On a hot August morning, during my first Reaping, my sister begins a fight that she is destined to lose. Of course, I do not know it at the time, and maybe if I did, I would have stopped her from volunteering instead of me. I would have told her that it was for nothing, and that the Capitol (or maybe something bigger?) had singled me out that day, and perhaps I would have prevented her from boarding that train.
But I have to be honest. I am not sure I would have gone up the platform next to Effie Trinket had I known what the future was going to bring me anyway. I didn’t want to die in an arena far from home and for all of Panem to see. I didn’t want Katniss to die that way either, but I don’t have to look too far within myself to see that I would not have done anything to stop it from happening.
I know I am ungrateful, selfish even. I become aware of this, with full force, on that fateful day when Katniss volunteers to face the 74th Hunger Games instead of me. In fact, my first thought, as I gasp and wail in Gale’s arms, is not that my sister is going to die, but that I am going to live. That thought lasts for the long two seconds that I continue to relive every day, no matter how hard I try to drown the voices in my head that scream my guilt.
But I’m twelve...I can’t die at twelve!
Your sister is sixteen...she wasn’t even Reaped...
But that’s what she wanted, I didn’t tell her to volunteer!
She always looked out for you ... she took out the tesserae to keep you safe...
During the Games, I can hardly bring myself to look at the screen, but at the same time, it is better to hide myself at home, than to have to face the Seamers and their strange looks. I am not Primrose Everdeen anymore, but Katniss Everdeen’s sister, the girl Katniss Everdeen is sacrificing herself for, the girl
Katniss Everdeen mentions in her interview. Katniss Everdeen’s executioner.
It’s not my fault! It’s the Capitol who’s killing Katniss. Not me.
No one hears me, because I am too much of a coward to speak. Not unlike Barley Mellark, Peeta’s brother, who is being accused of cowardice for not doing what no one would have done. Because Katniss volunteered for me, he was expected to volunteer for Peeta, even though no one would have seriously considered it before that day.
Unless they were blinded by a fierce, furious, irrational desire to protect someone as worthless and selfish as me.
I remember seeing Barley wandering vacantly around the District after my sister and his brother were herded away in that train to the Capitol. He had that vacant, miserable look that I see reflected back at me every time I catch my stare in any reflective surface. After the Opening Ceremony, my mother and I begin to find a loaf of white, crusty bread on our doorstep every morning, meaning that we can save up on our tesserae grain, which allows me a respite of some months before adding my name multiple times to the Reaping bowl. We both know that it is Wheaton Mellark who sends us the bread, but it is Barley who actually delivers it. He is not a particularly light-footed walker, but it is also completely impossible to miss his cloud of blonde curls as he tries to walk away silently. His curls that are spared from the Seam’s dusty blanket of coal dust.
The day I go to the bakery to thank him for the bread is the first time I find a reason to smile since Katniss has left. I hug him tight, and we understand each other in a way that no one else can. With our embrace we share guilt, helplessness, self-loathing and anger. But we also squeeze each other’s hand and share a smile.
After our hug, Barley begins stops to say good morning before leaving the daily loaf of bread. I’m not sure how it happens, but just as Katniss starts to really notice Peeta in the cave, my eyes start to brighten at the sight of his brother. I am not a complete fool though. I am nothing to him but the girl whose sister Peeta seems to have fallen for, and I am twelve, but soon thirteen, while he is eighteen, Any thoughts I entertain with respect to him are foolish, delusional, and highly inappropriate in the circumstances we, and our respective families, are living in.
Still, while my sister seeks to save herself and Peeta in the arena, I stop wearing my hair in two braids. And I smile whenever I saw Barley. Because, I am that kind of person, that kind of sister. Selfish and worthless.
To my surprise, and disappointment, the Mellarks don’t move in with Peeta at the Victor’s village. However, Barley and I still interact whenever I am in Town. He teases me for being the “Smiling Everdeen”, and he even shortens that to “Smiles”. Katniss is stuck with the nickname “Scowls”, but I make sure to never mention it to her, even though silly nicknames seem to be the last thing on her mind since she returned from the Games. There is something that weighs on her mind at all times, and it goes beyond the nightmares that keep us all awake at night. I try to reach out to her, but Katniss still wants to protect me from whatever battle she is fighting in her mind. I don’t want her to protect me, I want her to be my sister, to scold me, to be mean to me, to fight with me over stupid stuff. The higher the pedestal she places me on, the more I want to jump from it and show her my true self. I wonder how she would feel though if she had to really see the person for whom she almost threw her life away.
