Prodded to Drown

Chapter 13

My Last Night on Earth was … nice. My Last Night on Earth was what I was calling my last night of living in relatively normal conditions, in a relatively peaceful environment, and not fighting for my relative life. The arena was metaphorically alien. My Last Night of True Normality was way back, the night before the reaping a hundred years ago. And my Last Night of Existence would be the night my heart stopped beating.

But I still thought of this as a milestone. And it was nice. I used to think that nice was such a phoney word. Who wants to be called nice? When kids call you nice it means that they have no desire to be your friend and most likely know nothing about you, if all they can say is that you're nice. When a boy calls you nice it means he thinks you're an okay gal but he either finds you unattractive or uninteresting or generally unappealing in some other way. When a teacher calls you nice it means you are not specifically talented in any way whatsoever but at least you're mostly harmless. That, or all the kids and boys and teachers you know are extremely unimaginative in their choices of words.

When an evening is nice it means you neither had a fantastic time nor a terrible time. It was just nice.

But sometimes, nice is nice. You know?

We sat around and had dinner, and Finnick, Lance and I all chatted and laughed like old friends. Of all things I could have been worried about at that moment — death, murder, prostitution — I almost felt sorry for Finnick because we were his friends, and he was going to lose us and go back to District 4 where everyone outside of his family walked on eggshells around him. Not literally, because, man, that would hurt! I hoped that if Lance won, he'd be true to his offer of hanging around with our mentor.

My Last Meal on Earth was an assortment of smaller dishes: a juicy, medium rare steak with red wine sauce, bell peppers stuffed with mince, and spicy meatballs covered in cheese. Esmé ordered a few large jugs of a cocktail they called Sex on the Beach, which we all had a good laugh about. Lance's and mine were virgins, which everyone else had a good laugh about while I remained confused about why a drink would be categorised according to its sexual experience.

I still don't get it, you know.

Holden didn't say much, but I wasn't bothered by him. As well as being a despicable little man, he was also a bit of a jerk. And to think, he had once made me think better of Esmé! Now I had a heck of a lot more nice things to say about her than him.

Then we all went into the sitting room and watched the interviews, and it was all so cheesy and revolting but there was no point being embarrassed about it. I had the same desire I had towards the end of Lance's story about our kiss — to laugh. At this Holden piped up, seeming to think that he had gotten through to us after all about our false romance. But it was not for the entertainment of the viewers that we did it. If we were going to die then we might as well have some fun while we were at it. And torturing the Capitol citizens with the promises of a good love story only to hugely disappoint them was all too entertaining, and all too easy.

Sitting in the same positions as the previous night, I curled up and put my feet in Finnick's lap. He glanced sideways at me, grinning like a total goofball.

Goodbyes had to be said, but to be honest they meant more to them than us. When I'm dead I'll hardly be worrying about the last things I said to Esmé, Holden and Sheaney.

Sheaney wished us a quiet but heartfelt good luck. Holden pulled meticulously at his sleeves, then smoothed the creases in his shirt and said, "Well, do try make it a good show, won't you?" With a quick glance at our faces his eyes turned downcast and he added a bashful, "If it were me and Esmé, it would be totally not awesome. I hope you don't … Oh, just good luck, guys, okay?" And then he stomped off, seeming almost angry with himself for having a bit of decency for once.

"Did Holden just show empathy?" I asked incredulously.

"The world has officially gone mad," said Lance.

"Don't give him too much credit," sighed Finnick. "I had a few words with him, actually."

I mouthed "actually" and he gave me a sly little wink.

Esmé gave a small little "Hem," holding a poised hand delicately over her lips. She took each of our hands (but not Finnick's, because she only had two hands), and said, "It was a true joy to meet a pair of charming, well-spoken and pleasant looking young adults such as yourselves."

"Well … thank you, Esmé," said Lance.

She positively beamed at him, and then rushed off a little hysterically, blushing beneath her white powder and muttering something about sharing experiences while fixing her 'ESCORT' sash.

