His Other Brother
I see the train approaching, a tiny dark blob in the horizon that in a few minutes will bring back my brother to District 12. Disappearing amongst the cheering crowd is not even an option, since the organisers of the welcome event thought it fit to separate both familes of the Victors from the rest of the District 12 folk by a barrier. So it happens that the Everdeens and their “cousins”, the Hawthornes, stand now side by side with the Mellarks; Seam and Merchant, a mix of complexions, wealth and temperament united in their relief and incredulity at being able to welcome both their children back. As the train approaches, I shrink closer to my brother, and suddenly I feel the button on my sleeve, the one I have been nervously tugging all day, loosen up and fall to the ground. I curse at my carelessness, thinking that once again, my brother will have to make do with clothes that never reach him intact. In fact, I can now add a missing button to the list of ways in which I have failed Peeta. It’s not that he would mind of course, my younger brother is used to having to patch up his clothes once he inherits them from me. He never complains, not even when he has to go to school with mismatched buttons or with frayed trousers. He has always been practical, a problem solver who prefers to grin and mend then to complain. My little brother has always taken the same approach even with regard to our mess of a family, taking on the role of the steady one, always ready to diffuse the tension with a joke or a compliment aimed at our mother, just at the right moment. He smiles, obeys and causes no trouble, while always going out of his own way to try to please.
At the same time, our little rebel falls in love with a Seam Girl, feeds her, wins the Hunger Games and resolutely remains alive when everyone else expects him to die.
I stare at the tiny hole which, up until a few minutes ago, held the button of my shirt, and blink rapidly, trying to keep my tears at bay. Naan nudges me roughly and glares at me. “Now what the hell is the matter?” he hisses in a poor attempt at whispering.
“The button,” I gulp back, “I ruined the shirt for Peeta.”
My older brother stares at me. “Peeta doesn’t need your shirts anymore, Barley,” he retorts, “he’s a Victor now. He can buy his own damn clothes for the rest of his life!”
A Victor. My brother is a Victor, alive with no thanks to me. I don’t deserve to be a Victor’s brother. I don’t deserve to be here, welcoming back, after I had sent him off to die without moving a muscle. All of a sudden, I’m finding it difficult to breathe and I frantically look around me to try and find a way out of this platform, preferably an exit that can lead me away somewhere where I can wallow in my shame and loathing in peace.
It’s not meant to be of course. In fact, my breathless scanning of the crowd causes me to lock eyes with Lilly Carter, who wordlessly pleads with me to reconsider, to take back the words I had told her weeks ago, to tell her once again that I loved her. Lilly had been the first girl I really kissed, my first love, my first everything and I had promised to marry her as soon as we were both out of our Reaping age. I broke that promise of course, because that is what I do. I break promises and destroy people because I’m a disloyal coward. The same night my brother was making his way on the train to the Capitol, I broke things off with Lilly. I didn’t deserve to be happy, not when I had sent Peeta to be slaughtered.
I spent the whole Games alternating between sobbing in front of the television, clandestinely leaving bread at the Everdeen’s doorstep upon request from Dad, and staring blankly at Lilly’s house from across the road. I was not fit to help in the bakery, until Naan dragged me from my shirt collar, dressed me in my apron, and told me to make some goddamn bread goddamnit. That was the same day Peeta received his first kiss from Katniss, and also when Primrose Everdeen visited the bakery, thanked my father for the bread, and surprised me by hugging me tight. “I know how you feel,” she had whispered softly in my ear, “but they’re going to protect each other until they’re both home, and then you and I will have all our lives to make it up to them.”
I cannot remember if I had ever promised Peeta to be a good brother to him. If I hadn’t, then I definitely should have, because that is what he had always been to me, a younger, gentle, supportive boy whom I had failed in the only test life had given me to prove myself worthy of his love. I tear my eyes away from Lilly’s and turn back to Naan, wheezing loudly as I helplessly try to breathe.
“Naan, I don’t think I can –“
“You can and you will, you idiot,” he retorts angrily. “Today is about Peeta, this is his moment, and not yours to ruin, so pull yourself together, calm down and shut the hell up!” I stare at him, and nod meekly, and he seems to relent somewhat. “Listen, I know it’s tough for you,” he continues softly, “but he’s alive, he’s safe and he got his girl. It’s time for us to share his happiness and welcome him home.”
His tone managed to do the impossible, and I draw my first real breath since we had arrived to the station and immediately calm down. My brother is alive, safe and he got his girl.
