I do not own The Hunger Games, or its characters.
1945 - France
Peeta heard the singing as he walked through the countryside looking for a shady spot to sit and sketch. The other soldiers, who he’d driven up north with, were holed up in the town’s bar. Everyone was biding time as they waited for their deployment home to America. They’d been stationed in camps near Le Havre ever since the war in Europe had ended.
He was glad for the chance to clear his mind. It was hard to shake the images of what he’d experienced over the past two years. Even now when he was no longer in combat he still woke up in a sweat, certain that it was his last day on earth.
He found a lone tree with large leafy branches. It stood beside a grassy meadow. He sat down at its base, resting his back against the trunk, and pulled a sketchbook and pencil from the satchel he carried.
Beyond the meadow was a small woods. The singing was coming from that direction. He looked carefully, not seeing anyone at all until a bird flew low. The singing stopped for a moment. An arrow appeared out of nowhere, striking the bird to the ground.
The singing began again, and that’s when he saw the person with the beautiful voice sitting on a branch, a bow and arrow in hand. Peeta guessed it to be a young boy because of the size and the soprano voice. The archer was staring at the meadow intently, stopping the song moments before shooting at the birds that alighted in the grass.
After several shots, the singing ended. The archer climbed down from the branch, sliding along the tree’s trunk to reach the ground.
It wasn’t a boy. The archer was a girl wearing a blue dress. She had long, dark hair that hung in a braid over her left shoulder. She gathered up the birds she’d shot, pulling the arrows from them, and stuffed the carcasses in the game bag that sat at the bottom of the tree.
When she had finished, she put the bag’s strap over her shoulder and set out to cross the meadow. Halfway across, Peeta saw that she was not a child at all, but a petite young woman, probably close to his own age. She stopped when she saw him.
“It’s all right,” he called. “I was just drawing.” He held the book up in the air. He wondered if she even understood a word he’d said. Most of the French people he’d met didn’t speak much English.
She eyed him warily, making a wide detour around him. As she got closer, he could see how thin she was. He held up the food he’d purchased for his lunch in the town market. It wasn’t much, some bread, cheese, and fruit. But those birds probably didn’t have much meat on them either.
“Are you hungry? I have food.”
She froze for a moment and licked her lips.
He waved the baguette and she took a few steps toward him.
“I can trade,” she said softly. She took out a dead bird from the bag.
“No, no,” he said, amazed that she could speak English. “It’s to share. Have lunch with me.”
She looked puzzled, but she walked closer, stopping a few feet away from him.
“Please sit,” he said, motioning to the ground.
The woman sat down on her knees about four feet away, far enough so she could jump up quickly and run if necessary.
He broke the bread in half and gave her a piece. Then he pulled out the chunk of cheese, splitting it as well.
She eagerly reached for the food. She ate it quickly. He could tell she was starved. He had only taken a few bites from his own bread, so he broke it again and stretched another piece out to her.
She looked at him and shook her head, but he shoved it forward. She studied it for a moment, and then reached for it.
He handed her a few strawberries. She bit down on one ripe berry, the juice trickling down her chin. She quickly wiped it away with the back of her hand.
When she had finished with the berries, he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a small piece of chocolate wrapped in foil. It was the real stuff, not that fake stuff the Army had provided that was designed to add extra calories, but left out the sugar.
The chocolate was soft, starting to melt from the heat of his body and the warmth of the summer’s day. It had been sitting in his pocket only a few hours. His friend Finnick had given it to him in exchange for a condom. Peeta had been carrying that item in his pocket for months now, with no plans or opportunity for using it.
As he watched the woman’s pink tongue lick the melted chocolate from the foil wrapper and then lick her fingers clean, for a moment his wished he hadn’t agreed to the trade.
But then he chastised himself. She was starving. Why would the thought even cross his mind?
He knew why, though. He was homesick and lonely.
She finished cleaning her fingers with her tongue. “What is your name?” she asked.
She repeated his name. It sounded so different with her accent. Kind of exotic.
“I am Katniss Everdeen,” she said.
“Katniss.” He repeated her name.
She smiled at him. “Thank you for the food. Please take this.” She reached into her bag, but he shook his head.
“I have no way of cooking it,” he explained. “You keep it.”
She frowned. “I owe you.”
“No,” he said. “You don’t owe me anything.”
The woman had a look of determination in her grey eyes and Peeta didn’t want an argument. Instead he asked, “How did you learn to speak English so well.”
A look of sorrow crossed her face. “My friend Margot taught me.”
“She did a good job,” Peeta said. “Do you practice together?”
The woman lowered her head. “Margot’s father was our mayor,” she said. “She and her family were murdered ...”
“I’m sorry,” he muttered.
Katniss had pulled a dead bird out of her bag. It sat in her outstretched hand. Peeta looked at it.
“Use it to feed your family.” A thought suddenly occurred to him. Maybe she was married. She could be a mother even.
“They are dead,” she said softly.
Peeta flushed. Every conversational avenue he’d traveled down only seemed to bring her more pain.
