Her Best Friend's Mother
As I look around at the spotless state in which I leave Haymitch Abernathy’s house I get the increasingly familiar satisfaction of a job well done. This man is a mess, a state of fact which is reflected all too clearly in the condition in which I find the house during my weekly cleaning visit. The first time May had proposed the idea of having me clean his house, Haymitch had just laughed in her face and told her that the Everdeens should just stick to being neighbours without coming up with initiatives that would concern him. It only took two days for him to change his mind, but it took me twice that time to actually clean his house from twenty-five years of filth and neglect. Rory, Vick and Posy had to pitch in to help with cloths, goodwill and cleaning products, and Haymitch had at least the grace to look embarrassed. He paid me well, more than I could have ever dared to ask, and every week has now been easier to handle. After Posy had once cut her foot on a piece of glass on his floor, I even stopped finding broken bottles strewn around. He never apologised for Posy’s little accident, but the money he carelessly leaves for me on the table every week can actually pay for more bottles of salve than my daughter could possibly need.
The air is damp and cloudy this afternoon, and before leaving to go back to our house at the Seam, I peak at the training room which Peeta has set up in Haymitch’s house a few days following the announcement of the Quarter Quell. District 12’s old mentor hardly had the opportunity to protest before Peeta ordered to him to shut up and clear his basement, and to not even dare to say anything about it! The clearing up task had fallen onto me of course, and as soon as the young Mellark found out, he rushed down to apologise and help. He explained to me that the idea of setting up the equipment there was to make sure that the older man would have no excuse to miss out on the training programme that he set up for them and Katniss. At his own insistence, Peeta ended up doing most of the hauling of boxes himself, and I got paid far too much to wash after him. Had I not had a family of four kids to feed, I would have perhaps hesitated about taking the money. But the situation is what it is, and I am not going to miss out on providing for them.
The Quarter Quell had come as a shock to all of us, and it was a shock that caused a great chasm in the District, for once not between Merchant and Seam, but between the Mellarks and the Everdeens against everyone else. Following President Snow’s announcement, most of the eighteen year olds of Twelve flocked to the streets, blonde and dark, joyfully embracing each other and walking around with dazed expressions, incredulous to the fact that they had survived the Reaping a year in advance. The Justice Building was swarmed with impromptu marriage registrations the following morning, and from many windows one could smell toasted bread and hear muted sounds of happiness. Concurrently, twelve year old children played and sang and celebrated an extra year of assured existence and childhood. The bakery, however, remained closed for three days, leaving us all hungry and bewildered. Wheaton and Leila Mellark never closed their bakery, not even following last year’s Reaping, and the rumour that travelled around was that the announcement was finally too much for them to handle. I can easily believe that, especially since I saw the second son, Barley, rushing to the apothecary numerous times in the past weeks while their mother all but disappeared. Actually, I like to think that Wheaton Mellark had decided to punish us all for being spared from the Reaping and from rejoicing about it. I want to believe that our kind district Baker has a mean streak in him that he has kept hidden all through his life, because otherwise I cannot even start to fathom why someone so kind, inherently good and totally devoted to his sons would have to give up his youngest, twice, to be butchered for sport by the Capitol.
I’m surprised at the way in which Peeta is handling the upcoming Quell. While I was cleaning Haymitch’s windows on one of the mornings in which the Bakery was closed, I saw the Baker and his two sons leaving Peeta’s house in tears. The boy’s eyes, on the other hand, were dry and hard. According to Rory, he had marched straight to the school that same morning and demanded the transfer of the training equipment to the Victor’s village. I can imagine that the Principal’s hesitation lasted only until Peeta named the amount of coin he was offering, a sum that was far larger than the worth of the worn equipment that all the district’s schoolchildren had had to use for the past decade.
Nevertheless, whatever the state it is in, it seems that Peeta is putting it into good use, as when I walk down to the basement I see that he has Haymitch walking on a sort of fast moving carpet that for the life of me I don’t know what it is called. At the same time, the boy is standing behind a punching bag, holding on tightly while yelling at Katniss to keep punching it. The girl is wearing boxing gloves, is flushed red, and looks furious.
“Again and perhaps with a little effort this time!”
Kick and removal of gloves.
“I’m done,” she growls at him, throwing the gloves across the basement. Rory, who has been all morning curled up in a corner reading a book looks up and moves just in time to avoid being hit straight in the face. Vick grins widely and I can see him take the whole scene in to tell Gale this evening after my eldest comes back from the mines. Posy clutches my hand in fear of a confrontation. Haymitch discreetly decreases the speed of the moving carpet machine.
