I know exactly when the Darkness took over. I am able to relive the precise moment it happened, the words that triggered it and the touch that pushed me towards it. My breath still catches at the sight of the restrained tears in those blue eyes that I had equally loved and resented for the past seventeen years.
I can also still hear the wail that accompanied me to that welcoming shroud of apathy. It was loud, painful, desperate. And it had come from me.
Even before the Darkness came, I cannot remember a time when my life wasn’t dim or bleak at best. I was born as a consequence of the foolishness of my mother, the fifteen year old daughter of the Town’s main carpenter, and the careless lust of a young peacekeeper from District 5. He had been posted in our district for duty, and was quickly and quietly dispatched to some place unknown as soon as news of my mother’s pregnancy spread around the streets and reached his superiors. My mother died giving birth to me, and my grandparents, shamed, broken and angry, did nothing to make me forget that I was born from a union that should have never happened. Every day I was made to remember that my green eyes and auburn hair, traits which strictly belong to District 5, would remain with me as an indelible mark of my parent’s mistake.
In the clear division created in Panem, where entire generations were kept geographically divided from each other and securely penned inside their districts, there was no place for red locks and green feline eyes in a crowd neatly categorised in two. I could never fit in the close-knit group of the Seamers, who were united in their misery, and the Merchants scorned me for being providing the proof that my mother had erred in mixing outside the district. I grew up scared, suspicious, miserable and taciturn, but as my cursed luck would have it, I fell in love with the boy who encapsulated all that I should have been, and wasn’t.
I loved Wheaton Mellark. Hopelessly, desperately and blindly. He was the pride of the district with his blonde, sun kissed waves which fell over his sharp blue eyes. He was kind and generous, good at school and sports, and a doting son who took over the family business when his father died when he was nineteen. He didn’t care that I looked different, and that I could never look at anyone in the eye because of my shame at their colour. He smiled at me when I visited his bakery far too often and on my sixteenth birthday he told me that I should learn the difference between being different and being special. One my seventeenth birthday he said that he thought I had pretty eyes but that he couldn’t see them well enough since I insisted on keeping them hidden. After that comment, I never broke eye contact with him, not ever. I stared at him and smiled even when his fiancée May, the apothecary’s daughter, was helping him out at the Bakery behind the counter.
Wheaton was engaged of course. And he was engaged to the most beautiful girl in Town. How he could he not have been? He had been informally promised to May ever since we were out of middle school. It was all decided by their families and every survived reaping brought them closer to their wedding day. But I never broke eye contact with him. Not ever.
The night when May broke things off with him, and was banished to the Seam by her parents I went to him. We cried together and he thanked me for being his friend. He took me willingly to his bed less than a month later. I don’t know what I was doing at the time. Comforting him? Taking advantage of his heartbreak? Loving him? Ruining his chance of happiness with someone whom he could learn to love? I relived that night in my mind many years after as I lay alone in our bed, but I was never strong enough to find an answer. All I know is that he would bury his impossibly beautiful face in my neck, playing with my red hair, panting that I was special, saying that he loved me.
I never believed him.
I married Wheaton, and on the day of my Toasting my grandfather reminded me that I will always be the second choice, and that I should be thankful to the apothecary’s daughter for leaving him for the rest of my life. I blocked his voice and vowed my loyalty to the baker. Wheaton never mentioned May, and she had the grace never to show herself at the bakery and for the first few years of our marriage, I was happy. It was a subdued, restrained, and disbelieving kind of happiness, but never had my life been brighter. I had not found love in the family I was born into, but I was determined to find it in the family that I would create for myself.
My first baby is a boy, Naan, born blonde and handsome like his father, as I thought was right. He was born to inherit the bakery, and it seemed fitting that he would also inherit the Mellark family looks. In temperament however, Naan takes after me; solemn and serious with a perpetual little frown and the weight of the entire world on his shoulders. Since his birth, he has been my anchor and solace. Naan can read my emotions, my insecurities and my resentment towards the district, and has developed over the years a method for providing me with the comfort that my husband failed to bestow. In return, I give him love and patience, to the detriment of my other sons, whose upbringing I basically left in the hands of their father.
