rock in the wind, coconuts dangling like giant testicles. I laugh and then choke on the sound. Shhh.
My body bounds forward, fighting the temptation to stay where I am. Coming back to shore, it's a harder swim than when I first dove in. The water smacks my cheeks and shoves itself into my chest. The sea wants me.
I clamber out, my nipples stiff as shells, my wet braid snaking around my neck like a collar, and the damp sand sucking at my heels and crowding between my toes. Where did I leave my nightgown?
I locate the flimsy orange slip a few feet away and shrug it over my head. Because I don't bother with a towel, the nightgown clings to my dripping curves. The ruffled hem covers my bare ass and trembles in the breeze.
The beach smells different tonight. Not like the usual sultry fragrance of tan lotion that lingers after sunset, nor like the typical scents of papaya or orchids. Instead, I'm intoxicated by melted sugar.
How odd. It's not a local scent.
Primrose would have said it's a sign that something's about to change. She always swore by things like that.
Frogs croak at me as I cross from the beach into Seam Village. Sandy hills become dirt roads. The outlines of thatched roofs, round terra-cotta shacks, and hibiscus bushes come into view. I spot Old Man Sae on his porch, the only other villager still awake besides me. The hushed curl of his guitar fills my ears with a melody, what outsiders would call "exotic" or "spicy." No lyrics, only the pluck of his instrument.
Grinning, I snap my hips gently from side to side, humming along, relishing the way the guitar sets me free. I fall into a lazy dance. If the rhythm were a little faster, I'd spin and try to turn back time.
It's late. I drag myself from the music and keep going. The windows of my uncle's cottage are open, an attempt to filter out the moist heat even though it's futile in late August. I still refuse to call the cottage home. Mama and I used to live on the east shore, but we had to leave after Primrose died. We moved here to the western side so that my uncle could keep a closer watch on us.
The house isn't very different. It still has two rooms like our old place, except these rooms are bigger. I don't have to share a bed with Mama the way I did with Primrose. I slip through the window and tiptoe across the living room, which is also the dining room, which is also part of the kitchen.
"Bedtime already?" a voice mocks behind me.
I stop in my tracks and groan inwardly. The problem isn't that I've been caught—I never care about that. It's that I'm tired. I want to go to sleep...I want to try to go to sleep.
Wheeling around, I find my uncle reclining in his favorite wooden chair, what he calls The Situation Chair, his throne of damage control. He reeks of tequila, and his attitude is stuck somewhere between lucid and glazed. He taps a finger to his chin, unsurprised by my visible nakedness beneath the soaked nightgown.
His gaze slides down to my bare feet, amusement twitching at the margins of his lips. "So you left anyway. I should have known you'd be determined."
Did he really think hiding my shoes would stop me from sneaking out and doing whatever I wanted? That's funny.
But something's not right. I feel it. He isn't brooding enough. I've given him a run for his money this past year, but he looks like he might have gotten a second wind. From what?
Mosquitoes buzz around us, hunting us for blood. I've read that they have a fatal ancestor called the tracker jacker. It's extinct, but mosquitoes are enough to deal with, ravenous and vicious in their own way. They love me. One of them stings my calf, and I slap at it in the dark.
"And where have you been this fine tropical evening?" Uncle Haymitch asks. "Skinny-dipping with Finnick again?"
I roll my eyes. Haymitch enjoys judging my boyfriend. He lives to drink and make Finnick look bad, and he cannot comprehend what the handsomest boy on this island wants from a plain-featured girl like myself.
It has a lot to do with how often I let Finnick fuck me. But it also has to do with mutual wounds. I have mine, and Finnick has his own to nurse. It works out for us in this way. I don't have anyone to compare him to—he's was my first, and I haven't been with anyone else—but I've shattered enough times in his arms to know he's good at sex, good at making me forget. And he understands why I'm quiet.
Sometimes it's hard to keep it all in, but I do. Even when he's pounding between my thighs, I don't lose that part of myself. I don't let go.
We're good together. I don't ask for an emotional relationship, and neither does he. Losing him forever wouldn't wound me, so it's a safe bet with him.
My uncle takes another guess. "Or were you out smoking banana leaves with your playmates?"
Jo and Tigris are my friends, not playmates. Eccentrics are underrated.
"Ahhh," he says, inspecting my face more closely. "So you were alone and untamed. That's rarely good. Once a sweetheart, now nothing but a wild thing."
I disregard the hole in my heart and raise a quizzical eyebrow. You seem surprised.
Haymitch chuckles. "One of these days, you're going to talk to me."
I will never talk. Not again. Ever.
Not for anyone.
"I wasn't waiting up for you, you know," he says.
Who are you kidding?
"I wasn't," he insists.
