Prodded to Drown

Chapter 18

"So, Annie," says the Doc, giving me a smile that sends shiver down my back. "How are you feeling today?"

"Pretty good, actually," I reply, giving her a warm one back.

"You sound surprised," she says.

"Well, I've been feeling down for so long … I guess it is surprising. But I just realised that there's a whole world outside of here that I'm missing out on. I mean, I'm never going to forget what has happened, what I've lost … but that doesn't mean I can't go on with my life."

"It's good that you feel that way," she responds with another smile, but doesn't mention anything about letting me go.

I swallow slightly. "Yeah, I don't think Lance wants me to be miserable forever, anyway."

Doc picks up her clipboard and scratches a few notes. "Well, Annie, it looks like you're well on the way to recovery. Let's hope your mood continues to improve, hm?"

I nod feverishly.

"Is there … anything you're still confused about? Any bad dreams or confusing memories, maybe?"

Or when I'm allowed to go home? "Um … Actually there is something. Oh, but it's nothing, really …" I turn my face and sneak a glance at her out of the corner of my eye. She sits up and leans her elbows on her desk.

"No problem is too big or too small, Annie."

"Well …" I start, then take a deep breath or three. Time to be a normal teenager with normal teenager problems. I just hope I can pull it off. "Well … before I went into the Games … there was this … boy."

I look at my hands and smile rather bashfully, and I can see her smiling too. I don't know how I ever doubted myself. I'm just a normal teenage girl, with all my problems in life circling around teenage boys.

"So, this boy and I got on really well and we really, really, really liked each other. Well, he led me to believe he liked me, anyway. But since I've come out of the arena … it's been a bit weird with us. Neither of us expected me to live at all. And I guess I'm just worried that while I was gone he just got over it. Or that he doesn't feel the same way any more. Or that he only said those things because he knew he'd never have to see me again."

"This boy …" Jeckyll says slowly. "You've seen him since you got out of the arena?"

"Yeah, but neither of us have tried to … you know, talk about what happened between us." I look up at her, and find that I'm hardly acting at all. "I'm starting to think I made the whole thing up in my head."

To my surprise, she puts down the clipboard and pen and smiles at me. Then she tells me she'll be back in a moment, and leaves the office.

I'm just sitting there on the couch, feeling confused and a little forsaken, when the door opens again and who enters, but Finnick Odair, bright and fair, combing down his ginger hair …

He grins at me but my hands are already covering my face.

"Oh my gosh, tell me you didn't hear all that!"

"Hear what?" he asks innocently, the humour evident in his voice.

"Oh my gosh," I moan.

"Oh, come on! Stop being embarrassed. Here—" I feel him sit down close beside me on the couch, and grapple with my hands for a moment before I lower them reluctantly to cover only the bottom half of my face.

"This is not funny," I say, my voice muffled.

He laughs, and runs a hand through his hair.

"Why are even still here? I thought you left ages ago!"

"I was chatting to some people," he says, raising his arms in a shrug.

"Doctors or patients?" I ask suspiciously.

"Look, it doesn't matter!" he says loudly, taking my hands gently in his and pulling them from my face. "I'm here now, and I think there's a certain chat the two of us need to have."

Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh.

He wets his lips slightly with his tongue and smiles. I'm just about melting at this stage, and his eyes flash with amusement as my hand raises to my mouth again. "Stop being so cute," he says. "It's bloody irresistible."

"You will have to resist," I say sadly. "I didn't mean for any of this to happen. There is nothing to chat about."

"What?" he ask. "You're impossible! What do you want, then, eh? Please just tell me. I'm so confused."

I take a big deep breath, feeling sick and achey and tempted and guilty and a fraud. I look down at my hands that can't even make daisy chains anymore. "I'm not incorruptible, Finnick. I'm really not as innocent as ye all seem to think. So if you want to steal my innocence … I'm so sorry, but I've already lost it."

Finnick sits forward in his chair. "What do you mean you lost it?" I cover my face with my hands and shake my head. "Annie?"

I peer out between my fingers, and painfully meet his concerned eyes. "I'm despicable, Finnick." I start to cry, and suddenly he is beside me, and I turn to sob into his chest, all knowledge of awkwardness between us gone. He holds me tightly, pressing his cheek against my hair. Each breath racks my body, and I feel worse being close to his body. Because I realise: I want him closer than close. I want things I had never understood before. I feel things inside parts of my body that I didn't even know existed until now.

And it is gross.

"Annie, you can tell me."