Then the three of us stood in the hallway for a while, giving random reminders of what our plan was in low, clipped voices. Finnick felt that we'd have more than enough sponsors, but that he would be sending us more than just gifts. The gifts would also be hints, for instance if he sent us bread it meant we were relatively safe and should catch up on energy, but if he sent us weapons it meant we were in danger. I wondered if we'd really have enough sponsors to be thinking like that, but Finnick seemed pretty convinced. He got the most expensive gifts, after all.

Lance and I went through our plan over and over: I was to run away from the bloodbath, in the direction of the sun if I could see it and towards water if I couldn't. Lance would follow me after he had grabbed a few weapons. I wasn't exactly happy with leaving him, but it was all we could do. We mightn't be anywhere near each other on our pedestals around the Cornucopia, and he was a good fighter anyway.

Hopefully, everything would work out.

Finnick hugged us both and Lance and I shared our goodbyes with him. He ruffled Lance's hair, touched my cheek, and without another word went to his room. At his door, he turned around. With one glimpse of his eyes I knew he'd be joining me later on the comfy sofa in the sitting room for the Very Last Time.

Lance and I stood hugging in the hallway for a long time. I felt like I would literally fall to pieces if he didn't stay holding me there, keeping me together.

"This is so silly," he said wetly, pulling away slightly and looking into my eyes. "I mean, I'll see you tomorrow."

"Yeah, but not on Earth," I replied.

In the end, we tore ourselves from each other's arms and said goodnight.

I had the quickest shower of my life, just washing off the glitter and then sitting on the edge of my bed for an hour or two.

Indecision was tearing my mind apart. Should I stay or should I go? To Finnick, I mean. I wanted to see him. Of course I did. But how could I say goodbye to him? Forever? Maybe it would be easier for both of us if I just stayed in my room and tried to sleep instead. My heart wrenched at the thought of him waiting out there for me, and me never showing my face. Would he even care? Or would he come knocking at my door, refusing to let me abandon him like this?

I shuddered to think of causing him pain, when he had already been hurt so much in the past. But which would be the better pain? Not seeing each other one last time or letting ourselves get deeper into this affair only to increase the hurt when it ended?

Yes, maybe this was better. This was all such an awful waste of time. And yet I wouldn't change any of it.

This resolve only lasted less than an hour, by which time I missed his face, his dorky smile and stupid jokes. Right outside the door I bumped into a body in the dark, gave a startled yell and knocked over a wooden table.

"Finn—?" I began, then clamped my hand over my mouth.

"Who're you calling Finnick?" asked Lance, grabbing my arm to steady me. "Why were you expecting Finnick?"

I stared at him. "No reason," I said slowly and carefully, turning to pick up the table and set it upright once more.

We met each other's eyes cautiously.

"Where are you off to at this time of night?" I asked him.

He pulled a face. "Uh … I was just going up to the roof. To get some fresh air."

He ruffled his hair uncomfortably as I eyed him up and down with a suspicious smirk.

"Well, where are you going, eh?" he threw back at me.

"I was … just getting some hot chocolate. From the kitchen."

"Oh. Don't you have one of those call buttons for that in your room?"

I almost slapped myself in the face. I was so dumb. "My room gives me claustrophobia," I said hurriedly.

He just shrugged. "Fair enough."

We looked at each other for another shrewd moment, and I was wondering if I should ask him if he wanted company on the roof. But I had the slightest inkling that he wouldn't be needing it.

"Finnick's in the sitting room," he said suddenly, and my eyes widened. He smiled innocently and looked at his hands. "Did you know?"

He glanced up to meet my eyes, and I couldn't help the grin that stretched across my face. He just grinned back and I elbowed him gently. "I won't ask you if you don't ask me," I whispered.

"Deal," he said quickly.

He drew me into a tight embrace. Still gripping my arm, he dragged me over to the door of the sitting room and threw it open.

Finnick was slouched on the couch, just as promised. He shot straight up when he saw us, looking petrified.