During the Victory Tour, I find more and more excuses to pass at the bakery and greet the Mellarks. Mr Mellark and Barley seem to be truly fond of me, and even Naan grudgingly exchanges a few words with me. Mrs Mellark eyes me with an expression I do not understand. When Peeta asks Katniss to marry him Barley comes to visit us with two large heart shaped cookies covered with an S and T.
“Celebratory cookies for Scowls and Tiny,” he explains with a wink.
Mom and I send him back to his family with some cheese from Lady, but not before he sits with us in front of the fire drinking a cup of warm milk and chatting amiably with both. Mom says I look feverish after he leaves. Maybe I am.
After the announcement of the Quarter Quell, I feel once again the guilt encrusted sadness that had plagued me during the 74th Games. Everyone knows this is not a coincidence but no one really cares, except for our two families and the Hawthornes. The bakery is closed the day following President Snow’s announcement, but Barley still brings us our daily loaf, even though his hands are shaking, and his naturally fair face is pale and gaunt. He immediately notices that my eyes are puffy from crying and pulls me in for a hug.
“No, Little Sis Smiles, you can’t stop smiling,” he whispers in my hair as he holds me close. I shake my head and cling to him. He pulls back slightly and looks down at me, smiling bravely. “We need to help each other out in this and if you stop smiling, I will lose it too.”
I swallow the lump in my throat and stifle my sobs. “I won’t stop smiling, Barley,” I whisper, “but ... you... don’t run off where I can’t find you ok?”
He brushes my bangs off my face and shakes his head. “I’m not going anywhere, Smiles,” he replies seriously.
It’s hard to find a reason to smile though. I don’t really know why President Snow wants Katniss and Peeta back into the arena, but I can only imagine that it’s because my sister broke the rules he set. My sister refuses to talk about it, but just tells me not to worry. I bite my tongue to stop me from retorting rudely. I want to tell her that I would have never broken the rules like her, because I would have died like the tributes from District 12 are meant to.
This time however, there will be no rule breaking. Only one will make it back home. Either Barley or I will lose someone during this round. Probably, both of us will. I feel sick at the thought, but clearly not sick enough to try and find a way to return my sister’s favour.
The rules are clear. Only Victors.
But you could still try and volunteer.
What if they don’t let me go instead of her? What would Katniss do?
What if they do let you go instead of her? What would you do?
I do not try to volunteer.
When I first discover that the whole Mellark family perished in the bombings, I am hysterical, especially since I see that Lilly Carter, Barley’s fiancée, is one of the very few who has survived from the Merchant class and I am not particularly keen on irony. It is Delly Cartwright who calms me down, with tears streaming down her cheeks, begging me to stop crying and reassuring me that they felt nothing, that he felt nothing. I’m not sure what Delly knows of my relationship with Barley but she seems to know enough to keep me away from Lilly and to stroke my hair as we huddle around the fire in the forest. Delly and I have never really spoken before and even though it should feel strange, it actually does not. War and despair seem to create the most unlikely of friendships.
I don’t cry for Barley in 13. There is medicine to learn, schedules to follow and many wounded and sick to attend to. I don’t cry, but instead I try to find reasons to smile, just as he had asked me to do when he was still alive and giving us bread every morning. During days that are particularly bleak I close my eyes and ask him to send m a reminder that things can be good again. It always works. Sometimes it’s Buttercup, other times it’s a wound that heals faster than I would have thought, or a spontaneous song from Posy. I also conjure images of him before I go to sleep at night, and tell him about my day, imagining his reactions and friendly teasing. During the Capitol attack on 13 I imagine the Mellark family to be safe in their own section not far from ours. If I close my eyes tight enough, I can even hear his voice. I keep Buttercup close to me during those nights and dream of him, and in the privacy of my subconscious I find myself being more than just his Little Sis Smiles.
Many of the survivors from District 12 are from the Seam and thus known to me, but I spend most of my free time with the Hawthornes anyway, since they’re the only ones I really consider to be family. District 13 doesn’t really know what to with Rory. He was first placed in military training, which didn’t go too well, and neither was he found to be very useful in the hospital. However, once it was discovered how extremely intelligent he was, he was placed in the school to teach the younger kids and I don’t think I ever saw him looking happier. Finally he found a way of sharing his knowledge with semi-willing recipients even though he did not really give up on the information sharing with me. One evening, during reflection time, I made my way to the Hawthorne’s compartment. I had just coaxed Katniss into a fitful rest, following a particularly trying day spent reluctantly filming propos, and I decided to let her sleep until dinner time. I find Rory lying on his bed, looking rather sorry for himself, clutching a book which seems a little too old and worn to belong to the District 13 libraries.
“Rory, is that book –“
“Madge’s? Yeah,” he replies tonelessly. “I wanted to give it back to her but ... I never got the chance.”
