"You can just call me Lance," he was saying, as I pressed both hands over my mouth and screwed my eyes up and sobbed.
I felt a strong hand tighten on my shoulder and looked sideways and upwards to see Finnick Odair standing by my side; clearly trying for smooth, comforting gentleman but only really succeeding in making me cry even harder. I despised Finnick. And then the genuinely offended look on his face made me give a short, strangled burst of laughter. The irony of that made me sob harder still. And so there I was: standing in front of my whole district in some maddened state between tears and giggles, and then I realised that I was in front of the whole of Panem, too.
Then a withered old elbow emerged and shoved Finnick aside. He staggered, almost falling off the stage, and had opened his mouth to berate his assaulter until he saw who it was. Mags put her arms around me, pulling me into a soft, warm hug. I leaned against her a little, unsure how much weight she could support, and cried into her shoulder, shuddering and choking on each breath.
I was close to hyperventilating. My lungs weren't the strongest, as a result of this one time when I nearly drowned nine years ago when I was nine. I breathed out through a tight-lipped 'O' and breathed in again, trying not to show my physical defects to the whole of Panem and potential sponsors within the first sixty seconds of getting reaped. I was already crying like a child. I didn't need this to get any worse.
"Do you two … know each other?" came Esmé's singing voice through the microphone.
Lance paused and said, "We're best friends."
Mags reached up to pat my back, and I gave a great deep gulp of breath and pulled away from her hug. I smiled a wet thank you and shuddered before turning back to the crowd. Finnick helped her back into her seat and then took his unrightful place beside me. I refused to look at him. My toes were wet through my sandals and it took me a moment to realise that it was from my own tears, dripping down my nose and splashing onto them. I wiped my face and kept my head down.
While staring at my feet I noticed the high-heels with the real swimming fishies being replaced by a pair of weathered grey sandals on the big, powerful feet of Mayor Randall. A large man, just as dark as any of the men who spent half their lives on the boats in the sun, the mayor was big-boned and hardy-handsome like his sons Felix and Gerard in my class at school. Then I realised that their names were now safe. They were eighteen, like Lance, but they had just escaped the horrors of the Hunger Games forever. Unlike Lance. Well, at least until they had kids of their own.
A thought burst into my head and I glanced up and turned my head to the seafront, but I could only see the white waves rolling back and forth. Forth and back. And forth.
It was a sunny day and the sea was reasonably calm, not unlike the day I nearly drowned. That day, the storm clouds had come in so suddenly. My grandparents were minding me at the time, but I went into a panic at the thought of my ma and da out there, sailing through the storm.
The clouds were thick and layered and grey. Black in some places. And the waves were grey and green. And the wind had whipped my hair around my face so hard that it hurt. I remember that most of all.
It had been a wedding present from my mother's parents, the little boat. It showed that they approved of my da, I suppose, and of my ma taking his surname. The Crest of the Moon. The Moons happily welcoming the Cresta boy to the family.
I could see the crests of the waves, foaming and crashing powerfully down from heights of twenty feet or more, but I couldn't see The Crest of the Moon. Maybe it was crazy of me, I don't know, but it seemed like the only thing for me to do was to rush out onto a high bank of rocky dunes and dive straight into the furious, churning sea. I was a good little swimmer — it comes with a life in District 4. But I wasn't that good. How could anyone be that good? But for a split second I thought I saw it, not too far out, a brown little currach riding along the top of the surf. And that's why I jumped. I guess I thought that I could reach them. It was very important that I warned them about the storm.
Suddenly, I felt an elbow in my ribs and heard the velvet voice.
"Eyes front, Tribute," it whispered.
Finnick had noticed my sudden distraction and seemed to think I was looking at him (I figured that Finnick generally had a lot of people staring at him or something). I dropped down onto the flats of my feet and, without looking at him, said, "I wasn't looking at you, Finnick Odair. I was just wondering if I could see my parents from here."
Finnick looked surprised, but turned and gazed from one end of the beach to the other. He wrinkled his brow at me when he turned back. "Why — Shouldn't your parents be in the crowd?"
"Nope. They're in the sea."
Finnick blinked down at me for a moment. "Why?"
"Because," I whispered, rolling my eyes and facing to the front like he told me to. "They're sea bass."
The rocks could have killed me. Should have, really. But, somewhat miraculously, I was discovered unconscious on the beach the next morning. Grammy Moon said the mermaids had kept me safe. I knew that it had to be true. But the mermaids couldn't have brought my parents back because grown-ups aren't allowed to see merpeople. If they do, they turn into sea bass. (The grown-ups. Not the merpeople.)