I smile at the approaching train and allow myself to feel the almost forgotten thrill of excitement. I am the first to grab him in a tight hug as soon as he steps down from the train, and I sob my apology over and over again in his shoulder. I am not sure how long this lasts until Peeta pulls away, and gives me a sad smile. “I lost my leg, and you’re the one crying?! Get over yourself Barley!” he tells me, a shadow of his old self making an appearance. Before I can help it, I am beaming at him. Peeta is home, and all is going to be well.
All is not well. Not quite. I sense the change in my brother immediately. The trip from the station to our house is a whirlwind of interviews, cameras, microphones and staged welcomes. Peeta smiles, waves and charms the District, while Katniss looks pale, stricken even, as she clings to his hand, almost afraid to let him go. When Mrs Everdeen makes some sort of joke on her daughter being too young to have boyfriends, he moves away, letting go of Katniss’ hand and I see her start, reaching out for him for a second before stepping back, looking at him pleadingly.
This strange exchange should have perhaps given us an inkling that sometime was off with the whole situation, but we are all too relieved to see Peeta home to give much thought to anything else.
The first bombshell comes during our first dinner, during which we steer clear from any topic dealing with the Games, Katniss, caves, trains and the Capitol, which does not give us much to talk about except the bakery and our new home at the Victor’s Village. Peeta has not spoken much since our reunion at the station, and I keep stealing glances at him which he stubbornly refuses to acknowledge.
My heart sinks.
And it sinks even lower when he finally opens his mouth. “Dad, Mother, I was thinking that maybe you should not come with me to the Victor’s Village,” he announces quietly.
We all fall silent, looking at him with a mix of disbelief and hurt. He sits up straighter in his chair and clears his throat. “Of course, I will help you repair and rebuild this house if you need, but I think it would be best from to stay there alone, and continue to work at the bakery like before,” he adds. His tone betrays no hesitation whatsoever, and it’s obvious to me that he has probably thought about this during his trip back.
Dad seems crushed, but does not object. When it comes to Peeta, my father does not object to anything that could give his youngest son any semblance of happiness. My brother leaves our home that same night. He never invites us to visit him at the Victor’s Village but comes to work at the bakery everyday, even though it is quite clear that with his winnings he can very easily choose to live a life of leisure. He keeps his promise, and in the weeks that follow the departure of the cameras, our rather rundown bakery receives new flooring, a new door, a fresh lick of paint and a brand new set of ovens. Peeta spends all his time there, painting the walls, hammering the floorboards and avoiding interaction with customers. Conspicuous in her absence is his girlfriend, who has yet to make an appearance after the first weeks of interviews and photoshoots come to an end.
Katniss is not exactly a ray of joy. She is quiet, somewhat sullen and definitely not easy with her smiles, especially in between shoots. However, there is something about her, a obstinate kind of strength that can definitely be overwhelming sometimes. I have had a few opportunities to speak to her, one of them being during a photoshoot that showed me and Naan teaching her how to bake with Peeta. We had even joked together that day, and I realised that when she let herself go, my brother’s girlfriend was very easy to like.
However, I haven’t seen much of Katniss in the past weeks, and Peeta has become more and more withdrawn, seeking solitude even from his dearest friend Delly. One evening Mother passes a nasty remark on Katniss, and how she seems to have all but disappeared now that she does not need to act a part for the cameras and Peeta stands up and silently leaves the house, but not before calmly picking up a vase and smashing it angrily against the wall. “Don’t you ever dare to talk about Katniss again,” he warns us, and it takes a week for him to return to the bakery and a month before he can even acknowledge Mother’s presence again.
Things between us are still somewhat tense, not because of anything Peeta says or does, but mostly because I still find the need to walk on eggshells around him. One day I return to the bakery after some deliveries and find him deep in conversation with a tearful Lilly. As soon as she sees me, she starts and rushes out, and Peeta looks at me with an expression verging on pity. He tells me to walk home with him that day, and I feel a sense of dread entering his house for the first time. I don’t know what to expect, but to my relief, my brother’s house is clean, tidy, comfortable and definitely homey.
“Cleaning and keeping everything tidy helps me remain sane,” he says in reply
to my incredulous look. Peeta is a endless pit of goodness, but tidyness was never one of his top priorities. “If I have nothing to do, I think too much,” he explains.
I stare at him, the all too familiar feeling of remorse creeping down into my gut. “Peeta, I’m so sorry...”
He rolls his eyes, pours himself a glass of water and leans back against his kitchen counter. “Enough of that Barley, honestly. And what is this nonsense of you breaking off things with Lilly? When were you planning to tell us about it?”
I shake my head and flinch at his tone. “I broke off our engagement the day you ... left. I didn’t feel it was right for me to think of my wedding when you...” my voice trails off.
“When I what? When I went off to the Capitol to possibly die in the Games?” he finishes for me. “What does that have to do with you?”
