His Eldest Brother
The rain pours and I’m drenched to the bone in minutes as I run blindly towards the bakery. My worn boots are completely useless by the sludge that quickly starts to cover our muddy street, and my feet literally seem to turn into ice as I squelch my way home in the early dusk. It is painful, uncomfortable and I’m pretty sure that I am on my way towards developing a nasty cold, but I don’t care. I’m happy, dazed, numb and scared. But happy scared. I just kissed Molly Thames, and she kissed me back. She’s my girl now…I have a girl. After months of shy glances, stolen smiles and awkward greetings, Molly decided to take matters in her own hands. She just happened to be at her grandmother’s house when I was meant to delivery her daily order of bread, and she just happened to smile in that sweet way of hers when I was looking, and finally she just decided to do all the talking that needed to be done for both of us. In response, I was expected to do nothing but nod, smile and oblige her with all the embraces and kisses she wanted from me. I think I can keep on doing that forever.
I’m so lucky that Grandma Thames is blind and senile. And I’m so lucky to have Molly’s heart as my own, and the only thing that stops me from whooping out in joy as I splash through the puddles, is that I’m Naan Mellark, fifteen and solemn, and serious and unflappable. With my disposition on show and my reputation in check, I limit my joy to a wide grin and a steady stride, braving the rain until I catch sight of the glow coming from the bakery windows.
My pace, together with my grin, falters however when I hear my mother scream and push my youngest brother Peeta out of the door in the rain, hitting him hard in the face and giving him hell for being useless and worthless while ordering him to throw some bread, which he seems to have presumably burnt, to the pigs. Seriously?? I love my brother and all, but sometimes he seems to just mess up on purpose. At eleven, he’s not a child anymore, and he should know better than to burn bread, especailly not so late in the month when the flour supplies are dwindling, and the next supply train is still days away. I see him look around warily before his eyes, together with mine, rest on a huddled, shivering figure slumped against the apple tree just across our backyard. It takes one me just one look at his face to understand. It’s Katniss Bloody Everdeen.
The little bastard. He did mess up on purpose.
I see them share one look, his eyes mournful and worried, and hers hungry, worn, desperate and resentful as she looks at the pigs, as if she were jealous that they were being treated with more mercy than she was. I hear her gasp audibily as Peeta quickly looks into the kitchen, and tosses the bread to the wet ground just in front of her. With a burst of energy, she grabs the bread and runs away, almost bumping into me as she clutches the warm bread as if it were her sole source of life. As I look at her skinny frame as she scuttles into the dark streets, I can’t help wondering whether that thought is really that far away from the truth. As I walk slowly up the front steps to the bakery, I lock eyes with Peeta, whose face is pressed against the window pane, silently begging me to keep silent.
Ten minutes later I’m in our bedroom, sitting on his bed and pressing some ice, which I had wrapped in a worn cloth, against his rapidly swelling cheek. He winces slightly, and I realise that I am pressing the ice somewhat more roughly than he deserves, especially given the circumstances and this evening’s events. However, I am annoyed at him for ruining my evening plan, namely that of lying in bed thinking of Molly and smiling at nothing. I’m more annoyed at myself though, for being old enough to feel bad about being angry at him for getting beaten up in the first place.
“You idiot,” I hiss at him, as I examine his cheek, “you know how she is, you should know better than to rile her up like this!”
“I did nothing wrong,” he mutters, as grabs the bag of ice from my hand and proceeds to press it on his cheek. He makes a show at being very gentle about it, and I roll my eyes at him impatiently.
“You cannot stay feeding everyone that turns up at our door Peeta. People starve and die sometimes. It happens, this is reality, and you can’t do anything about it,” I insist. “Many times we don’t even have enough for ourselves. What if she goes and tells everyone at the Seam about this? What if tomorrow we get a line of them begging for food?”
“She won’t tell anyone,” he replies sharply. “You don’t need to worry about them coming at our doorstep and sharing your dinner.”
Somewhere in the past half an hour, my youngest brother seems to have grown a backbone, and some sort of attitude attached to it. I don’t like it.
“What the hell is your problem?” I retort. “Do you think you will get that Everdeen girl to like you just because you tossed her bread in the rain? Is this what this is all about?”
Peeta glowers at me. “She hadn’t eaten for days, Naan. Didn’t you see how she looked? She was looking for food in our trash can before Mother sent her away to die.” His voice breaks at the end of the sentence, and I say nothing, taking in the implication of his words. If what he said was true, then technically Mother had sent an eleven year old girl to starve to death in the rain. I don’t like the direction that this conversation is taking.
With his next words, I realise that the conversation is goimg to take a far, far worse turn. “It’s nice to know how much my family will care when it’s me looking for food in the trash can,” my brother says disdainfully. The ice is melting in his hands and he flings it at me angrily. “Take it to the kitchen with you,” he tells me coldly.
I don’t move. I just sit next to him and look at him with dawning horror. “What are you talking about?” I whisper, although I know very well what he is alluding to.