I turn away, jumping to my feet and crossing the room. My hands won't stop shaking and I feel like I'm overheating. I look back at him, and the tears really begin to flow. "Finnick, how does it not destroy you?"

"What? What are you talking about?"

I screw my eyes shut. "I want to kiss you, Finnick. I want to do lots of stuff with you. I'm not innocent at all, I've been corrupted. But you like me because you think I'm pure —"

Finnick sighs. "That's not why I like you, ya big eejit."

My eyes open and probably pop right out of my head. One again I try to say "What?" and "Eh?" at the same time and ended up with saying, "Wheh?"

I glare at him, and he glares back.

He looks me over, sitting back in his seat and crossing his arms. "Your smile is a bit too wide for your face, did you know that?" I knit my brow, frowning deeply at him. But he just wets his lips and continues on. "You've got a stupid looking calf-lick that messes up your bangs. Your eyes have this constant puppy dog look. And you've got this dewy-eyed, childlike exterior until you start spouting all this self-professed ancient wisdom about life and death and true love … And you touch your lips when you're nervous." I instantly drop my hand, and refrain from biting them. Finnick just sighs, more heavily this time. "And I cannot read you at all. It's driving me bloody crazy."

I look down, frowning. "Well, I'm sorry. If it bothers you that much I'll stop. I'll break the habits. I'll stop speaking. I'll shave off all my hair and get facial reconstructive surgery and—"

He just closes his eyes and rubs his brow wearily. "And you seriously don't get it," he mutters. He sits up suddenly and leans forwards in his seat, meeting my eyes sincerely. "I mean, this stuff shouldn't bother me as much as it does. I shouldn't even be noticing it, really. But here I am, and there you are. And every time I think you feel the same, every time I think I'm starting to understand — you do something completely mental or say something so pragmatic that makes it so obvious how totally, undeniably, irresistibly oblivious you are to me." He folds his arms again and slouches back into the couch.

There's a lengthy moment where I just stand there and try to understand what he's saying. And it isn't because I'm too innocent or because he was using too many words: it's because he isn't making any sense whatsoever. He's the bloody eejit.

"Oblivious?" I repeat. "You think I'm oblivious to you?"

"Aye," he says. "Well, not so much oblivious to me as to my charm. You don't know how to flirt, and it's all I know how to do. Which just makes it absolutely impossible for me to show you how I feel or figure out if you feel the same." He looks down. "I mean, I thought you did before the Games. But now you've lost me again."

Finnick is on my mind way too much for me to be oblivious to him. And if I were oblivious to him, I don't think it would have entered my head to even begin to conceive the idea of dreaming to postulate the thoughts of imagining a day when he might just be on my mind at all in the first place.

That's all a bit of a mouthful, so I just say, "I'm certainly not oblivious to you, Finnick."

"But do you get what I'm saying?"

"You …" I chew my lip thoughtfully. I have this immense feeling of foreboding, like we are on the brink of something really wow here. If only I knew what it was. It is on the tip of my tongue. "It's on the tip of my tongue," I say quietly.

"My feelings haven't changed, Annie. I still like you."

I can feel the waves rushing in my ears.

"And before the Games I thought that maybe I only wanted what I couldn't have, but I don't think that's it anymore. I thought I was stupidly seeking out this relationship that could only end in pain and despair and reinforcing the notion I've had all along that love is bullshit and I'll never find anyone. But I liked to think that this is something more special than some weird trick my mind plays on me. And now that you're out and things have a chance to be somewhat normal … I'd just like the chance to like you. And it's not because you're pure or innocent or because you're basically the opposite of me. Anyway, didn't you say it's not despicable if it's someone you love?"

I quivered, unable to stop the grin spreading across my face. "I did say that."

He searches my face, eyebrows knitting together. "Well? Your turn now, eh?"

I grinned and dropped my face into my hands once more, threatening to be overcome with giggles. I counted to three and tried not to hyperventilate.

I took his free hand and whispered to it. "I like you, too." I glanced up, seeing him wet his lips slightly with his tongue and grin. "So, um … would it be really inappropriate if I were to kiss you right now?" I mumble, my eyes flicking to his lips.

He grins widely, and I realise how close we are. It's like those bright green eyes are all I can see.

"Right here?" he laughs quietly. His head cocks slightly to the side and my heart goes wild as I watch his golden eyelashes lowering. I start, and he grins even more. "In your analyst's office?"

"Ach—" I begin, but he interrupts me with a kiss. And though I have only kissed Finnick once before, I welcome the familiar warmth in my chest and excited flush in my skin and dramatic dancing of my heart. And this lust isn't despicable because it isn't lust at all. It's love.