Why don't you give me my punishment so that I can get a head start on ignoring it?
My uncle grunts. He likes to think he can decipher all my expressions, but he doesn't know how easy I make it on him. He doesn't see more than I want him to. No one does. No one looks hard enough because that would require special powers. Namely sensitivity.
As my warden strides over to the dining table, he says, "Matter of fact, I was reading." Rather than waste electricity, he lights a candle and tosses me a flat packet. "Have a look."
Puzzled, I pull out a stack of papers. My eyes scan the front page, then flip through the rest of the contents, confusion pinching my face and causing my nose to crinkle. There's a bunch of official-looking documents, letters addressed to Haymitch from some kind of student abroad organization.
A photo of a boy my age is clipped to the stack. My stomach swoops for no reason as I study him. He has blond hair and eyes that have dropped from the sky. His fresh face and light complexion don't belong anywhere near this island of olive-skinned locals. He's made of gold, and the rest of us may as well be made of coal.
I find a questionaire filled with handwritten answers, clearly from this boy. His penmanship is neat, stick-straight and angular. He probably lives a groomed life and makes his bed each morning.
I must be hallucinating because it's truly starting to smell like melted sugar everywhere.
I cover my trepidation with a cocky smirk of indifference and wiggle the papers at Haymitch. And what is this supposed to be?
"It's a relief, is what it is," he mutters. "I've got grief in one arm, and in the other, there's you bursting into uncontainable flames. This family needs a bright spot, Wild Child. Call it a change of pace. It'll be therapeutic for you and your mama to get your minds on something else."
Please. You don't know my mind, and mama has lost hers.
"Bottom line, I'm not cutting it, and I don't have enough liquor to sustain another month of this."
Then you shouldn't have brought us to live with you. I could have taken care of everything on my own.
Haymitch points at me. "Stop scowling. It's only for a year. He's an exchange student from District Twelve in North America—unless you're going to actually speak, close your mouth. And I said stop scowling. I know what you're thinking, but this is my house, no matter how many times you refuse to listen to me. Well, this is the deal: The boy'll be here next month when school starts. And don't argue about food. He's being sponsored, so that'll give us the funds to feed him."
This gets my attention. Resentment burns inside me that this boy can so easily provide for himself, that he comes from a nation where its citizens are fed. Meanwhile, the villagers in Panem are hungry, and children suffer from malnourishment because of it.
Haymitch has more to say. "And don't waste my time about the damn lack of space. The boy is bunking with me. "
Who said anything about lack of space? I'm not a queen. Most families on this island crowd into their homes, with multiple kids sleeping on the floor. In comparison, we have plenty of space.
Haymitch is still barking. "I pulled a lot of strings to get this for us. We're not exactly the ideal candidates for a host family, but it's done. You'll thank me later, so for the third and final time, curb the fucking scowl."
My index finger presses against the candle, and I calmly tip it over. Cursing, Haymitch stumbles forward and catches it before it hits the floor, hissing as the flame goes out and wax leaks onto his palm. "Jesus. Are you crazy?"
One small flame is nothing. It doesn't begin to compare with my level of crazy. I burden my uncle with a superior look, slick as water but rough as the tide. I don't want your pity.
His posture droops. "Anger won't bring her back, Katniss. It's also not a good mood to swim with. It causes people to do things—self-destructive things they can't undo. Do you understand?"
I underestimated his perception, but I couldn't care less whether he suspects the real reason I went swimming. Without acknowledging him, I walk away, taking the papers with me as he issues a parting tip. "And about the wet nightgown. Do me a favor, and don't expose yourself like that in front of the boy. I know you, Wild Child."
As if the warning will do anything but provoke me.
Pure isn't an accurate enough word for what I used to be. Prude is better. Nakedness was a private thing for me until I lost my sister and gained Finnick, but that trait never made sense anyway. On our beaches, nudity is a way of life. And other more intimate things.
Mama once revealed while in the throes of despair over Papa—I lost him, too, when I was a little girl—that I'd been conceived in a secret cove. People can only get to it by boat. She reminisced about the event in detail, which I could have done without, but she no longer remembers telling me. She rarely remembers much.
Uncle Haymitch's "favor" is moot. I will dress, or not dress, however I wish. If this boy from District Twelve—what kind of name is that for a country?—is uncomfortable and doesn't have the sense to look away, it's his own fault. It's not like he won't see bare bodies once he visits the ocean.
Anyway, Mama and I don't need Haymitch deciding what's best for us. I don't need some American boy to preoccupy me. I have Finnick for that.
I've had enough change to last a hundred lifetimes, and I shouldn't have to change a thing for this new boy. He'd better not expect me to or I will punch him. I will wrestle him to the ground, and I will win.