"Oi, Finn. I brought you a present." With this, Lance shoved me into the room, and turned from the door with a grin. "You kids have fun," he said. And then he was gone.

Finnick was looking uncomfortable, but I was so mortified I could hardly look at him anyway.

"What was that about?" he asked. "Where's he off to?"

"None of our business," I replied.

"Oh, I get it. He's hooking up." I looked around, smiling widely at Finnick who just crossed his arms across his chest and scanned me up and down. "See, that boy has some common sense. I told you nobody wants to die a virgin, even if you refuse to have him."

"I think it's more to do with the fact that he's in love," I said.

Finnick looked at me for another long moment. "For a while there I thought you weren't gonna show," he said. His voice was casual but his face gave away the fear that gripped him at that thought.

I just said, "Me too," and went and sat beside him on the comfy couch. Oh, how I would miss it.

We sat side by side in silence for ages. Finnick had his arm slung over the back of the couch, and after a while he coughed slightly and said, "My arm is real tired, so if it happens to fall and land around your shoulders … then it's definitely not me trying to make a move on you or anything, okay? I would just be too tired to move it, if it happened to fall. Which it might, 's all I'm saying."

I looked up at him, meeting his green eyes. "Okay."

I counted to thirty in my head before he put his arm around my shoulders. It was weird how something so simple could have my heart racing so fast. Mostly I was worried. I had resisted two of his kisses already, could I do it again? And remind me again why I wasn't already throwing myself at him?

His fingers fiddled with a strand of my hair, and when I reached up to stop him he grabbed my fingers and laced them through his own. I decided not to stop him doing that. That was innocent enough, right? His hands were so strong and warm and tough. I watched as our thumbs played war and then I gave his fingers a light squeeze and hesitantly brought them up to touch against my lips.

Finnick went still, I could hear his steady breathing on my other side but I didn't look around. I just looked at his hands for another moment. It entered my head that these hands had killed people, and I quickly let go.

I looked around. Finnick's face was lowered too close to mine. He dropped his eyelids half closed as he watched me bite my bottom lip, then his green eyes widened as they flicked up to meet mine.

"And if I were to … um, rest my head against your chest," I began timidly, as he tightened his arm around me. "I wouldn't be trying to make a move on you, either. It's just that my head is real tired and, well, it looks very comfortable there and I'm sorta craving affection and stuff, so …"

Finnick was grinning so widely that most of my vision was just his clean white smile. "Okay," he said, the trace of a laugh in his voice.

I immediately threw myself against him, hugging him around the middle and pressing my cheek against his hard, muscled chest. He seemed surprised by my sudden attack because there was a tiny pause before he moved, and lay back on the couch with me wrapped tightly up in his arms.

I felt I could heighten all my senses. Every touch sent a wave of shivers over my body. Every beat of his heart I heard and felt as a tremor beneath his skin. My body moved against his as his chest rose and fell with every breath. He smelled clean and fresh, but airy and not overwhelming like the artificial smells from the Capitol showers. A little salty, maybe. Like District 4.

I closed my eyes and focused on these things, his smell, his feel, his slightest sounds. Then I realised that I was obviously missing one sense, which was taste. But that made me super nervous, so I concentrated on the others and tried to hold them in my memory.

I hoped I would feel this sort of calmness when I died. I felt like there was nothing to be scared of. There was nothing left in the whole world.

"You make me feel so safe," I said, keeping my eyes shut. "Stupid, eh?"

He paused before answering me, and when he did his voice was heavy with sadness. "I could keep you safe, you know. Me and Lance …"

"But you won't," I said. "You won't choose between us, will you Finnick?"

I looked up to meet his eyes, only to find that they were closed. His brow was furrowed. They opened a moment later, which was good because my neck was getting sore from craning it to look up into his face. He said, "I don't see how it makes a difference. If you'll be allies, then you'll be sharing anything I send."

I nodded and rested my head on his chest again, shifting around a bit to find a more comfortable spot. I punched his abs. "I wish you weren't so hard," I said.