Peeta seems to bristle. “I don’t think you’re done Katniss, not until I have said so.”
The girl takes a menacing step closer to the punching bag and to him, but to his credit, he does not move and matches her glare squarely. “I’m done because I don’t need you to tell me otherwise,” she snaps back.
“You’re not done because you haven’t even started the real training that you need to be doing for the Quell, and I seem to be the only to call you out on it!” he retorts back angrily before turning quickly to Haymitch, who is snickering in the background. “And you, increase the speed to a run, now!”
“Why the hell are you making me train for?” Haymitch demands crossly, “aren’t you going to go all noble and volunteer instead of me if I’m reaped?” He increases the speed anyway, and starts off what seems to be a very painful jog, his feet slamming down noisily on the moving carpet. I’m pretty sure that they’re not supposed to do that.
“What if they change the rules and I am not allowed to volunteer for you, genius?” replies Peeta scornfully. “We’re not taking that risk. So you run, and you –“ he turns back to Katniss “obey and start punching!”
“Shut up!” the girl cries as she glares at him. “You’ve become unbearable! Why don’t you leave us alone and take care of your own training instead?”
“What do you think I do after you both leave this room? Braid marigolds?” he cries furiously, “but you two cannot be trusted not to slack off obviously!”
Heavens, the sweet Baker’s son has quite an obnoxious, self righteous side to him. I don’t think that he is far from the truth though. May has already brought me up to speed on her daughter’s reaction to the Quarter Quell’s announcement, and I find it hard to believe that she would be able to handle the mental and physical preparation that Peeta insists they go through to without him pushing her. Not that I can blame her of course. It’s easy to forget that in all probability, these two kids are going to die soon. Yelling at each other might help them relieve some of the tension.
“Stop being all superior with me,” Katniss hisses at him, “think of yourself and let me deal with the Quell in my own way!”
“By getting drunk with this one here?!”
“It’s Haymitch,” Abernathy says helpfully from his side of the basement. In spite of the hopelessness of the situation, I can’t help grinning. The idiot.
“What difference does it make to you if I get drunk with Haymitch?” she screams back, “I get to die and you get to come back, and Snow is happy and everything goes back to normal!”
The wind seems to be knocked out of Peeta at her words, and the anger fades from his eyes in a matter of a second. “How can you possibly say that?” he asks incredulously, “how can you think that it would be better for me if you get to die at the Quell? Don’t you know me at all by now? Aren’t my feelings real enough for you to believe them?”
Katniss seems properly chastened at his words and visible deflates in front of him. “That’s not what I meant,” she replies in a small voice, “you know that.”
“I don’t know what I know,” he replies rather dismissively, and crosses the room to pick up her boxing gloves, before throwing them back at her. “Here, wear them and throw some more punches, pretend it’s my face if it helps.”
She clutches the gloves and shakes her head stubbornly. “It doesn’t help. I don’t want to do this anymore,” she replies, her voice breaking with emotion. “Not if it decreases the chances of you coming back.”
“You can’t be serious, we’ve agreed that you’ll be –“
“We’ve agreed nothing!” Katniss cries, slamming the gloves to his chest. “You just decided everything about this Quell and you didn’t even bother to ask me what I thought about it!”
“What is there to ask you?” Peeta replies, his face betraying his shock, “do you want to die in the Quarter Quell? Is this what you’re saying?”
“Maybe that’s what I’m saying yes!”
“Well stop saying it, because it’s ridiculous.”
“Stop telling me what to do! Stop being the noble one!” her breath hitches shallowly as her tears start steadily streaming down, and she gives way to shameless sobbing. It’s the only sound that can be heard from any of us in the room. “Just … stop all this, please,” she finally begs in a whisper.
Peeta takes a step forward and starts to reach for her hand before he stops abruptly and turns away. “You have Primrose to think about,” he replies sadly, “you have your mother and … and –“
I know he means my son, but he cannot bring himself to say his name so he just gestures helplessly at me and my children. Seeing Katniss’ miserable face however, I am prone to think that at the moment, my eldest son doesn’t seem to be as prominent in her thoughts as this blonde boy who all but explained to her that he was planning to die so that she may return to us.
Katniss shakes her head again. “What about your family?” she whispers, “you have people who want you back too.”
“I’ve already spoken to my family. They don’t understand, and they never will, but we’ve decided that we won’t waste my last few weeks arguing about it,” he replies, and I’m shocked at how definite his tone is. How can a seventeen year old make such peace with his imminent death? “I’m sorry Katniss,” he adds, “maybe I should have persuaded you to let me die at the last Games. None of this would have happened if you were crowned Victor without me. You would be living your life without the threat of the Quarter Quell over your head if I had died as I was meant to.”
