Her Old Friend
The train arrives at the District 12 station in the early morning, but it will take me hours – a whole day actually - of aimless rambling around the town before I make my way to the Victor’s Village. I am amazed at how well and thriving the District looks in the light of the rising sun. Even after all these years, nearly twenty since the end of the war, buildings still look new, and I’m proud to see that there are many familiar faces from the Seam who now own their own businesses, working and trading in harmony alongside the few merchant families that had survived the bombing.
The bakery is clearly visible in the Square, and so is the blonde baker who owns it, but I steer away from both. I am not quite ready yet to face that part of my visit so early in the day. As I walk towards the meadow, I also notice that the Seam seems to exist no more, and neither does the clear, physical divide between the two classes that existed when I used to live here. To be sure, there are many more olive skinned children than blonde ones, but their features are not as distinct anymore. Also, the freedom of movement between districts is slowly eliminating the immediately discernible physical features that used to mark you to the place where you were born and destined to live in. I guess it seems strange to people of my generation, but the joyful, playing children in the streets obviously don’t care. My heart fills with a sort of painful happiness when I see young teenagers laughing and walking around the Town without a care in the world. We had missed out on that sort of freedom, but I’m really glad that their parents’ sacrifice during the war has secured it for them.
Technically, I’m in District 12 for Government business, to speak with the Mayor on the District’s security requirements in case of natural disasters. However, that particular meeting is scheduled for tomorrow, and I am well prepared for it, allowing me time to rediscover my district. The Mayor happens to be my old friend Thom, the man who almost singlehandedly reorganised the reconstruction of the District and who’s been re-elected in this position for the past three tenures. He married Delly a few years after the end of war and has fathered four children, the last one a little more than three years ago. From what he tells me, settling down with the late cobbler’s daughter seems to have the best decision he ever took in his life.
The meeting that I am actually really dreading is the one that might possibly take place now, in the warm looking house in front of which I am standing, if I ever find muster enough courage to knock on the door. Thom sometimes mentions them, the Mellarks, when we talk on the phone, and I know that they are both well, and that they have a child. Johanna and Mellark have also kept in touch sporadically during the years even though I’m not sure whether I am meant to know, especially since my wife never thought fit to tell me about it. They have shared so much during their captivity that I do not even consider denying her the time to speak with someone as scarred by the Capitol as she still is. It is a part of her life, of her pain, that I can never expect to understand, even though it hurts that she cannot share those particularscars with me. Sometimes I tell myself that maybe one day she will. Probably she won’t.
Johanna and I have a lot of … passion in our marriage, which we use to show our love and to scream at each other during arguments, but I never deny my wife anything, not even if I wanted to. She has a very strong opinion on the extent of my interference in her wishes; it is basically one opinion that states that there such interference should be nonexistent. She is truly the only person who has managed to make me toe the line and control my impulsiveness in the past years. But she is also the one to have provided me with happiness that I still don’t think I deserve and for which I have consciously decided to continue to worship the air that she breathes until I die.
I try to get my wife out of my mind and focus on the task at hand before I lose my nerve and end up rushing back to the station. I take a deep breath, brace myself, and knock on the door. A high pitched little squeal can be heard immediately from inside.
“Daaah-deeee! It’s the door!”
I hear feet running towards the door followed by an adult’s slower gait. A small scuffle, with a lot of giggling, seems to erupt and I hear Mellark’s voice from inside saying “Alba, love, Daddy cannot open the door if you’re clinging to it!”
I had hoped that the child would be asleep by now, but she is obviously wide awake and particularly excited at the idea of unexpected visitors. I am still not over the surprise at the fact that Katniss has agreed to have a child, but the main reason for dreading to meet her daughter is that I’m scared of what she might look like ... what if she is blonde? What if she looks just like Pr-
And I breathe a sigh of relief because she doesn’t.
The child, not more than three years old, is perched comfortably on her father's hip, with her little arms wrapped lovingly around his neck. She seems to be just out of the bath, in pyjamas decorated with pink kittens, and with her wet hair pulled back in a tiny braid that arrives to her shoulder. She looks healthy, well and with a look of serenity that her parents and I never had at that age, and I can’t help but give her a big smile. She has her mother’s hair, and facial features but she definitely inherited her father’s eyes and colouring. Mellark stiffens when he sees me, and she seems to notice immediately. That’s where I see that she also shares her father’s immediate dislike of me.