Even if it's not, I don't mind at all. I gladly kiss him back.

I take a moment to fill myself up with this new old sensation, this explosion of my bubble, this intense and intimate knowledge of Finnick. We pull away slightly and I keep my eyes closed, smiling to myself as he links his fingers through mine, and takes my face in his other hand.

Suddenly, I'm reminded of a loaf of bread, still warm.

"I didn't want to rush things, until you were better—"

"Finnick, I don't care about that. Just please tell me I'm not dreaming."

He chuckles, and I grin. "It's not like you'd believe me, anyway."

I sigh. "I suppose you're right. Ach, well. You'll just have to kiss me again in case I wake up."

He laughs again, and pulls my face to press our lips together again. I reach up to touch his chest, his shoulders, and he wraps his arms around my waist, pulling me closer to him.

Then suddenly I feel dizzy, and not in a good, in love sort of way. And here comes the familiar feeling of everything getting too loud, and I'm sinking, and I peck Finnick quickly on the mouth before pulling away and pinning my hands over my ears.

"Oh shite — Are you okay?" he asks, his voice full of concern.

"Fine," I whimper, screwing my eyes shut and laying my head down so I don't collapse and smash another glass table. With one ear pressed against the sofa, I reach for his hand.

I hear more voices, but everything's rushing in my head now. Just before I float into the blackout, I hear his voice clearly above all the others.

"I love you."

But I'm not sure if I'm dreaming yet.

Down in the valley where the green grass grows,Sat little Annie, sweet as a rose.She sang, she sang, she sang so sweet.Along came a boy and kissed her on the cheek.How many kisses did he give her?

When I wake up in my bed in the Clinic, Finnick is sitting forward in his chair beside my bedside. How long was I out? He doesn't notice that I'm awake so I take the opportunity to observe him for a moment. His elbows rest on his knees and he's pressing a finger against his lips. He is truly beautiful, you know. I feel like I could peer right into his soul, too. I have seen that worried look so many times.

Worried?

I cough and he looks up, smiling at me widely. But it's not the smile.

"I'm sorry, I think your kiss made me swoon," I said sheepishly.

He laughed, but his brow didn't unweave itself. I asked him what was wrong and he took my hand.

"Annie, I feel really guilty about Lance."

Lance.

I frown slightly and stare at Finnick.

Lancelet Coquille.

Lance is by far the most puzzling predicament I've been facing ever since I woke up after the Games. (Once I realised that I'm not dead and he is, I mean.) It's the problem I talk about the least with the doctors, and the one I spend the least amount of time thinking about directly. That might sound pretty terrible, but let me explain.

My head may be a little muddled, and maybe that's part of what kept me in care for four months. But Lance's role in the affliction is different. I didn't get institutionalised because I was insane. Insanity is not when you don't get out of bed for weeks on end, or when you wish you were dead again or when you feel a constant gaping hole somewhere around your heart. I realise now that I wasn't actually trying very hard to get better. My best friend was dead and I was feeling a little depressed. And there's nothing crazy about that.

I don't think about missing Lance, exactly. Of course I miss him, but I don't have thoughts running through my mind about him all the time. It's more like there's a constant cloud hanging over my head. It's like I have two shadows: one is my own and copies my movement, but the other has a mind of its own and can take any form to grab at my peripherals. And every so often it catches my eye and I turn around as if I'm expecting to see him right there, standing by the glass doors of the Clinic with a visitor tag neatly pinned to his broad chest, or fleeing from a butterfly in the rose-beds, or sitting in a chair by my bedside so his messy morning hair is the first thing I see when I wake. It's crazy, but whenever I imagine going home, he's always there.

But he's not there. I have to remind myself that he'll never be there again.

I know it'll only be harder when I go back to District 4, but somehow that only convinces me how badly I need to leave.

So when Finnick says, "Annie, I feel really guilty about Lance," I just sigh. I'm not the only one dealing with this loss, after all. Grieving is normal. I'm not anything like Billy or Mr MacCruiskeen or anyone here, I didn't need medication or therapy or anything to keep me functioning. My problems are easily dealt with. I just have to deal with them.

"Me too," I say, sighing. "But you couldn't save both of us."

He gives a small laugh. "Well, that too. But what I mean is, well … I feel guilty about us."

I stare at him, raising my eyebrows. "Lance would want me to be happy," I say uncertainly, not sure what he's getting at.

"I'm not so sure," he mutters, looking at his hands.

"Okay, what are you talking about?" I ask.