So the only explanation is that the merpeople saved my parents lives, but in doing so my parents were turned into fish.
I'd be worried about them getting caught in the fishermen's nets and winding up on my dinner plate, but I knew they wouldn't be silly enough to swim anywhere near the fishing grounds. Unfortunately, that also meant they could never come close enough to shore to see me ever again.
I'm sad about my parents, but I have to be understanding. At least I know that they're still out there, living happy lives as fish. Maybe they have a lot of fishy babies now, my brothers and sisters who didn't have to face the reapings every year. They were better off, really. It's not like they were dead or anything.
I quickly recounted this story to Finnick in a hushed tone while Mayor Randall read from the Treaty of Treason in a deep, boisterous voice.
When I had finished the tale, Finnick took me in for a moment. He wet his lips and furrowed his brow as his green eyes ran all over my face. Then he turned back to look out at the sea. "Well, it's a shame they're too small to see from all the way over here."
I nodded in agreement. And before I knew it, I was standing in a fancily decorated room in the Justice Building.
I stood by the window that looked out into the town square where the last few stragglers were dispersing. A group of under-twelves were racing each other towards the beach, oblivious to their current safety, or the fact that they hadn't long until it would be stolen from them. None of us were ever really safe, anyway. I was staring intently at the waves, feeling as if there was something on the edge of my mind that I wasn't quite grasping, when the door opened and my grandparents ambled in.
They sat down on the small plush sofa while I sat cross-legged on the floor in front of them. We looked at each other for a bit, and then I sighed, stood up, and squashed myself in between them. I kicked my feet up on his lap and rested my head on her knees. Grammy stroked my hair which was already tangled from the wind while GaGa tickled my ankles. I curled up and hugged myself while we sat there for a while. Eventually I slid back to the ground and knelt before them, taking each of their hands in my own.
"Okay," I started, with a certain amount of strength in my voice, "the next time we meet …"
My head cocked towards the window like a rabbit. You could hear the waves from here, the children playing in the sand, the seagulls circling overhead with begging cries …
I felt someone squeeze my left hand and GaGa saying, "Annie, mo stór …"
I looked back around and shook my head vigorously. "Right. Sorry." It took a moment before I remembered what I had been trying to say. "The next time we see each other … it won't be … with our eyes," I said.
"Well, what'll it be with, eh?" asked GaGa Moon, laughing gruffly. "Our toes?"
"No," I said impatiently, rolling my eyes. "We won't have those either. It'll just be … dust."
Grammy's eyes were wet, but GaGa continued on. "What dust? Like the dust bunnies under your bed? The dust on the shelves?"
Suddenly my eyes widened in a mixture of fear and realisation. "Maybe. At some point, I guess." I shook myself. "But I mean dust like — like particles, you know? The tiniest bits of the earth and the air and in everything that's in need of life."
I stopped and looked at my hands.
"Well, it's finally 'appened," said GaGa with a sigh. "She's lost 'er bloody marbles!" Grammy tutted and slapped his arm but he laughed. "You're ramblin', girl, you know that?"
I pulled his hand towards me. "Maybe if ye listened to the ramblings, ye might realise that I'm actually being quite prolific and beautiful!" I said loudly.
I couldn't help the grin that was stretching across my face as he smirked back at me. "I'm listening, so I am, but it don't make a word of sense to me."
"Aye, not to you. You'd be lost in my head, GaGa, I'm telling you."
"I count me stars every day," he said grimly, pulling the shell that was tied around his neck with a rope of string out from underneath his shirt and touching it to his lips.
I sat up and leaned forwards to kiss his cheek.
"A chailín," said Grammy, as she gripped my hand with surprising force. She reached into her pocket and produced a string of beautiful, tiny pearls. I stared at the glossy white spheres as she unhooked the gold chain and fastened it neatly onto my wrist. "This was your ma's. And before that t'was was mine, and my ma's, and …"
I pressed my lips together. "Thanks, Grammy." My tummy clenched. I hoped they would be able to return it to her after the Games.
I walked them to the door and there were many hugs and muffled kisses and jerky words until finally the Peacekeepers were telling us that standing outside of the room instead of inside it was kind of cheating and that our time was up.
So GaGa Moon simply looked at me and said, "We'll be seein' you in the dust." Then he winked and grabbed hold of Grammy's hand as she leaned herself against him. They turned and shuffled off down the corridor.