I’m not sure what to say to that so I lie silently next to him.
“This is all for nothing, Prim, do you know that?” he asks after a few minutes.
“What do you mean?” I ask as I shift to face him.
“Well, this book Madge lent me, it’s about all the major wars that happened in history,” he explains, “did you know that the Capitol names, like Caesar, Plutarch, Fulvia, Messala...they’re all names from the Ancient city of Rome?”
I’m honestly puzzled. “No, no I didn’t. But so what?”
“Thousands of years ago, Rome ruled the known world. It kept entire regions as its slaves, treated non-Romans as second class citizens, lived in absolute wealth and continued to thrive at the expense of the regions outside of it. Does it sound familiar?” he asks.
“Yes ... it does.”
“Well, Rome collapsed after it became so rotten and weak from the inside that the outer regions managed to fight its dominion and break free. However, other civilisations behind it tried to create a new Rome to rule over all others. It’s a cycle that keeps repeating itself,” he explains seriously as he leafs through the pages. “Each empire falls, but every time ... another one rises to take its place, don’t you see? The Districts might, and probably will, beat the Capitol, but how long will it be until the next Rome rises?”
I swallow a lump in my throat as I mull what Rory just said. I refuse to believe that all our efforts are for nothing, and that Katniss is basically fighting a won battle, but a lost war. Thousands have already died in the fighting, our whole District was destroyed, a hospital in District 8 burnt down. Friends, loved ones...Barley.
My voice breaks as I reach out for my friend’s hand. “Rory, in the time between the fall of each old empire and a new one, what happens?”
He frowns. “What do you mean?”
“There is a time period between cycles no? What happens during that time? Before a new Empire is established and an eventual war starts again?”
He smiles slightly. “There is ... peace. Enlightenment, scientific discovery,” he replies.
I squeeze his hand and smile back at him. “Well then, I think we just found our reason to fight then didn’t we?” I tell him. “I don’t know about you Rory, but I don’t want to be that one generation that has failed to overthrow a tyranny.”
I sit on a chair next to Peeta’s bed, and look at him gently. The treatment with morphling seems to have calmed him down a little. He is still confused about his memories but the medical team behind him cautiously hopes that the calming affects of the morphling might actually allow one side of his brain to retrieve his real memories without another side actively fighting it. Even though I’ve been credited with the idea, it’s actually the result of many (authorised) hours spent pouring over books with Rory trying to determine whether any similar treatments existed in the past. The morphling was a shot in the dark, but its results have so far been quite remarkable.
Peeta has not been exposed to anyone but Delly in the past weeks, and even though my role is to sit behind the window and take notes, I can’t help but really enjoy listening to them reminisce about their childhood games and antics. I tear up every time I hear about Barley’s troublemaking, only to swallow my tears and smile. Just as he wanted. Delly is a wonderful girl, and she is making marked progress with Peeta, but I think it is now time for him to meet someone close to Katniss even though he still regards her with anger and distrust.
He eyes me warily, but does not flinch when I tentatively rest my hand on his.
“Thank you,” he whispers rather hoarsely, “Delly told me that you came up with this treatment. I like it, it doesn’t hurt.”
“I’m glad you think so,” I reply. “Do you believe me when I say that all I want is for you to feel better?”
He frowns but nods after a beat. “Yes, yes I think so.”
I smile at him warmly. Peeta resembles so much his brother, but still looks completely different. I am filled with an urge to fix him. I take a deep breath, and I start to talk to him. About his family, about mine, and after some initial resistance, about Katniss. He snaps at me, he shakes his head, but he listens. And when I rise to leave, he squeezes my hand when I tell him that I will be back.
It’s a start, and it makes me smile widely.
As the hovercraft reaches the Capitol centre all I can see is fire, craters, blood and bodies. I am terrified and completely out of my depth and I still cannot understand why Coin asked for us interns to be part of the mission to the Capitol. I am not qualified to do this, and as we approach the barricades in front of the Presidential Palace, I start to feel sick.
The bodies and the blood ... they are of children.
I’m filled with impotent rage as I rush to the barricades clutching my medical bag. A screaming toddler holds his hands out to me, and I see that he is shivering. As I remove my coat I hear a familiar voice screaming my name, just as a rush of fire fills my lungs. My sister. She is alive.
I feel suddenly peaceful, painless and very very happy. This is what was supposed to happen, what Katniss fought hard against on that fateful August day when I was called out to die. She couldn’t keep fighting for my life when it was already lost. I still think that I am not worthy of her struggle but in this place, that doesn’t seem to really count anymore. I only hope that she will one day accept that I’m at peace, surrounded by love.
There is Dad, there is Barley.
And I know that I will never stop smiling.