“You know what I’m talking about,” he snaps. Then his face takes on this sad, resigned look that I sometimes see flitting across his face on rare occassions. It’s a look that should not be seen on such a young boy’s face.“I hear Mother and Dad talking about it all the time.,” he continues, an angry flush creeping up his face, “I even overheard you and him once. I know what my future is going to be like. I just hoped that my family would learn to show me compassion when I’m the one begging for food. Or at least my kids if I ever have any. With Mother’s little show this evening, it seems pretty unlikely.”
I swallow the lump that has suddenly formed in my throat and look away. Peeta’s future is something that is often discussed between my parents, and Dad worries about it so much that he has sometimes even discussed it with me. He is not an old man by all means, but the problem of who will get the bakery after he retires of dies is something that, with three sons, he always worries about. He told me once that if Barley and I keep the family business running diligently, we would just be able to both work in the bakery and make a decent living for ourselves and our families. We would manage to live comfortably in town, but for Peeta, things looked much bleaker. Nonetheless, I never thought that at his young age, he would already be aware of the very real possibility of him working in the mines and living in the Seam in poverty, away from us.
It is not a very common sight to see a Town boy working in the mines, but it does happen. They are usually the youngest child of a merchant family, like us, or the ones that marry stubbornly into the Seam, and often, they don’t last very long.
“Don’t be silly,” I whisper. “It won’t come to that. You just need to find a girl
from Town –“
“With no brothers to take over the family trade...yeah I know” he finishes for me, while rolling his eyes. “That’s not the point so shut up, Naan.”
There is not much point in telling me to shut up. I am feeling so devastatingly guilty that I have not much to say at this point. “I’m sorry,” I finally manage to murmur. Sorry for telling him off for throwing the bread at Katniss. Sorry for not being surprised or worried about his bruise, or about any of his other bruises. Sorry for being born to live a long life in relative comfort, while he will have to get by by breaking his back below the ground.
As sensitive as he is, I think Peeta manages to see what I’m trying to convey with that whispered apology, and his eyes soften. I get up and walk to my clothes drawer, and pull out a little tub of salve that I had once bought after a particularly nasty row that involved Mother and both Peeta and Barley. I had felt particularly brotherly towards them that day, seeing them sob and huddle against each other with matching welts on their arms and cheeks. Peeta had been so grateful that he had made my bed and cleaned my boots for a month. He is such a sweet kid, it is really hard to keep your distance and not be affected by his good nature.
As I gingerly rub the salve over his cheek, Barley bursts into the room with his usual smug grin and generally enthusiasm over anything. “Mellark-in-the-Middle strikes again!” he hollers as he throws himself over Peeta’s mattress. We both wince at the noise the springs make, yet another reminder that this bed has hosted too many Mellark boys to be able to retain its function for long. As with everthing else, I get the new stuff, while Peeta has to make do with castoffs that have passed through my hands and those of Barley.
“I kissed Lilly Carter, and I kissed her with tooongue” he drawls proudly. I scowl at him, almost telling him that Mellark-on-Top scored before him. But I don’t want to share my evening with Molly with anyone, that’s just for me and her. I let it pass, but make it a point to shoot him a warning glance and to shift my head towards Peeta.
“This is not the time,” I hiss at him.
Barley looks at Peeta quizzically. “What did you do now, Tiny? I heard Mama say you burnt your share of dinner. Empty stomach and a bruised face? Again?”
My youngest brother is used to him, and does not even bother to try and look hurt. However, it is very clear that he is not impressed at being called “Tiny”. At thirteen, Barley has just begun his growth spurt. Saying that he is being quite
annoying about it with his younger brother is quite an understatement.
I sigh, and pull Barley up from the bed. “Time for dinner,” I announce, before sharing a knowing look with Peeta. “Smuggle you something later?” I ask kindly.
His face brightens up in gratitude. “Yes, thank you,” he says with a smile, and I know that, for now at least, all is well between us.
I smile back and make my way down the stairs to the kitchen, trying to absorb the conversation that just went on between us. Then the guilt feeling starts to return, and I block it out and think of Molly.
Everything is so much easier if I ignore all thoughts about our future.
The next day during lunch recess, I see Peeta staring across the school yard at Katniss Everdeen, who seems to be back to school. She still looks pale and gaunt, but she seems to be alert, and aware of her surroundings, which is a big improvement from how she looked huddled up against that tree.
I feel a surge of indignation as I see the looks that my brother gives her. How dare she not notice him? To my surprise I suddenly find myself walking towards her, ready to give her a piece of my mind and order her to stop whatever she is doing and start liking Peeta, when I suddenly see her bend down to pick up a lonely dandelion that had just sprouted in the yard. I stop abruptly in my tracks and watch her breathe in its scent, before turning her eyes to Peeta for one unguarded, exposed second.
That quick, undisguised look of gratitude tells me what I need to know, and as Molly walks up to me and laces her fingers through mine, I find myself smiling broadly.
Perhaps, just perhaps, my brother’s prospects are not so hopeless after all.