The Peacekeepers pushed me back into the room, and a few kids from school came in and I sat back down on the floor, resting my chin on my knees and hugging myself. I didn't really try to talk to them. I hardly noticed them, actually. All I was thinking about were the people I cared for most in the world. Grammy and GaGa. Lance. The list seemed unnervingly short. Something had to be missing, or else my little life was a lot sadder than I ever realised. Yes, that thing on the tip of my tongue, that must have been it. The missing something I couldn't quite place. I went to the window and pressed my forehead against the cool glass, closing my eyes and listening to the soothing sounds of the ocean. Of District 4. Of home.
Then suddenly I was out of the door, ignoring the goodbyes I was supposed to be saying to kids I hardly knew nor cared about, slipping past the Peacekeepers in a brief moment where they must have thought I was a visitor, not a tribute; which gave me enough time to make it to the end of the corridor and rush out into the main hall of the Justice Building. I was flapping down the stairs when I heard them following behind me, but the crowd standing in the atrium were my saviours.
"Hang on!" I yelled, catching their attention just before the Peacekeepers had grabbed my arms and held me back. Grammy and GaGa Moon were still there chatting with old Mags, and Finnick and Esmé were chatting quietly with them, too. They all turned and looked rather aghast at my appearance.
"Hey lads, let her go," said Finnick in annoyance, coming up and pushing the Peacekeepers back from me when they didn't. I caught my breath while watching him square up to a particularly large one with a walrus moustache. "She's not doing anything."
I didn't know why Finnick suddenly felt the desire to be a huge defender of the helpless, but for just a moment it almost made up for the rather more distasteful aspects of his being. Almost.
"Um … What was it you wanted, pet?" asked Esmé, looking rather upset at the whole scene.
I ignored her and looked at Grammy and GaGa. "I'm sorry, I don't think I can say goodbye again so I'm about to completely ignore your existence for a moment. And I apologise deeply for that." Grammy blinked in surprise but GaGa simply gave a tiny smirk, understanding me better than anyone else ever could. I shot him a wink and I got a wide, gummy smile in return. I took a deep breath and turned to Finnick. "I want to say goodbye to my parents."
There was an extended silence, and I wasn't sure why because only half the people in the room actually understood what that entailed. But when Esmé asked where my parents were — and what on Earth their excuse was for missing the reaping — it was Finnick who explained. He told the story better than I did, actually.
"Is it at all possible? Even just two minutes," I pleaded. "The beach is right over there. The Peacekeepers can 'cuff me or whatever, I don't care."
I looked over at Finnick, who I felt had the most authority on this for some reason, and because I had personally told him about my parents and the mermaids and everything. He ran a hand through his hair and shrugged dismissively at Esmé, who had been shooting him pointed glares and pursing her lips.
Suddenly, something grabbed my wrist and I spun around to see old Mags, staring at me in earnest, and pointing at herself. Then, she began to drag me off down the stairs.
I laughed, and looked around to see Finnick chasing us, shaking his head impatiently. "Oh, don't be ridiculous, Mags. We'll be waiting all day if you take her." I glared heatedly at him, as he met my eyes and crinkled up his brow. "I'll go with you, Annie."
I didn't know quite how to feel about this. I would have rather gone with Mags, who was good friends with Grammy Moon and who didn't make my skin crawl. But if this was the best I could get then I wasn't about to complain.
Just then, two Peacekeepers appeared at the top of the stairs, Lance following closely behind them. He saw me and the rest of the small group, and asked what was going on.
When I told him I was allowed to say goodbye to my parents, he just paused and then said, "Better hurry up or we'll miss the train. And tell them bye from me, too." Then he smiled and I grinned back.
Finnick had the Peacekeepers trail ten feet behind us as we walked across the beach towards the shore. There was complete silence between us. I figured that I didn't want to talk to him, and he didn't try to talk to me. That was surprising, but I appreciated it whether he intended it or not.
I got as far as the water, with a bunch of rocks to my right, near where they had found the little boat in pieces after the storm. One plank that still perfectly read The Crest of the Moon had identified the spot where my parents lost their human lives.
Suddenly I had no idea what I was doing. I let the tide slip gradually in and out over my feet, squinting out at the rocks and the mellow waves crashing over them. What had I expected to see? Two little fishy heads sticking out of the water, waving their fins at me? I felt totally ridiculous, and embarrassed, and I could see Finnick quietly observing me from a short distance so I instinctively knelt down and picked up a shell in my hand. It looked like a nautilus shell to me, as it had been cracked open and I could see the many chambers inside of it, growing larger and larger as they spiralled out from the centre. The nautilus lives in each of the chambers as it grows, and then as it outgrows each particular space it enlarges its shell by the addition of a new chamber.