Closing the bedroom door behind me, I lean against the frame and draw a shaky breath. Mama is dreaming deeply, the mosquito net circling her narrow bed like a veil, making her resemble a fancy corpse. She never tosses or turns.
After lighting a candle, I pull back the net and kiss her forehead. I hate that she can sleep, but I'm happy that she can sleep. It's hard to say which feeling is greater.
Peeling off my soggy nightgown, I climb into my own bed and run a comb through my hair. Beads of sweat crowd between my breasts. It's a sweltering night, and I'm thirsty, but I don't want to waste drinking water.
Why did I bring the foreign exchange packet to bed with me?
I pour through it more slowly this time. What does this boy want here? What could he gain from spending a school year in a poor country? And isn't learning another language an important part of the whole thing? Everyone on Panem Island speaks English. Why would he choose a place that speaks the same language as his own?
The boy's photograph is ridiculous. No one should have a puppy smile and angular features at the same time and get away with it. His straight, white teeth suggest his family has a full refrigerator and a licensed dentist who doesn't trade his services for peacock meat. The boy's wearing a blue shirt—he's probably aware of what it does to his eyes. He's soft but sculpted. Not classically handsome like Finnick, but more unique and cute and innocent.
Innocent. I find myself anticipating the newcomer's shock when he first sets foot on the sand and sees more skin than he ever has in one place. I chuckle and then grit my teeth. Shhh.
It's not right to laugh without her here. It isn't fair, but the boy made me do it.
His picture rips slightly as I whip to the next page. It's a short introduction to the organization, explaining how there's limited space each year, so they choose their students carefully based on applications, personal essays, and social gatherings. I guess this information is meant to reassure the host families. I'm certain that this boy was able to win his place quickly. He looks the type, self-aware of his charm and probably arrogant.
The questionnaire. It's for the host family to read. It looks like the boy had to fill it out after being accepted into the program.
Name: Peeta Mellark.
I smirk. God. That name sounds like it came out of an oven, all fluffy and comforting.
Q: Why are you coming to this country?
A: "I'm supposed to say for cultural enlightenment and expanding my horizons, right? Actually, I'm going for my dad. When he was a kid, he spent a year on Panem Island and said it was the happiest he's ever been. I want to know what he meant by that. He's told me some stuff, but I won't get it completely until I do it on my own. I'm not sure I'll get it. Not for sure. I hope I will. Hope is good place to start."
I don't believe a word of it. Even though he's being casual, he's aiming to impress, and he's doing a fine job. But it's not real.
"It's nice following in someone else's footsteps..."
"I'd like to see a sunset that doesn't belong to my side of the globe..."
"I can learn to swim in my country, but it's not..."
He's very chatty. I scan the questions, pausing only for the ones that catch my eyes.
Q: What is your favorite food?
Finally, a one-word response. That he has the luxury of even having a favorite food makes me detest him.
Q: What will you miss most when you leave home?
A: "Well, now that's an impossible question to answer. I honestly can't choose one thing. I don't know if anyone could."
"There are lots of ways to miss your life. People, places, the things you like to do..."
Here he goes rambling again. My thumb begins to stroke his answer, but I stop myself when I realize what I'm doing.
"What I'll miss the most are my family's bakery, my dad, and my girlfriend."
Bakery. His life is made of food.
Another mention of his father. What about his mother?
I glance over at Mama and feel a pang. Then I glance back at the boy's handwriting and suddenly feel calm.
His girlfriend. Of course he has one, or two, or three. I wonder if she has eyes like his and if they will have a romantic farewell under the stars, with unrealistic promises and tokens of affection. And lovemaking.
The candle flicks a balmy orange glow on the wall. Mosquitoes bounce around, droning like mad while pursuing the light. I'm sticky and gray-eyed and inexplicably sad by what I've read. Sad makes me confused. Confused makes me furious. Furious makes me frustrated.
Frustrated becomes a tightness between my legs. Squirming doesn't help, nor does the wet air. I run my hands up my thighs and imagine him saying goodbye to his girlfriend, then the scene melts into another one of him saying hello to me, gazing at my nightgown, curious about everything underneath. I have his attention, and it feels so good. In my fantasy, I corrupt his boyish face and fill us both with longing, and for a moment, I'm all that exists in someone's life. I'm truly wanted. I'm loved again.
He's moving on me. I'm moving on him.
He shows me how deep I truly am. How loud I can be if I allow myself.
The gasp I release is startling and brings me back to earth. One of my fingers has found its way inside me. I'm outraged by the discovery, the almost-noise that slipped from my lips.
Without hesitation, I carry the papers over to the candle and stick them into the flame, watching as it drags across his photo, his thoughts, his very existence. The leaflets darken and curl and disappear.
Peeta Mellark's not even here yet, but already I've burned him.
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