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Nightlock

By smkozlow

Romance / Adventure

Chapter 1

I pull the taut string back, my eyes locked on his, my muscles twitching as I anticipate what’s about to happen. He smiles, showing me those pointy little teeth I despise. The smell of roses is sickening, even though he’s 50 yards away. He moves his lips. I’m too far away to hear him, but I can tell exactly what he’s saying.

“I’m not your enemy anymore, Katniss.”

My eyes narrow. I open my fingers, the string slides past them, releasing the arrow and sending it through the open space between us. It pierces his heart, and the crowd is immediately rewarded with Snow’s body collapsing to the ground.

*****

One week later, I’m back in District 12 and completely lost. My whole life has been about protecting Prim and more recently, killing Snow. But now there’s nothing I can do for Prim and killing Snow failed to provide the satisfaction I had anticipated.

I am numb—physically and emotionally. My heavy arms and legs hang limp over the edges of the rocking chair. My mind is foggy like I’m watching the world through a wall of water. Out the window, I can see people moving around in town, but their movements are blurry, and I don’t understand their purpose.

Time passes, but it doesn’t register with me. I could have been sitting here for days or maybe weeks. Occasionally, I drift off to sleep, but it never lasts very long. Sleep is the one place where my numbness is overcome by fear, anguish, despair. It’s the one place where I can’t control my thoughts and they all come rushing back in excruciating detail. My subconscious is trying to process everything I’ve gone through, but I suppress it when awake—pushing it to the deepest recesses of my mind.

Whenever I wake up screaming and drenched in sweat, I grip the arms of the chair forcefully and make myself focus on some mundane detail—a crack in the wall, a speck of dirt on the window, a dark grain in the wood floor. I stare at it without blinking until my eyes water and the edges of my vision become fuzzy. Gradually, my heart rate slows, my breathing becomes shallower, and I return to my state of numbness. It’s the only way I’ve been able to escape the memories that haunt me in my sleep.

One evening, the still of my house is interrupted by the sound of the front door opening. Probably Haymitch. Funny how times change—now he has to check on me. I expect to hear his heavy footsteps moving down the hall, but it’s completely silent. He must have changed his mind and left. Good—I just want to be left alone.

“Katniss,” a deep voice says, startling me. No wonder I didn’t hear any footsteps.

I quickly turn to face him. His eyes are bloodshot, his hair is matted to his head in irregular patches, and his shirt is wrinkled and untucked. He may actually look worse than me.

“I’ve got nothing to say to you, Gale.” My voice cracks after days of no use.

“I know. I just wanted to drop off some food for you. Make sure you’re eating. That you’re okay,” he says quietly.

“I’m fine,” I reply curtly and turn back to the window.

I hear a soft thud as he drops the game bag on the floor and then nothing until the door creaks open again and quietly shuts. I don’t touch the food.

Over the next couple days, this becomes a routine. Each day, he stops by, drops off more food that I won’t eat, removes the old food, and then leaves without us exchanging a word. After four days, he disrupts the routine.

“Okay, Katniss. This has gone on long enough. What’s your plan? Starve yourself to death?” He waits for an answer, but I say nothing.

“I’m sure you could come up with something quicker and less painful if you really want to end your life.”

I continue staring out the window.

“Fine, you don’t care about yourself. I get it. Your life is over. But you’re wasting perfectly decent food here. Things are still not good in the district. There are plenty of people out there who need food, but I keep bringing it to you.”

“Well stop, then,” I yell at him angrily. I’m surprised by the emotion in my voice. Leave it to Gale to drag me out of my coveted numbness.

“Fine! But if I don’t do it, someone else will. You really want Haymitch or Sae seeing you like this?” he shouts back. With that, he leaves, taking the bag of fresh game with him.

The anger lasts even after he’s gone. And with that anger comes my thoughts. The brick wall I had built around my memories begins to crumble. While I’m awake, I’ve been successfully keeping my mind empty. Blank. It was nice and easy. No sadness. No thoughts of Prim. Or Finnick. Or Cinna. Or anyone else who died because of me. No thoughts of the deranged Peeta and how responsible I feel for that.

But Gale managed to topple that wall with just a few choice words. I’m angry with him for bringing me out of the nothingness. I feel the tears welling up and threatening to spill onto my cheeks. I know I’m on the verge of a complete breakdown.

I have a choice to make. Either I give into my depression and allow it to swallow me whole or I force myself to live again. If I give in, there may be no turning back. I could end up like Haymitch or worse. Like my mother after my father died. That thought scares me more than anything. I don’t want to be helpless with people taking pity on me.

I sigh loudly. Gale’s right—I need a plan. What am I going to do with my life? That thought is so overwhelming it makes my head spin, so I focus on the short-term. Gale has a point—I do need to eat.