I can’t believe that he seems geniunely puzzled. “I could have gone in your place, I could have volunteered instead of you, I could have –“
“Died instead of me? Don’t be absurd,” he scoffs back. “No one expected you to volunteer to go and die in the arena when you were lucky enough to not have been reaped. No one, not even me,” he adds looking at me seriously. When I remain silent, he takes a long drink of his water and adds softly, “I wouldn’t have done it, Barley, even though I do love you dearly.”
I feel a lot of things with that statement. Relief, disappointment, shock, hurt? But I realise that what he says is actually true. Naan, Peeta and I do love each other, and we have been a steady source of support and help for one another all through our lives, but none of us would have willingly gone to the Games to take the other’s place.
“I love you Barley,” he repeats, “but I love myself more,” he adds gravely. “If I would have had the luck to survive my six years of Reaping hell, I wouldn’t have thrown it away to volunteer instead of you. And you need to accept this even for yourself. I was meant to be reaped and that’s that. There is nothing to forgive,” he concludes.
I want to hug him, but something in the firm set of his jaw tells me that he is not in a mood for physical affection. Instead I just nod my head in silence.
But I’m an idiot. And I can’t let things go.
“Katniss did volunteer for her sister though,” I murmur, “even though Primrose was meant to be reaped, like you said.”
I immediately know that I said the wrong thing when I see my brother’s lips set into a thin line and the heigthened colour of his face. “Well, Katniss is ... Katniss is something else,” he replies flatly.
“What happened between you two?” I ask curiously.
“Nothing,” he replies quickly, “nothing real I mean. It was all for the Games,” he explains.
Oh shit. I step forward and lean back next to him on the same counter. “That sucks, Tiny,” I tell him, sympathetically reverting back to my childhood nickname for him. “Did she tell you that?” I ask gently.
“Yeah, pretty much,” he replies. “She told me she was confused and didn’t know how she felt, but didn’t deny the fact that it was all a plan to get us out alive.” He shrugs and pours himself another glass of water. He probably wishes it was something stronger.
“Well, it did work, didn’t it?” I ask slowly.
“It did,” he agrees not very graciously, “she’s a good actress.”
I sigh and tilt my head backwards to rest it against the kitchen cabinet. “What I mean is that she saved your life, Peeta. She hardly knew you at the time, she had a very good chance of winning the Games and, let’s face it, you were pretty much half dead when she found you,” I remind him. “She could have easily not done anything and won the Games anyway. Did you ask her why she actually bothered?”
Peeta looks at me, and the look on his face tells me that he probably didn’t think of asking such a question.
“Tiny, perhaps she doesn’t love you in the way you do, with your visions of toastings and everlasting happiness, but she saved your life for a reason. Maybe it’s not love, but it takes a damn lot to do what she did for you, whatever feeling that may be,” I explain to him, feeling suddenly and uncharacteristically wise.
A look of understanding dawns on my brother’s face, mixed with something that probably looks like hope. “You’re right,” he whispers, “I’ve been such an idiot,” he mutters to himself angrily, “when I think of how I’ve been treating her since we came back...”
“That’s right,” I agree with a grin, “so stop being so wounded, go to the Victory Tour with her and grovel your apologising ass until she comes round and realises how much she cares.”
My brother smiles back at me, and pulls me to him with a hug. “Thank you, Mellark-in-the-Middle,” he whispers.
Any time Tiny.
Before making my way home, I have another stop to make. I knock on the Everdeen’s door and I’m lucky to see that Katniss opens the door. She looks startled and gapes at me shock and silence.
Right. Miss Everdeen doesn’t talk much. I clear my throat and and reach out to give her a very awkward hug before whispering in her ear, “he is very sorry, and very upset. Please forgive him when he apologises to you.”
She stares at me. “There...there is nothing for him to apologise for,” she whispers.
“Excellent, that’s sorted then. I look forward to becoming an uncle, Katniss,” I reply with a wink before I step down the front steps and wave her goodbye.
I don’t think much of that silly comment much in the weeks following my conversation with her. I find my way back into Lilly’s heart and I don’t allow myself to think about anything else for many weeks. I am surprised when my brother proposes to Katniss, and Naan and I drink ourselves into oblivion when Peeta announces Katniss’ pregnancy on the eve of the Quarter Quell. We drink and cry, not sure whether we are drowning, in white liquor, the sorrow for the imminent death of our brother or of that of the unborn child and its mother.
When the first bombs start to fall, I surprisingly don’t think of Lilly. I think of my niece or nephew, and I wonder where she or he will live if there is no District 12 to come back to.
I wonder if the baby will look like me and I’m sorry that I will never get to hold it.
As the screams become louder and the flames beome hotter I stop thinking.
Then I stop feeling.