Aaaaand her mother’s scowl.
“Who are you?” she demands in a childish drawl that I immediately find to be adorable.
Mellark recovers and gives me a tight smile that seems to be more for his daughter’s benefit than for mine. “This is Mr Gale, an old friend of Mommy’s,” he explains to her. I can’t help wince at his description. I haven’t considered myself as a friend of her Mommy for a very long time. In fact, I’m not quite sure as to why I’m here today, but all I know is that I couldn’t let the opportunity of trying to set things right pass by, especially since I actually happen to be back in the District for the first time since the end of the war.
The little Mellark girl seems pretty unimpressed at the sight of me, and fixes me with an indignant glare before tightening her grip around her father possessively. “My Dah-dee is my Moh-mee’s best friend,” she points out to me with a furrowed brow.
Mellark beams at his daughter before collecting himself and inviting me in. “Katniss has just gone to Haymitch to take him some dinner, she should be back in a few minutes,” he explains as he leads me to the living room. There is a delicious smell of pie coming from the kitchen which makes my hungry stomach growl, and the raging fireplace gives the house a special kind of warmth that goes beyond temperature. Everything about this house, from the small clutter of toys on the carpet, to the colourful, child’s drawings that are stuck to the wall all over the living room show that there is a lot of love being bestowed on this child between its four walls. The pictures depict various scenes from her life with her parents, and it seems that the girl spends her days either baking with her father, or out with her mother in the woods. I notice that there are pictures of them all together in what seems to be the meadow that used to border with the Seam and I wonder if they will ever tell her that is the place where all the family from her father’s side is buried.
I realise that I have been quiet for the past minute so I shake myself out of my reverie. “So how is Haymitch?” I ask awkwardly.
“He is fine, on most days,” Mellark replies. “On good days he comes to have dinner with us,” he pauses and glances quickly at his daughter, who has transferred her scowl to a look of unabashed curiosity. “The days are not always good,” he finishes quietly.
“Uncle gets sniffles sometimes,” the girl squeaks helpfully.
Mellark smiles tightly and turns his attention to the child. “Alba, why don’t you wait for Mommy to come back to tuck you in while I talk with Mr Gale in the kitchen?” he asks as he lays her down on the couch and covers her with a blanket.
“Noooo! Dah-dee it’s Cuddle Time!” she cries indignantly as she sits up to glare at me. Brilliant. Now I have also the interruption of Cuddle Time between a father and his daughter to add to my list of grievances against the world.
Mellark sighs and reaches over for an enormous cushion that is casually lying on the armchair. “Can you cuddle with Mr Cushion tonight? Just for this once?”
Alba’s impossibly large eyes fill with tears and I honestly think Mellark is starting to die inside. “But you smell of cake Dah-dee, and you are warm…and it’s Cuddle Time!” she protest as the tears start to flow. As soon as her lower lip starts to tremble I’m just ready to leave the house and their lives forever but before I can say anything, her father pushes her back down gently on the couch and kisses her forehead. I swear I hear his heart break.
“Sunrise, if you are a good girl and do what Daddy says, tomorrow morning you can have extra Cuddle Time with both Mommy and Daddy in the big bed, what do you say?” he asks gently.
“In the big big beddie?”
“Yes, the big big one.”
“With you and Moh-mee?”
“Yes, all squashed and hugged between us,” he replies with a huge smile.
“So so squashed under the blankies. You, me and Mommy.”
“Do you promise Dah-dee?”
“Of course I promise. So how does it sound?” he asks.
The tears are forgotten and Alba’s face lights up as she clutches the cushion and cuddles up to it in excitement. “It sounds v’ry nice,” she giggles, burying her face in it.
Mellark kisses her cheek and tucks her under the blanket once more. “You’re a good girl, my sweet little one” he tells her, before leading me to the kitchen. He silently pushes in front of me a plate of that pie which smell must now be making the mouths of the whole District water. “I guess you’re hungry,” he says quietly, “I know that the train from Two arrived very early this morning.”