Barley is my middle son, born two years after Naan, yet another boy who looks nothing like me. It seems that my mixed genes can never compete with the one coming from generations of fair haired, stocky Mellarks. It is obvious from the very beginning that Barley and I would not enjoy the same relationship that I have with my older child. Even since he was a child, Barley could never understand me, and neither did he ever particularly need me. In all fairness, he has never needed his father either, and he has always viewed home as a necessary stop to eat and sleep between his adventures outdoors. He was from a very young age the kind of child that entered and exited neighbouring houses as if they were his own, and there were times where the only news we would hear of him all day was that provided by the various customers who would come to the bakery and cheerfully recount his latest mischief and whereabouts. Wheaton and I managed to keep him alive, well and healthy, but neither of us can actually say that we know, really know, Barley at all. But there is one thing that my second son clearly got from me, namely his remarkable ability to live in his own separate world, away from reality and its drabness. As a child I had created my own realm out of loneliness and survival and perhaps it was the same for him too. I never asked. He was never around long enough to explain.
Peeta is my youngest son, my most bitter disappointment. He was supposed to be my much desired, long overdue red-headed, green-eyed daughter but instead he unremarkably shared his brothers’ features and further condemned me to a life of a stranger within my own family. His birth, his blue eyes and corn coloured locks turned me into a bitter, cold woman who refused her child and resented her husband. Wheaton was supposed to give me hope that I wasn’t alone in the world, and instead he further augmented the worthlessness of my heritage by providing me with three sons that I seem to have had no part in conceiving. Peeta turned to his father from the beginning of his formative years, and regarded me with a patient indifference that enraged me even more. The more he ignored me, the more I provoked him to get his attention. He was my child, but he inherited nothing from me. Nothing. He could have easily been anyone else’s child. He could have easily been May Everdeen’s son had she not foolishly left Wheaton.
My youngest son was a constant reminder that I was his father’s second choice. And that I always will be.
As a young child Peeta cried when I hit him, as a boy he grimaced and spent more time at the bakery. As a young man he barely tolerated me and silenced me with a glare. To all he was the cheerful, sweet son of the Baker (never of the Baker’s wife!) but many failed to notice the silent anger that raged within him. He never openly deceived me, but just lived his life as if I never existed. And of course, he fell in love with her daughter as a final act of revenge to me. When he was Reaped at 16, the devastation of my guilt overwhelmed me, but I
couldn’t tell him, I couldn’t say those three words that were stuck in my throat, because I saw in his eyes that he didn’t care to hear them. So instead I made it clear that I thought that he would never make it back alive. His eyes had flashed with anger, hurt, and I finally broke through his wall of indifference to me. I made my son hate me, before he left to die. Because I am that kind of person. That kind of mother.
The Darkness comes on the night of the Quarter Quell Announcement. Peeta has grudgingly consented to have dinner with us, with the unspoken agreement that there would be no mention of his impending marriage. It is a topic I cannot really bear to think about either, so it is not difficult for me to sit silently, away from the banter between my husband and his sons, shutting myself out from the present as much as from the future made up of the presence of May Everdeen’s daughter in the family.
The Everdeen girl has bewitched my son and saved his life and who is welcomed far more in this family that I could ever have desired to be. The girl, with her dark hair, olive skin and grey eyes, is all Seam, but she is at least all District 12. Unlike me.
We watch the television in silence as Caesar Flickerman speaks about my son’s nuptials and presents the wedding gowns that the Capitol has created for the Everdeen girl. Peeta’s expression is unreadable, and the uncomfortable silence is only broken by Barley, who cracks a joke about the wedding night that makes us all flinch. I turn to glare at him when President Snow suddenly appears on screen and makes his announcement.
After that, everything is a blur. Wheaton cries, Naan punches the wall in rage and Barley storms the house. We can hear him cursing and yelling in the street as he runs away to an unknown destination. Peeta gazes at the screen before he hugs his father and brother tightly, both men reduced to a sobbing mess while he stares ahead of him, numb. He suddenly surprises me by turning to me, and something in my face causes him to start and to take me in his arms. I don’t realise I am crying until I feel his thumbs wipe away my tears from my cheeks.
“Goodbye, beautiful Mama,” he tells me softly.
And it’s at that precise point that everything goes black for me.
The weeks and months following the Quarter Quell Announcement are lost to me. Sometimes I see Wheaton in front of me, his eyes desperate and his lips forming words that I cannot hear. Other times it’s Naan, who angrily shakes me and tells me come back for him if not for us!