He gives a sigh and rubs his brow. He meets my eyes with a pained expression. "Annie, I still think Lance was in love with you."

I try to hold it in, but after a moment a snort escapes me, and then I burst out laughing.

Finnick goggles at me. "How is that funny?" he exclaims.

"Because you're so stupid! I was not in love with Lance and Lance was not in love with me! Why do you have such difficulty in accepting that?"

"I just don't understand how you can be so sure," he says.

"Because," I reply, and feel myself smirking a little. I stare at the sunlight streaming in through the window and catching the dust in its rays. I can almost see my best friend there standing over me, grinning with me at the joke. "Finnick, Lance was gay."

Finnick just stares blankly at me while I begin laughing again. After what must be ten minutes, his mouth twitches up slightly on one side and he shakes his head. "Sorry, must have misheard you. I thought you said Lance was—"

"Gay?" I offer, and Finnick's mouth slowly grows wide in astonishment. "Aye, he's gay. Gay as a maypole. Not that maypoles are gay, exactly, they're inanimate. But you know what I mean."

"How … Why … Why did you never tell me?"

I shrug, laughing. "I didn't think it was relevant! Why, are you disappointed now that you didn't meet him down in the sitting room every night instead of me?"

"No," he replies scornfully, giving me the evils. "Actually, this explains a lot."

"I know, right? Didn't you ever hear him talk about Laertes?"

Finnick's jaw drops again. "Lance and Laertes?" he gasps.

I smile. "I really hope so."

Sitting in the main area with Billy, I look up to see a care assistant heading in my direction, closely followed by two odd looking creatures.

I haven't seen anyone from the Capitol in so long, not even on the TV because Billy's scared of it. Both creatures are short and dressed in outlandish gear — the female has smooth, jet black hair and is wearing a white plastic overcoat, bright yellow rubber gloves and a blue plastic mask covers the bottom half of her pale face. She is stepping carefully as it seems is possible and holds her hands up daintily in the air like she's scared to even touch anything. On the other hand, the man is bouncing as he walks in scrappy sneakers that I can't tell the original colour of for all the dirt — or is that dirt? He too is wearing an overcoat but it's brown and the patches on it seemed a little too purposefully placed. On his cheeks are painted two rosy circles, and he has a red scarf wrapped around his head but behind it I can see a white quiff that is all too disturbingly familiar.

"No. My. GOSH!" the man screeches. "Annie Cresta!" Before the care assistant can even get out the message that I appear to have visitors, I'm dragged to my feet and swept up into the embrace of these two strange and wonderful beings.

"Darling!"

"Honey!"

"Precious!"

"My love!"

"My joy!"

"My tears!"

"My pet!"

"My mistress!"

"My angel!"

"My monkey!"

"My saviour!"

"My student!"

"My child!"

"My stylish little bundle of — oh good Lord, what are you wearing?"

I'm feeling so light headed at all their fondling that I can barely mutter out, "Phoebe? Teddy?"

The man laughs loudly. "I never did get your humour. It's us, Annie, don't you remember? We're Holden and Esmé! Esmé and Holden! Your regular old twosome: stylish escort, and escort-stylist!"

"Holden!" scolds the woman, and lowers her voice, which is rather muffled behind her entirely unnecessary surgical mask. "Part of Annie's condition is memory loss. For all we know, she mightn't know us at all! Gosh! To think!"

He pulls a face like a child. "What happened to your self-esteem, Esmé? We're hardly that forgettable. Annie knows the people who helped her climb her way to the top. Don't you, Annie?"

They both look at me, expectantly, their faces gaudy and unnatural and terrifying. But I know them. I wish I didn't, but I do.

Holden and Esmé: who could possibly forget?

"Oh great," I say, severely trying to sound cheerful. "Esmé and Holden! Of course! How could I possibly forget!"

"See?" snorted Holden. "And can I just say, before anything else, how very horrified I am at this truly traumatic and tear-jerking situation you've found yourself in."

I'm in shock. Holden, selfish, narcissistic, emotionally depraved Holden, is actually concerned about me? Is actually sympathetic to what I've been through?

"Oh, it's just terrible," agrees Esmé. "We had become so attached to you two … It's just tragic. We're so sorry about everything, and Lance, and …" She fades out, and lowers her mask a moment to blow her nose into a hanky.

Holden, meanwhile, is looking around the lobby with his mouth open, looking both engrossed and horrified all at once. He snaps back forward, seeing Esmé's tears and looking confused. "What? I was talking about this gosh darn hideous outfit you've been forced into! Haven't they heard of a little thing called the Thrift Store Revival?"

