Chapter 12: Confrontation
I bolt out of the Hob, not even paying attention to what streets I take or who's around me. I can barely breathe, let alone think straight.
Peeta was there. Peeta saw me. I need to get home.
Why the hell was Peeta at the Hob?
Is he following me?
Do I want him to?
I have to get home.
My feet somehow carry me back to Haymitch's estate, although I can't remember exactly how I got there. As soon as the big house comes into view, I break into a sprint. I wrench open the front door and slam it shut behind me, collapsing in the middle of the front hall carpet. That's where Haymitch eventually finds me, crying and trembling so badly that I can't stand.
He doesn't need to ask me what happened. He just picks me up and carries me upstairs to my bed, tucking me in like a small child. Then he pulls up a chair beside me and clears his throat.
"Did I ever tell you about my little girl?"
I shake my head feebly, tugging the blankets up to my chin. Why Haymitch is confiding in me at this particular moment, I have no idea. I've never even told him about the day I found his daughter's pictures.
A haunted expression overtakes his lined face. He rubs his jaw slowly before finally opening his mouth.
"Leda," he exhales.
"That was her name?"
"I was going to show her the train," he continues slowly, choosing his words carefully. "We were walking together. She was beside me. And then... And then she wasn't."
I just stare at him through my wet eyelashes.
"She was always such a good girl," Haymitch says in disbelief. "I wasn't expecting her to run onto the tracks. She was just playing. It happened so fast."
So that's why he keeps returning to the train tracks. He's still trying to wrap his head around the tragedy of losing his little girl. With a chill, I recall his words on the day he found me there: Have you ever actually seen someone get hit by a train?
My stomach lurches.
Haymitch looks like he's a million miles away. "She was right beside me. Then she wasn't," is all he is able to repeat.
"Where's her mother?" I eventually croak, because I don't know what else to say.
He gives a little shrug and shakes his head.
"She left after it happened. Couldn't forgive me, I suppose. Devil knows where she is nowadays. But she would've been about your age now – my little one, I mean."
With that, Haymitch stands up to leave. At first I think he's finished speaking. Then he turns back to me at the last second.
"Most people wouldn't put up with a drunk old man," he says. "Most people would leave."
"I've lived with a lot worse," I reassure him.
The next few days are a blur. I only tell Haymitch a few disjointed pieces of my own history, but he puts them together and somehow figures most of it out, anyway. He eventually reminds me that I'm eighteen – a legal adult - and that I no longer need to live in fear.
"No one can touch you anymore," he says gruffly. "This is your home for as long as you want it to be. You can come and go as you please. But no one can make you go back to where you came from. No one can lay a hand on you."
Still, I continue to hide inside the house, dreading the moment when Peeta will show up at the door looking for me.
But weeks pass, and he never does.
I tell myself that maybe he didn't see where I went. Or perhaps I ran away before he could figure out why I looked so familiar. I did have an unexpected growth spurt as soon as I started eating three meals a day, after all. My face and body are fuller now than they ever were before.
But I know how it struck me right to my core when I saw his face. I recognized Peeta instantly, on some level that no amount of physical change could ever overwrite. Surely he felt it too. Still, I cling to the possibility that he couldn't have identified me as I tentatively start patronizing the Hob once more.
The summer months come and go without incident. I never even see anyone who looks remotely like Peeta. I eventually start to think that maybe I just imagined the whole thing, hallucinated in a moment of panic. Peeta-on-the-brain. It could be a medical condition.
I've legitimately started to believe this theory until the day I hear him say my name, and I know there's no way I'm imagining it.
Low, quiet. Right beside me.
I slowly look up from the crate of pumpkins I've been digging through and turn to face the source of the voice I know so well.
Peeta Mellark. Standing just inches away from me.
I've thought about this moment a thousand times, but the flood of emotion that hits me when I actually look into his face leaves me speechless.
Luckily, he's more prepared than I am.
"Katniss, I think we need to talk."
I hope my hands aren't shaking too obviously as I place Peeta's mug on the table. I take the seat across from him, but neither of us makes any move to sip our tea. We just sit there in awkward silence for what feels like forever.
I can't believe that Peeta Mellark and I are having tea on Haymitch's porch.
He finally clears his throat.
"So this is where you've been living?" I see his eyes survey the expansive gardens.
He doesn't respond. He just stares out over the lawn, his brow furrowed.
"This feels so… formal," I finally say, trying to cut the tension. I smile and attempt to catch Peeta's eye, but he doesn't notice.
"I'm still living at home," he says, without emotion. "In case you were wondering."
"Um, and… working at the bakery?"
"Yes. For a little while longer, at least."
"Oh," I say.
"How's… your dad?" I finally ask.
"Dad is fine. His arthritis is getting worse, though."
"Oh. And… graduation was... good?" I cringe inwardly at how lame I sound.
"It was okay," Peeta shrugs. "Nothing special. You weren't there," he adds after a moment of thought.
No, I wasn't. I was hiding out here, in Haymitch's big house, trying to forget about you.
I'm wracking my brain, searching for something, anything to say when Peeta exhales loudly and finally looks me directly in the eye.
"I'm getting married in the spring," he announces.
I can't feel my body. For a second I think I'm going to faint.
"Oh," is all I manage to say as the shock of the news washes over me.
I look down at my mug of tea. I guess somewhere in the back of my mind I'd still been holding onto the small hope that Peeta and I would somehow end up together. There's no other explanation for why his words have managed to knock the wind out of me.
"Congratulations," I offer numbly. I hear myself starting to ramble like an idiot in an attempt to conceal my pain. "To Aspen, right? She was always a nice girl. That's a great match. Good for you. Congratulations. Again, I mean."