Finnick laughed really loudly at this even though I really couldn't see what was so hilarious. "I wish you weren't so …" he began, trailing away uncertainly. He rested his head on top of mine and whispered into my hair, "I can't think of anything. You seem pretty perfect to me."

I groaned loudly.

"Sorry," he said quickly.

"No, it's grand," I sighed.

"I've just … never really felt this way before," he said slowly.

I swallowed hard. "Me neither."

"What have we done to each other, eh?"

"Well, I dunno about you but I didn't do anything," I said.

"That's the scary part. You're just being you."

We were both quiet for a while. I didn't really think he was making sense but I didn't say anything.

"We could run away."

I laughed loudly. "Are you crazy?"

"Maybe I am," he replied. "But this could have been something, if we met under different circumstances, in another world or something. What do you think it would have been like?" he asked.

"What does it matter? We're in this world and things are incredibly sucky. I can't bear to think about what could have been."

He chuckled a little and kissed the top of my head. "Oh, Annie. Can't you ever just humour me?"

I thought for a moment.

"In a different world, there were no Hunger Games. Finnick Odair was a devastatingly handsome but completely un-extraordinary young man who worked as a teaching assistant at Seafield High School, where a young girl named Annie Cresta was in her senior year. The school took the kids on a field trip to the Capitol of Panem. On the trip, Annie and Finnick got to talking and discovered that they found each other interesting and attractive and stayed up to all hours of the morning talking talking about death and the fourth dimension for some reason — which was a glorious luxury since neither of them had any intention of dying in the near future.

"When they returned from the trip, Finnick asked Annie on a date. They went to the pictures and had dinner like ordinary teenage couples. They went on a few dates, then Finnick came over to meet Annie's grandparents and Annie met Finnick's family, too. And they would walk on the beach hand in hand and hadn't a care in the world, because they didn't have to worry about anyone being pimped out to rich people or keeping anyone alive, or …"

I stopped and looked at Finnick, who had his eyes closed again and a slight smile on his face.

"And because I know it can't be like this for us, I'm going to presume that everything went perfect for the other world Finnick and Annie, and after dating for a while they realised that they were in love with each other. And when they were a bit older they got married, and bought a little house, with a back yard that opened out onto the beach and an attic where they kept pigeons. And I'm not sure if we're ready to think about kids yet so I'll just say they had a heck of a lot of cats. But the cats weren't allowed in the attic, obviously.

"This fantasy got away from me a bit. Are you creeped out yet?"

"It sounds nice," he sighed.

I rolled my eyes, but secretly thought it sounded perfect. Obviously, that's why I had told it that way.

"Would I be allowed to kiss you in that world?" Finnick asked.

My heart raced. "It's a make-believe world, Finnick. You can do whatever the heck you want." He gave another sigh and I felt a bit bad so I said, "Sorry, it's just … it's gonna be impossible to say goodbye as it is. I can't make it any harder."

"I'm sorry. I know," he said, and stroked my tangled hair. Then he took my hand from his chest and held it. "And it's okay. I like just this. It's not often I get to do just this."

I was just watching his thumb trace calming circles into my palm when I noticed something and yanked his wrist towards me.

"This is one of my bracelets," I said, looking from the band on his wrist to his face. It wasn't one of the kiddie ones I made, but from a set of my more recent creations. It was a thicker cuff with plaited palm grass and strings of black, brown and green material. Held in the centre was a small metal disk with three wavy lines carved into it, supposed to be the waves of the ocean. "When did you get this?"

"I've had it the whole time," he said. He smiled at me and looked at the band. "My kid brother had a crush on the pretty girl that works in the gift shop, he was always making excuses for going in there."

"Oh," I said. And then, "Oh, you mean me. Thanks … Was it Tori?"

"No, Yoshie."

"But, he's eleven!"

"And?"

"And I'm seventeen!"

"Yeah, so you're a hot older woman! In that case." He paused thoughtfully for a moment. "Whereas in my case, I feel like you make up for your sexual immaturity with your profound wisdom, which compared to myself …"

"Is exactly the opposite?" I offered, looking up at him.