Infinitely growing and expanding, and yet the shell was so small it fit neatly in the palm of my hand. I ran my thumb of the smooth underside of purest white, and flipped it over to hide the chambers and reveal the bright orange streaks that crossed the face of it.
I closed my eyes and brought the shell to my lips for a moment, then chucked it as far as I could into the water.
It was not an impressive throw in any way whatsoever. I watched it make a small splash in the calm water and then paused for a bit before turning around to Finnick. I expected him to scoff or groan at my weak throw, but instead I saw him bending to pick up his own shell from the sand, kissing it and throwing it a good distance into the water. It splashed right beside the rocks where the remains of the little boat were found.
I guessed he must have been showing off.
"I'll stay away from throwing in training," I told him.
I turned and began to walk away, and this seemed to be a bit abrupt on my part because he took a moment before jogging to catch up with me.
"You know, Annie, most girls would swoon at the chance to have a romantic stroll on the beach with me."
I frowned, and looked at Finnick. He was giving me that smile, the one with all the eyebrows and lips pressed together and the eyes. You know what I mean. It made me feel sick to my stomach. "Sorry, Finnick, I guess I'm a bit distracted by this tragic farewell and the prospect of my imminent death to be rendered weak-kneed by your charming personality."
He slapped his face like a silly seal and then ran his hand through his hair. "Oh, boy, I'm sorry. Humour is still the only mechanism I have for dealing with all this. But I guess you're not really in the mood to talk, huh?"
"I might be in the mood to talk," I said, shrugging. "But not to Finnick Odair."
His brow knit up. "Why not Finnick Odair?"
I met his green eyes, wrinkling my nose. I had to look up to see him, squinting as the sun reflected off the white sands. He was taller than I would have guessed and I felt rather tiny all of a sudden. I realised that this was probably the first time I had ever really spoken to Finnick. Or seen him up close for that matter. (Besides at the reaping, when my tears had been mostly blocking my sight.)
I looked over his face which was tanned and chiselled and very handsome. "Because," I sighed, "I rather dislike you."
He stopped briefly and I kept walking. I guess he was surprised, since he was so adored in the Capitol. Truth was, in the district he was highly resented by some. As for me, I just didn't care much for narcissists.
He caught up to me and I tried not to look at him. When I failed at that I attempted glancing sideways at him which, if he didn't notice, is practically the same thing anyway. What I saw was Finnick just looking at the ground, chuckling softly to himself.
"Well, that's okay," he said. "I rather dislike me, too."
Why was he laughing?
I tried to gauge his expression, but I couldn't. "Are you being sarcastic? I don't really get sarcasm."
"No, it wasn't sarcasm."
"Then that's a funny thing to say. I mean, it's funny-peculiar but it's not funny-haha. That's why I don't understand why you're laughing."
He looked at me closely, cocking his head to one side with a slight smile still playing on his lips. "You're coming out with more funny things than I am, sweetheart," he replied.
I paused, staring at him with pursed lips. "Funny-peculiar or funny-haha?"
"Nevermind," he said, waving a hand dismissively. "It's not important."
I opened my mouth to say that, in my experience, that's exactly what people say when it is in fact extremely important. But then Esmé's voice rang out across the square, and when I turned I saw two cameras. One was trained on Lance and the others piling into the car, the other on me and Finnick.
"Coo—eee! Finnick, darling, we've got that train to catch!"
Instantly, he threw a heavy arm around my shoulders, waving and winking at the cameras. I shuddered, feeling violated by his closeness.
Esmé giggled. "He just loves the camera, our Finnick!"
"And the camera loves me back," he replied, giving her the same grin. I glanced up at his face, a head higher than me, and saw the muscles straining in his jaw. Suddenly his smile looked a lot more like a grimace.
For a second, he caught my stare, and his face went blank. I swallowed nervously, wondering what I had done wrong. But then he just held onto my shoulder a little more firmly and dragged me to the car, where I scooted in beside Lance and took his hand.
I turned around and knelt on the seat to watch the beach through the back window as it grew smaller and smaller and smaller in the distance. Or, maybe I was looking at it the wrong way, and it was simply that my new chamber was growing ever bigger in front of me. The Capitol. The Games. The future. Maybe I was simply a big fish in a small pond, and now I was getting out into the ocean where I belonged. I was the nautilus in need of a bigger shell.
Unfortunately, I was not a fish or a nautilus. I was not heading towards a bigger pond, or a bigger shell, or a bigger horizon.
I was heading to my death.