I nod and thank him, still too overwhelmed, but not entirely surprised, by his kindness, and dreading the moment that Katniss will get back from Haymitch. We make small talk as I eat the pie, and I also compliment him for what must obviously be his cooking. Johanna and I cannot cook, even though we have tried many times during the early years of our marriage, but our combined income makes it possible for us to hire domestic staff at home to make our lives and that of our sons very comfortable. The Mellarks have kept it much simpler, and it seems to work well for them.
Maybe I will try to surprise Johanna with dinner some day.
I ask about the people I know from the District, but I keep questions light and simple as I don’t want either of us to dwell on the ones that were lost. I don’t want him to think too much about his family, and at the same time I want to avoid allowing my mind to drift to Madge. It’s been a long time, and yes, she was much fonder of me than I was of her, but thinking about Madge always causes a painful prick in my heart that I try to avoid at all costs. Maybe it’s regret, or guilt or perhaps the remnants of longing for something that, for many reasons, was never allowed to happen, but whatever it is, I don’t ever allow myself to go down that particular memory lane.
Just as I’m about to finish my piece of pie, I hear Katniss entering the house and she is obviously surprised to see Alba on the couch alone. Because I ruin Cuddle Times, that’s what I do. “What is it Little Sunrise?” she exclaims alarmed before Mellark can warn her, “where’s Daddy?”
Alba squeaks something that we can’t quite make out from the kitchen and Katniss rushes in, stopping abruptly as she catches sight of me. “Gale,” she breathes, and looks at her husband in alarm. He grabs her hand tightly. “Gale is here to talk to you,” he explains calmly, looking at me for confirmation.
I nod wordlessly. “Hi Catnip,” I begin, my voice breaking slightly.
“Gale, I don’t... I don’t think...” she falters with her words and looks at Mellark helplessly, before glaring at him. “I can’t believe you missed out on Cuddle Time,” she reproaches him in an angry whisper.
“What did you expect me to do?” he replies helplessly. When she doesn’t reply except to scowl, he lets out a sigh and knots his fingers through hers. “Why don’t you go upstairs and tuck Alba in?” he proposes. “Then you can come down in a few minutes and see whether you are up for this.”
Katniss exhales and nods her head. It’s quite incredible how the mere touch from her husband and his reassuring tone manage to calm her down. “Fine,” she murmurs and together they go back to their daughter so that her father can wish her good night. I lean against the kitchen doorway as Mellark hugs his daughter and showers her with kisses. “Goodnight little Sunrise, will you have good and happy dreams?” he asks her
with a big smile.
“Yes Dah-dee, goodnight, Dah-dee,” she yawns as she rubs her eyes sleepily. “I love you! More than Mr Cushion!” she adds loudly as she waves at him while her mother carries her upstairs.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen, in my whole life, a smile wider than that which covers his face. Mellark didn’t change at all in these years, which considering what he’s gone through, is nothing but amazing. “And I love you more than all the cushions in the world,” he replies back, before he turns to me and grins in embarrassment. “I’ve only have a few years of this left before she starts noticing boys her age,” he explains sheepishly, “I’m making the most of it.”
“She’s cute,” I reply with a smile. She’s more than cute. She’s adorable.
I think I might want one of these girl babies too.
Katniss returns after fifteen minutes, visibly calmer. “Shall we talk?” she asks, pointing to the couch. Mellark gives her waist a gentle squeeze and announces that he will be taking care of the dishes in the kitchen. “You’re not coming?” she asks, her face falling.
“I think this is something you both need to deal with alone,” he replies a bit sadly, “but call me if things get a bit rough.” This last part is whispered but I can still hear it. I feel bad to have intruded without warning on what was possibly planned to be a quiet evening in each other’s company, but there is no way out of it now. I guess that is going to be another thing to apologise for to Katniss.
Mellark gives me one final, wary look before going to the kitchen, and I almost laugh. He still sees me as a threat. That is ridiculous. I haven’t been a threat to him for a long time, if ever really. Katniss had made her choice even before the Quarter Quell I think and, in the clarity of hindsight, it is pretty obvious that it was the right choice for all parties involved.
We make our way to the couch and I clutch at the mug of hot tea that Peeta had prepared for both of us. After a few minutes of silence, I decide to take the plunge, head first.
“I’m sorry for Prim, Catnip. I wish I could explain how sorry I am, but I don’t think I can,” I tell her.
She starts a little and contemplates her mug for a few moments. “I know,” she replies softly, “I stopped blaming you. Some time ago.”