There are times when I do wake up. The first time it happens is when I’m handed by Barley some kind of foul tasting concoction in a mug. He is brushing my hair, and the pain from the teeth of the brush as they untangle the knots makes me grimace. “You’re a goddamn poor excuse for a mother you know,” he tells me angrily.
“Language, Barley,” I croak before I leave again.
Another mug, another moment of lucidity. This time I see Peeta sitting next to Caesar Flickerman and I deduce that it is the night of the interviews preceding the commencement of the Games. He speaks about a baby, and all hell seems to break lose in the TV studio. I hear commotion in the streets of our District as well, but all I do is reach out to Wheaton, who grabs onto me as if I his last breath depends on it. It is really the other way round.
I have never believed in the girl’s love for my son. But now I choose to accept that they have really created a life. A baby. I know my son is not coming back, even before Wheaton quietly explains to me Peeta’s plan to sacrifice his life for that of the girl; but maybe, just maybe, there will now still be a part of him that his family can still love.
After Peeta’s announcement, I force myself to drink whatever the apothecary prepares for me in order to keep alert and to follow Peeta during the Quarter Quell. Within a matter of days, he and the Everdeen girl are the only district partners left, and at the rate that the Tributes are slaying each other, I know that his time is running out.
“No one needs me.”
My heart cracks at his words, and I see in his eyes that he truly believes what he says. The girl’s reaction also shows that she readily accepts his words. I feel myself blush as she clings to my son, kissing him passionately for all of Panem to see. I hate her for believing so quickly that no one needs my son, but it is Naan who voices what is at the forefront of my mind.
“Well done everyone! Let’s collectively pat ourselves on the back for pushing Peeta to kill himself for a Seam girl at the age of seventeen,” he mutters angrily.
“Yes, we suck as a family but I don’t think Tiny cares at this point,” Barley replies bitterly. He takes a swig of beer before speaking again. “And if it weren’t for that ass Finnick, he would have at least had sex one last time before dying,” he adds.
“Is this what you’re thinking about son at this time? Really??” my husband asks incredulously.
Barley glares at him. “What do you want me to think about Dad?” he retorts angrily. “That I will never see my brother again? That he will not see his baby ever in his life? That there is a great chance that neither of them will make it home?”
When no one replies, he stumbles out of the door with a loud to hell with this! and Naan follows him in silence.
I stare at the screen in silence and I see that Peeta is now sitting next to Finnick O’Dair on the beach. The Tribute from Four grins apologetically at my son, who shrugs at him before giving him a fake glare.
“She really does love you, you know,” Finnick says after a minute of silence.
At this statement, Peeta’s face lights up with a smile that brightens the screen and lights up the whole of Panem. It transforms his expression and fills my heart with warmth. A memory comes to my mind, elusive and blurred, but it’s there, and I look at Wheaton in puzzlement.
“That smile? Where … where have I seen it before?” I ask slowly.
Wheaton reaches to me and kisses me for the first time in a long long time. “That’s your smile, my love,” he replies gently. “That’s the smile you wore for our Toasting.”
I gasp and turn my eyes back to my son. My boy, my brave, good boy had inherited my smile. I hate myself for not ever showing it to him.
I stare at Wheaton sadly, my hopelessness probably showing in my expression. “I’m sorry,” I tell him, “I’m so so sorry.” He hugs me to him and kisses my forehead. “Wheaton, does she love him?” I add.
“He is going to die for her. She wants to do the same and is carrying his child. I think she does. But does it matter?” he replies.
I swallow a lump in my throat. I’ve seen the Everdeen girl walking around with the Seam boy, her “cousin”, too many times. My son has to be loved, not like me. Not ever like me. “It does matter,” I reply, clutching at his shirt.
My husband takes a deep breath and strokes my hair gently. “Leila, you were my second choice, but you were also my final one,” he confesses, “I dearly loved all these years, and I was a very poor husband for not having told you this before.”
My tears flow freely as I thank our youngest son for allowing his family to heal as a result of his ultimate sacrifice. He will not witness it, but I will make sure his child does.
“We will love the baby won’t we?” I whisper. “Peeta’s child will grow up safe, happy and sound won’t he?”
“If it’s the last thing we do, Leila,” my husband replies, “and the Capitol won’t stop us.”
My husband was wrong. The Capitol did stop us. With its hovercrafts, its bombs, its rage and its hatred. We just didn’t know it at the time, but at least it gave us a brief moment of respite, and of hope that stemmed from second chances.