I shudder. Nope, Holden is just as airheaded as ever.

"Um, this is my friend Billy," I say, turning around and gesturing towards him. He had stood up and was cowering a little behind me.

Esmé peered behind me for a moment and then gave me an odd look. Holden ignored all of this and said, "No, I absolutely have to get you out of those don't-deserve-to-be-called-clothes right this minute. We're getting the heck out of here. Now. Faster than you can say, 'Holden, darling, I love you, make me beautiful again!'" He spread his arms out wide and beamed at me. "And we're off!"

"Holden!" Esmé whispered frantically, and looked around to make sure we weren't being overheard. "Annie isn't well! We can't just take her away! She needs her treatment. Don't you, Annie?"

I took a deep breath, and stole a look at Billy. His wide eyes were fixed on me, insistent and certain. I turned back to worried Esmé and giddy Holden. "But, you can't just take me away. Can you?"

"Annie," said Holden, grasping my hands and cocking his head to the side. "We're the only people you have right now. We're practically your family." I grit my teeth, because it's such a slap in the face. Grammy and GaGa Moon are my family. Lance is my family. Finnick is my family. If Holden was family to me, he'd be disowned by now. But he continues. "Plus, we're on the fricking telly. We're so much more important than these 'Doctors,' as they call themselves. They're all phonies anyway. They have so sense of individualist style. What we say, goes."

"So we could just … leave?" I ask incredulously.

"Sure thing, babes," he says, picking at his purposefully chipped nail polish.

"Only and absolutely only if you're one thousand and ten per cent sure you're ready for that, Annie," interjects Esmé, her mask back on, her painted eyebrows drawn up in concern.

I pause, biting my lip. "Give me one second," I say quickly, before turning around and grabbing Billy by the hand. I drag him to the far wall of the room, and he immediately begins spluttering, "Annie! Th-th-they want to go! They want t-t-to … to take you with them!"

"I know," I say, holding my face in my hands. This is exactly what I had been hoping for, and yet … something about it is terribly wrong. Holden's air of infallible power disturbs me. Esmé knows I'm ill and she's worried. I'm worried. What if I'm not ready? What if it does me more harm than good? "I can't stand it here much longer," I whimper, and tears jerk in my eyes.

Billy takes my hand. "It's n-never gonna be easy," he says, and his chin jerks violently as he tries to gather his words. "But you n-n-need to be at home with your G-G-Grammy and Ga-G-G … with your g-grandparents," he says, sighing a little at the end. "You won't recov-recover here because you don't belong here or — or — or in the Capitol, for that matter." He ended firmly, and I nodded.

He's right. I don't belong here. I need to mourn in the right place and remember who I was before all this happened. And try to make some good of this whole ordeal. I look up at Billy, his poor, innocent face. I remember when Finnick used to call me innocent. I never believed him, but now I'm even less sure. Sometimes innocence is a gift. A blessing. But it's also a curse, and I can't keep myself in the dark any longer. "I'm sorry I can't stay here with you," I say wetly, beginning to cry.

"Th-that's c-c-cool," he says, smiling. "You could come visit me sometime."

"Or you could come visit me sometime," I reply. "Take a holiday to District 4. When you get out of here, that is." He looks sadly at me, and hugs me. I squeeze tightly. "Promise me you'll leave, too. When you're ready."

He nods into my shoulder and we let each other go. I wipe my eyes and walk away quickly, unable to look back, and it feels as if I'm leaving a part of me behind. But inside I know I have to let go of this husk of my former self, and face the reality that's been lurking outside, waiting for me to emerge from my self-built cage. Before the Games I thought that maybe I was a big fish heading for the ocean, but it turns out that this part of the sea is tiny. I'm ready to go back to my pond. If I am a nautilus, then there is no shell that fits me like District Four. I guess it's not surprising; that's home, after all.

"Um, what was that about?" Esmé asks when I return.

"Just saying goodbye to someone," I reply. They look at each other, then shrug. "So how does this work? Do I have to sign papers or something? Shall I get Doctor Jeckyll?"

Holden crosses his arms and taps his face with one finger. "Hmm … I was actually thinking more along the lines of: we all go for a nice walk in the gardens, and we give you this jacket and this visitor tag that I stole earlier, and we quite simply just walk you right out the front gates right now! No boring papers! No hesitation! No explanation necessary!" He claps his hands and throws his arms around me and Esmé.

My eyes widen, and I look over at Esmé who looks equally startled, and it hits me just how bad an idea this is.

I swallow the lump in my throat and say, "Well, let's go."

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