"No," Peeta says evenly. "Not to Aspen."
He shakes his head. "You don't know who she is. She's from the Seam."
I pause to consider this. Hollis would never arrange such a disadvantageous match, let alone approve of it. At first, I'm a little thrilled that Peeta rebelled against the woman who caused us both so much hardship.
Then I realize the implications.
He must truly be in love.
"Oh," is all that comes out of my mouth, yet again.
"Yeah," Peeta says quietly, turning his attention back to Haymitch's gardens. "You'd like her, Katniss. She's a nice girl."
There's nothing inflammatory about what Peeta just said – he's just stating the truth about his fiancée, and why should I expect any different? – but I still feel myself bristle with annoyance.
"Maybe I could meet her sometime," I say politely, even as my stomach churns, rejecting the idea.
"Sure," Peeta answers, pissing me off just a little more.
Another agonizing silence.
"So…" I struggle, looking for a change of subject before I lose control of my emotions. "Where will you be working, if you're not going to be at the bakery?"
"I'll be starting in the mines next month."
I choke on my tea.
"You can't work in the mines!" I blurt out. "You could die down there!"
Peeta suddenly slams down his mug and shoots me an angry glare.
"What do you care?" he snaps, his voice thick with hatred. "You left, Katniss! I looked everywhere for you! I thought you were dead, or suffering out there in the woods somewhere, but you were just living in your fancy new house this whole time! Why the fuck do you suddenly care about my life now?"
"I always cared!" I shoot back, my voice rising. I can feel the tears coming, too, but the anger keeps them at bay for the time being. "You don't know anything! You don't know what I was feeling! You don't know how hard it was for me!"
"You left," Peeta spits again. "You just left me there. It sure didn't seem like it was too hard for you!"
"I left in order to help you!" I insist. Surely, he sees how what I did was necessary, how I had to remove myself if either of us were to have a shot at survival.
"Bullshit!" Peeta shouts before I can get another word out. He slams his hand against the table. Far from understanding my motive, he seems even angrier, and it catches me completely off guard. "We could've gotten through anything together! We got through it together for eight fucking years! You were the reason why I hoped for better things, Katniss! You made the fight worthwhile! And then you just left, and took all that hope with you!"
"I didn't 'just leave'!" I explode, unable to hold back my tears any longer. "I never meant to run away and have some kind of g-great life without you! I d-didn't want any life without you! So don't you dare say that I just left! I went to the train tracks! I went to- to get rid of myself, and –"
"Stop," Peeta says weakly, cutting me off. His mouth is still set in a hard line, but his eyes are bloodshot – he's on the verge of tears, himself. My words have caused him to remember how he lost Ry. "Please. Stop."
"Okay," I choke out. "But please, believe me. I had to go away to make Hollis stop h-hurting you."
"No, Katniss," Peeta counters. "Don't you get it? Mom's always been this way. She was like this before you came along, and she's been the same since you left. She's never going to change, Katniss. She's sick. It has nothing to do with you. And I've been telling you that for years, but you're too goddamn self absorbed to hear it."
My jaw actually drops a little. I can't believe Peeta just said something so hurtful. It only causes my fury to return, tenfold.
"So what did you want me to do? Hmm?" I demand. "Did you want me to stay in the cellar and keep taking beatings, just so you'd have company? Did you want me to stick around to watch you suffer? And you claim you loved me! Why would someone who loves me want me to stay in that nightmare of a house? Who's selfish now, Peeta?"
Peeta jumps to his feet. I've hit a sore spot – I've betrayed the one thing that I always reassured him that I believed in, which was his love for me - and I instantly regret it.
"I did love you!" Peeta snarls, pointing his finger at my face. He's so upset that he's shaking. I've never seen him this worked up before. "I loved you and you know it! You were the one who hardly ever said it in return! You were the one who took it all back and broke my heart before running away!"
It's true. All of it.
"My world fell apart the day you left," he continues. "And then just when everything was finally starting to get back to normal, you showed up at the Hob and dropped your stupid grocery bag! Up until that moment, I thought you were gone. I thought I was getting over you. I was getting serious with a beautiful, kind woman! And then you just... reappeared!"
"What difference does it make?" I cry out, enraged and humiliated at the same time. "You say you were getting serious about this girl - well, you're engaged now! What difference does it make if I show up? Why does it even matter to you?"
"Because you already destroyed me once before," Peeta says bitterly, "and I can't go through that again." He takes a deep breath and lowers his voice, leaning across the table towards me.
"Do you have any idea what kind of hell you left me in? How I blamed myself for your disappearance? Sometimes I hated you more than I've ever hated anyone. Then a minute later, I'd miss you so much that it would make me sick. Well, a person can't live that way, Katniss. I had to make a choice. I had to get my shit together. So I decided to propose to my girlfriend, and I decided to be happy. And I thought that maybe afterwards I would finally be able to face you at the Hob again without being angry. But I see now that that's impossible! We can never be friends!"
Peeta's words slice right through my heart. I've been degraded by Hollis, whipped, beaten, starved… but nothing hurts as much as knowing that Peeta finally sees me as I see myself in my darkest moments.
I am a monster, and now he finally knows it.
"I… I had to make you hate me," I squeak before breaking into fresh tears and burying my face in my hands. He will never understand it or forgive me, but it's my only explanation.
When my sobbing finally subsides, I look up expecting to find myself alone. But Peeta's still standing there, glaring at me through his own tears.
"Well, it's not possible for me to hate you, Katniss," he chokes. "And it's not possible for us to just be friends, either. Because I'm still in love with you."