I walk over to the game bag with the day-old meat, open it, and immediately know the food is past its prime given the smell emanating from the small opening. Instead, I go to the pantry and find dusty jars of pickled vegetables. I open a jar of beets and take a tentative bite. It’s been a while since I’ve had anything to eat and I’m not sure how my stomach will react, but it tastes surprisingly delicious. I realize that I’m ravenous. I eat the entire jar and then open another—this one containing pickled katniss. After two more jars, I finally feel satiated.

When I walk back to the dining room, the stench from the game bag immediately hits me. It seems to be worse than just minutes before. Combine that with my overly full stomach and I feel incredibly nauseated. Gagging, I lift the bag and carry it to the front porch and then around to the back of the house. I walk to the farthest edge of the property and dump the contents onto the ground. The smell and sight of decaying flesh takes its toll on me, and I start to retch. All the pickled contents of my meal end up on the ground next to the rotting squirrels and rabbits. Just perfect. If there was any doubt of what a complete mess I am, it’s now been cleared up.

I wipe my mouth on my sleeve and then quickly head back to the house. When I reach the back corner, I see Gale sitting on the ground staring at me, his eyes bloodshot again. In my haste to dispose of the game, I must have missed him on the way out.

“If you planned on eating, you could’ve asked me to leave the fresh game. I thought you knew better than to eat the rotten meat,” he says quietly.

“I didn’t eat the rotten meat.”

“Well, something came up back there.” He grins timidly, but it doesn’t reach his eyes.

“Pickled beets and katniss,” I reply without emotion.

“Hmm… sounds delicious.”

“What are you still doing here?” I ask accusingly.

“I was just leaving,” he says, standing up and walking off without another word.

I return to my rocking chair and collapse in exhaustion. The last ten minutes were the most activity I’ve had since coming back to the district. I feel my thoughts slipping back to that dangerous place and force myself to think about something else, anything else. At some point, I’m going to have to leave this chair and this house and do something. I try to focus on what that something could be. But, unfortunately, nothing I come up with seems any better than just sitting here. I don’t know how I’m ever going to find the motivation to live again.

In the early hours of morning, I fall into a fitful sleep. I’m often plagued by visions of Prim dying horrible deaths in the most gruesome ways. Sometimes she’s devoured by rabid wolf mutts. Other times, her neck is broken in one swift move by Peeta’s powerful hands.

But, tonight, she’s standing next to Gale, looking beautiful as ever. The back of her shirt is untucked and I smile thinking about my little duck. Then, Gale hands her an elegantly gift-wrapped package. She’s giddy as she accepts it and quickly unties the ribbon. It falls to the floor in slow motion, as silence wraps around us. I hold my breath. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, I feel and hear a blast—it starts deep in my chest, compressing my lungs, and then rapidly spreads to my ears. I know what’s about to happen. I scream Prim’s name, beg her to throw the package down, but she doesn’t hear me. And then it happens. The entire package explodes into a ball of fire, immediately engulfing her in flames. She reaches out for me. I can’t hear anything but the ringing in my ears. ”Katniss!” she mouths. ”Help me!” I try to move to her, but my feet are firmly planted to the ground. I look down and they’re ensnared by roses—tendrils wrapping around my ankles, slowly spiraling up my legs toward my knees. I try to rip them away but the thorns cause deep gashes in my hands. Blood drips to the ground as the roses continue to climb.

I wake up screaming, clawing at my legs. Red marks trail down my calves where my nails must have made contact. This dream is the most disturbing I’ve ever had. I know that’s because it’s the only one that is somewhat real. Gale killed Prim. And I wasn’t able to save her. I will have to live with that forever.

I’m still shivering from the nightmare when I hear the door open. A few moments later, Gale walks into the dining room carrying a small duffel bag. Now he has dark circles under his bloodshot eyes, and his hair has become even more unruly.

The memories of the nightmare come rushing back. I narrow my eyes and angrily spit out, “What are you doing here?”

“Nice to see you, too.”

“Well?”

“Someone has been released from the Capitol and I thought you should know.”

I try to hide my intrigue. “Who?”

“Peeta,” he says with contempt.

My heart stops. “Peeta?” I whisper.

“Yep, he’s due back today.”

“Oh,” is all I say.

“So… it looks like we’ll be roomies for a while,” he declares and tosses his bag onto the table.

My mouth drops open in astonishment. “What?”

“Peeta has tried to kill you on multiple occasions. You don’t think I’m going to let him move in next to you, do you?”

“In case you haven’t heard—I’m pretty good at taking care of myself. Won the Hunger Games and all,” I say sarcastically.

“Yes, but in order to take care of yourself, you’d have to actually move out of that chair. And, from what I’ve seen, that’s not likely to happen unless you’re about to toss your cookies.”

My blood pressure rises. I ball up my fists.

“Come on Katniss. It will be fun,” he says in a mocking tone. “Maybe we can get to the bottom of our issues. I can say hateful things about how you played games with me and Peeta and you can blame me for Prim’s death. It’s bound to be a good time.”

Reflexively, my hand reaches for my bow leaning against the wall. Without thinking, I draw an arrow back, and then send it flying through the air.

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