He grinned his secret smile, all eyes and teeth and dimples again. "Exactly."

I grinned too and looked back at his fingers as he ran them over the green ribbon I had worn at the reaping which was still twisted around Grammy's pearl bracelet.

"It's crazy. Anyone could walk in at any moment, and I don't even care."

"What? Should you be embarrassed of me or something?" I asked.

"No, but I have a feeling I'd be in trouble if anyone found out. It kinda ruins my reputation."

He was probably right. What would people say if the Capitol heartthrob was revealed to have an interest in some plain, slightly eccentric girl from his district? Or anyone, for that matter. Being available was important to Finnick's career, after all.

"Nobody would believe it anyway," I said quickly, my stomach bursting into butterflies. "I mean, I hardly believe it myself."

I felt him smile into my hair. His voice was slightly lower when he said, "Well, we could go somewhere more private, I guess."

I swallowed and closed my eyes for a moment. "I was actually thinking of going to bed soon."

He paused. "And that's not an invitation, is it?"

I twisted my neck to meet his eyes. "I'm sorry. But I should be getting some sleep, right? The Games are tomorrow."

He made a face and then grinned stupidly. "I just realised what a terrible mentor I am, keeping you awake and all."

I wrapped my arms around his neck and hugged him close. "On the contrary, Finnick Odair. You're the best mentor in all the land."

We lay for a little while longer and then I forced myself up and, after a few attempts to drag me back down again, Finnick agreed to walk me to my door. Then there was a lot more hugging.

He looked down at me with a pained expression etched into his handsome face. "Shit, Annie, I can't even imagine not having you around anymore. Going out to the sitting room every night hoping you'll be there. And your eccentricities, and your stories and everything about you. And I know it's like a lot worse for you, because you have to worry about dying, but—"

"It's worse to worry about living," I said sadly. "I'm so sorry, Finnick. I didn't mean to."

He tilted his head, smiling. "Don't you dare apologise. I just mean … I'm just trying to say that I never thought I would meet someone like you. I never thought someone could be so good." I set my lips, and he took my face and lifted my chin to bring my attention to his eyes. "I never thought I could fall so completely on my knees, idiotically and self-destructively, head over heels in—"

I reached up and hastily clamped my hand over his mouth. "Don't," I said firmly. His eyes looked deep into mine, his sea-green eyes that had felt more pain and seen more horrific things than anyone should have to see.

He took my hand from his mouth and held it tight. "I literally cannot say goodbye."

"Then don't say that," I said. "… Say, 'It was nice to meet you.'"

"It was nice to meet you," he repeated quietly.

I unwrapped the green ribbon from around my wrist and twisted it around the cuff on his arm. Then I shook his hand.

"I'll never forget you," he said, cupping my face in his hands.

"I'm not worried about being forgotten," I responded. "Because one day, hopefully not too soon, you'll be dead too. And then there will be nobody left to remember me. But there will come a time when all the greatest people of our days — whether they be artist or scientist or political leader or celebrity victor or gift shop owner — will be forgotten too. One day the human race will cease to exist and our whole civilisations turned to dust, and not even that will be remembered. Nobody will be around any more to care. So you don't need to worry about remembering me. I hope you grow to a grand old age and forget me completely."

Finnick looked at me for a moment. Then he smiled. "Do all these things come right off the top of your head, or have you a strict set of beliefs you like to share with me?"

"A bit of both," I replied.

"Well, all I know is that it would take a lot to forget you, Annie," he said. "It really would."

Hopefully that would be because Lance would be alive as a constant reminder of my previous existence. I thought this would be too painful to voice, so I didn't say it out loud.

"I have to go now," I said finally. "Or else I'll never leave."

He choked on his words. Well, just one word actually. "Aye."

He didn't make a move to leave, so I just took a deep, deep breath and backed away to the bedroom door. I reached behind me and turned the doorknob, both fearing and hoping for it to be locked. But it opened and after a brief hesitation I continued backwards through the door. He stood outside, leaning against the door-frame as I closed the door a crack. For a while we looked at each other with our faces close to the tiny wedge of an opening, where the slant of light from the hallway cast a dark shadow across his face.