The sound of the slap she gives him resonates around the room. “Don’t ever say, or think that again,” she tells him before running up the stairs of the basement, tears still streaming down her face. Posy starts crying too and I quickly nod at Vick who picks her up and leaves the room, followed by Rory.
I give Haymitch a meaningful glance and he enthusiastically hops off that infernal machine and leaves the basement in silence.
I sigh heavily, lower myself on a bench and look at Peeta, who looks shocked and hurt, his right cheek bright red from Katniss’ hand. After a minute, he moves silently towards the same bench and sits next to me.
I clear my throat, not knowing exactly how to broach the subject. How do I address him? Peeta? Boy? Son? Peeta. His name. Safe.
“Peeta, can we talk a little about what just happened?” I ask quietly. He nods and looks down at his feet, suddenly blinking rapidly. I take it to be all the encouragement that I need and will be receiving from him. “Life in District 12 is far from being perfect,” I begin cautiously, “and sometimes it seems as if it cannot get worse, and in your case, that sentiment is well justified. But purposely throwing it away, even if to save someone else, is not something that you can just decide in your state of mind.”
The boy looks up at me quickly, and for a minute it seems like he’s going to retaliate angrily, but one look at my concerned face seems to calm him down. “I appreciate your words, Mrs Hawthorne,” he replies, and if circumstances weren’t so tragic, I would smile at how polite he always is. “But it’s not something I have just decided on a whim. I wasn’t meant to survive the first Games, and I’ve caused nothing but trouble by having come back here alive. Now I have the chance to set things straight, how they are meant to be.”
“I cannot believe that anything could possibly improve with the death of an honest, sweet lad like you,” I reply, and I mean it. This boy carries around him a sense of hope and steadiness that somehow engulfs whoever is around him.
“Mrs Hawthorne, if I live, Katniss dies, it’s as simple as that,” he explains, and I notice that his eyes are starting to well up with tears, and that his voice is starting to falter.
“But it’s not up to you to decide who lives and who dies –“
“Then who decides? Snow?” he snaps, and before we know it, we gaze around in alarm, wondering whether his angry remark has now been captured by some hidden camera. After a few seconds, Peeta shrugs. “I never wanted to be a piece in their own game, and yet they keep trying. They won’t decide for me whether I live or die. I will make that decision myself, and while I’m at it, I’m going to do my utmost so that the girl I love returns back to her family.”
I don’t really know how to respond to his logic, because I do see his point. It’s a tragic, heartbreaking point, but a well thought one nonetheless. “Are you sure that the girl you love is worthy of your sacrifice?” I ask seriously.
“Does it matter?” he replies.
And as I look at the honest, bright blue eyes of this determined young man I realise that to him, it truly doesn’t. He loves with the overwhelming, all engulfing passion of an infatuated young man who sees no wrong in his girl, the kind of love that is useless when facing the harsh reality of a marriage, but seems to be enough to drive a seventeen year old to die for his loved one. Who am I to begrudge a young boy, who is weeks away from his death, of his right to sacrifice himself for love?
“No,” I reply, “it doesn’t.”
The following Sunday, Peeta is at my door holding a camera and asking Gale for a picture. My son stares at him in disbelief before he explains that he wants to provide a reminder for Katniss to give to her during the Quarter Quell.
“She will fight if she knows that you are waiting for her,” he insists.
Gale has the decency to look bewildered and ashamed. “I don’t know if this is right…” he begins.
“I think it is right, so sit down and smile,” Peeta orders him, his jaw setting stubbornly. Gale seems to know better than to protest.
I do not interrupt this exchange, but I know that this noble gesture will not work. I love my son, and I want him to be happy, but surely he must know that Katniss is lost to him forever? Even if she were to survive and come back to the District, the memory of Peeta will always be there, with its invisible strands holding her that much away from ever finding happiness with Gale, or with anybody else. It’s the same strand that kept me from getting married again after my husband’s death in the mines. Once you experience the real thing, there is no way you can settle for less.
I don’t voice my thoughts however. This is something that Gale needs to realise on his own.
After he has taken the picture and he is satisfied with it, I walk Peeta to the door and brush his bangs off his forehead while hugging him close to me in a way I suspect his mother never did. My heart breaks as he sobs into my shoulder and I try to keep my anger at bay. This is so unfair, so useless, so unnecessary. The Capitol is robbing this boy of his future, but I try to calm myself but holding to my one remaining thread of certainty.
President Snow can never rob this boy of his ability to love, and at least he will die with the perfect image he created of Katniss forever engrained in his heart.