I stare at her in utter amazement. “Really?”
She breathes in and stifles a sob. “It was war, Gale. You did what you felt you had to do. I don’t understand or justify some of your choices, and many people did die as a result of them. But you’re not responsible for Prim’s death, not directly,” she explains and pauses. “She was a victim, like many others, and there is nothing that can be done about it. I couldn’t accept it for a long time, but at one point I suddenly did. And I stopped blaming you.”
The tears are steaming down my face before I actually notice them. “Thank you, Catnip,” I whisper, “and sorry.”
She nods and reaches out for my hand. “I don’t think we can ever really be friends again, at least not how we were before ... everything happened,” she replies softly, “but I don’t hate you Gale, I owe you and I shared with you too much to ever possibly hate you.”
I had never realised how crushing the weight that was squeezing over my heart was until it is finally lifted off through her forgiveness. She stands up and opens her arms slightly. “You can hug me you know,” she says with a small smile, “Peeta won’t get jealous.”
I’m not too sure about that but I do hug her tightly, and when our embrace becomes too tearful, I steer the conversation towards more cheerful topics.
“So Alba huh? She’s sweet,” I begin.
She beams back in pride. “She is truly wonderful,” she replies with a broad grin.
“How did he manage to convince you?” I ask curiously. There is no negativity in my question, I am just really quite amazed and curious at how Mellark got her to become a mother.
“He never pressed me for children, even though I knew that he wanted them very very much,” Katniss replies as she sips her tea calmly, “but with ever passing day he made me feel a little bit happier and a little bit safer until there came a time when I could think of nothing else but to bring a child into the world with him. I finally realised that I was not going to have to protect the child alone; he was going to be with me, all the way,” she explains.
Oddly, that seems to make sense. “He really brought you back to life,” I remark in awe, and she nods in acknowledgement of my statement.
“He did. I love him more than I thought I could possibly be capable of. When I see him with Alba I wonder how I could have possibly denied him a child for all these years,” she replies before a small frown mars her features. “Gale ... I am not sure if...I might be hurting you with what I’m saying?”
I smile at her warmly. It’s sweet of her to worry about my feelings after all that we’ve been through.
“I was nineteen, Catnip, in love with the idea of taking down the Capitol with you,” I reply with a wry grin. “Real life caught up with me, and now I am the happiest I’ve ever been with a woman who calls me out on my bullshit and who makes all that we went through worth it.”
Katniss seems sincerely happy at my confession, and reaches for her husband, who makes his appearance in the living room.
“How are the boys?” he asks. His face and voice indicate that he has been eavesdropping and is relieved at my latest statement. Idiot, all he had to was ask.
“Terrible. Uncontrollable. Little horrors like their parents,” I reply proudly. “Couldn’t love them more.”
Mellark looks at his wife and cocks an eyebrow at her in an unspoken question. She nods softly. “We’re expecting again,” he announces shyly, and I see that he is trying hard to keep his excitement in check.
As I look at their happy faces, I’m filled with a surge of warmth and relief. Everything is good, everything turned out fine. Just as it was meant to be.
The Mellarks invite me to stay over until the morning and we spend most of the night up, talking, catching up, and going through the Memory Book that they had compiled in the first years following their return to Twelve. I sob openly over Madge’s picture, and stay up, long after they both go to bed, to apologise, to finally bid her goodbye and to ask her to look over my family. Mellark has captured her reserved, pure smile perfectly and I know that this is how I will always remember her in my heart.
The following morning I am woken up early by the sound of tiny pattering footsteps in the landing upstairs. I smile to myself as I hear Alba giggling loudly as her father opens the door to their bedroom for the promised Cuddle Time. Her excited squeals make me ache with the want to go home to my sons and wife.
I wonder how I will convince Johanna to try for another baby.
Eight months later, Johanna and I receive a letter from the Mellarks containing a picture of their newest addition, a blonde, curly haired boy, whom they called Aidan. Three months later, we send them back a picture of our own new baby, our grey eyed beautiful Elisa.
At the post office, just before posting the letter, I reopen the envelope on whim and add a tiny note to the back of the photo.
thanks for introducing me to Cuddle Time.
Now keep your son away from my daughter.
Some things just have to be said. Just in case.