Eventually, he gave me a certain look and I nodded and shut the door.

Of course I didn't sleep a wink. And I thought of going back out again, but I just couldn't do it.

All I could hope was that I would die as soon as possible just to be rid of this pain in my chest, but I couldn't do that either. I need to stay alive, for Lance.

And that was my Last Night on Earth. And part of my Last Morning on Earth. I was sitting, waiting on the edge of my bed when Holden burst in, shouting, "Today's the day, darling! Oh, but I couldn't stop—"

He looked around as Finnick followed him though my open door.

I jumped to my feet. "Ach, Finnick, I can't say goodbye again!"

"Maybe I should just—" began Holden.

"Just one thing, then I'm gone. Okay?" Finnick wasn't looking at my stylist for permission, but at me. I looked at him painfully, then shrugged. He took a deep breath, then blurted out, "Are you in love with Lance?"

"I'll just be—"

"What?" I exclaimed. "Are you insane?"

"—If anyone needs me," finished Holden, obnoxiously loud, backing away into a corner.

"I just need to know," said Finnick.

"Well, no. Of course not!" I said. "Lance is my best friend! He doesn't mean anything like that to me. We care about each other a lot but I can't love him because he's not … Lance is just so normal, you know?" I went up to Finnick and put my hands on either side of his face, looking into his tortured eyes. He looked back at me and swallowed slightly. I bit my lip. "He's like my brother, Finnick. He's my best friend but he's not the sort of person I can confide everything in. Because he just doesn't understand. It's not his fault. We're best friends because he needs a bit of weirdness in his life, and I need a bit of normality, and that's all we need of each other. That's it. But I'm more likely to be in love with someone who understands me better. Someone who has their own problems, you know what I mean?"

His chest heaved with every breath, and he met my eyes with fierce earnestness and wet his lips just slightly. He knew. I knew he knew. Because these reasons I had for not loving Lance were true, but they were only a very tiny, irrelevant smidge on the broad spectrum of reasons I could have listed.

But these were not really the reasons I wasn't in love with Lance. They were the reasons I was in love with Finnick.

Well, some of them anyway.

"Not that this isn't real sweet," interrupted Holden, "but we seriously need to get going?"

We looked around at him, then both completely ignored him and turned back to each other.

"And," I continued hurriedly, stroking the short hairs at the bottom of his neck, "Lance lies to me. I know he thinks he's protecting me, but I'd still rather someone who tells me the truth." I couldn't fight back the tears any longer. They began to stream down my face as I asked, "You don't lie, do you, Finnick?"

He pursed his lips together, bringing my face closer to his and brushing away my tears with light fingers. "Well, I try not to," he said.

I trembled a little, and then whispered, "What are my chances of getting out of this alive?"

Finnick did not lie. Instead, he simply leaned down and pressed his lips against mine.

It was a brief and innocent kiss. And although it felt like it lasted forever, it was actually only a few seconds later that my eyes opened again and saw his: bright green and glistening with tears. Anyone watching probably wouldn't have thought twice about it. It wasn't a very romantic kiss. Well, it was to us, but from another perspective it could have meant anything at all. It could have been a kiss between friends, or family, or a kiss between a mentor and his tribute. It could have been a kiss good luck, or a simple display of affection, whatever form it might have been taking. But this kiss meant none of that. Or else it meant all of that, I can't remember which.

But we each knew exactly what it meant. And all I said was, "I appreciate the honesty."

Because it was not a kiss between lovers, but a first kiss and a last kiss, and as I looked into his eyes after it I knew exactly what it meant, and I knew he knew it, too.

I would not get out of this alive. And Finnick and I would never see each other again. But we'd always remember each other, as long as we lived, no matter how short that time may be. That's what the kiss meant.

It was a lot simpler than that, actually. It was a kiss goodbye.

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