Unsure of what to say, he began to babble, telling her about his parents Henry and Lilith who owned a bakery and his two older brothers who were in the Navy.
Her lips turned upward forming a small smile. “Why aren’t you in the Navy?”
“I don’t like water much,” he admitted. “I can’t swim.”
Katniss laughed. “It’s not hard. I can teach you now.” She shoved the dead bird back into the bag and stood up.
He found himself blushing and making excuses. “Shouldn’t we wait until the food digests?” He ran his fingers through his hair nervously.
“It can digest while we walk to the lake. It isn’t far.”
He stood up and followed her as she walked to the woods. Once they were past the small grouping of trees they climbed up a grassy slope. At the top, Peeta looked down and he could see the lake, which was outlined by thin trees, some of which had branches extending out over the shimmering green water.
As they walked slowly down the hill, Peeta wondered how this would work. He was in uniform. He didn’t have a swimsuit. Katniss was wearing a thin dress, with fabric so faded that he thought it was decorated with flowers, but he couldn’t tell. Did she have a swimsuit underneath it? Would they be swimming in their underwear? His heart was thumping loudly as they reached the shore.
Without missing a beat, she dropped her game bag on the ground along with her bow and arrows, and pulled her dress over her head, tossing it to the ground. She kicked off her shoes.
Her back was to Peeta, but he could see she was wearing underpants and a camisole. Katniss ran straight into the water, without turning back, letting out a small scream. She stopped and turned to face him when the water was shoulder height.
“Peeta,” she called.
Suddenly, he wished he’d undressed while she was running because she was staring directly at him. He turned his back to her and stripped down to his boxers, before turning around and running into the lake.
The water was icy. His feet sunk into the muddy bottom as he made his way to where Katniss stood with her arms around her chest shivering. Her cheeks were rosy and her braid was sticking to her skin.
“You didn’t say the water was so cold,” he complained.
“You’re looking for excuses. Let me show you how to float on your back.”
She lay back in the water, her legs floating up until they reached the surface.
“Just relax,” she said. “The water will hold you up.”
He nodded, but all he could do was stare at her breasts that were so prominently outlined in the wet cotton camisole she was wearing. He didn’t pay attention to anything she said, until he heard, “you try it now.”
Immediately she was standing and had her hands at his waist, pulling him backwards in the water. His fear of going under was not as strong as his nervousness at Katniss touching his bare skin. He fell back and she grabbed at his legs pushing them to the surface.
“You’re doing it,” she said, as he floated on the water uncomfortably, thinking about how his thin cotton undershorts left him practically naked.
He stayed floating for about a minute, before lowering his feet and standing again.
“This time when you lay on your back, trying kicking your feet and moving your arms,” she said.
She demonstrated the movement for him, and again her breasts, which jutted forward with each stroke she took, mesmerized him.
They continued in this fashion, until she had him on his stomach, kicking his feet and making strokes that were so low that they resembled a dog paddle, rather than the tall crawl stroke that he’d seen others do. She kept her hand on his chest, helping to hold him up as he took more strokes.
She called a halt to the lesson at that point. She ran out of the water and keeping her back to him, slipped her dress on over her head. Once she was clothed, he left the water and quickly put his uniform on over his wet boxers. He noticed that she’d turned her back to him to give him some privacy.
“I have to go,” she said, when they were both dressed.
“Thank you for the swimming lesson,” he said, squeezing her hand. He wanted to do more than touch her hand, but he felt it was wrong. He was afraid she’d bolt.
“I’d like to see you again,” he said, softly. He rubbed the back of his neck nervously.
“I pass through the meadow every afternoon. You can meet me there.”
He smiled. “I’ll come again.”
They walked back together through the small wooded area and into the meadow. Katniss headed in the direction of the village, while Peeta sat under the tree sketching for another hour. He tried to draw Katniss from memory.
Later he got up and found his friends. Finnick was drunk and he gave Peeta his keys to drive them back to the camp. Peeta drove slowly, thinking all the while about Katniss and the way her breasts had moved as she’d demonstrated the backstroke in the water.
He was able to hitch another ride to the same town the next afternoon. Again, he bought lunch with him. He waited at the tree at the edge of the meadow. He didn’t have to wait long for her to arrive.
“Are you hungry?” he asked
“Let’s eat by the lake,” she said.
Immediately he wondered if they’d go swimming again. Would he be treated to another sight of her in wet, clinging undergarments?
They walked to the lake and sat under a shade tree. As they ate Katniss began to talk, haltingly at first, about her life. Her father had died when she was a child. Her mother had succumbed a few months later as she fell into a deadly depression. Katniss and her sister Primrose had gone to live with their Uncle Haymitch. But her sister had died in the winter two years earlier from pneumonia.
Peeta sat stunned as he listened to Katniss’ story. It was overwhelming to think that this woman had experienced such tragedy. It made his complaints about his overbearing mother seem trivial in comparison.
As she talked, he had reached for her hand and unconsciously intertwined his fingers through hers. When she spoke about the death of her sister, he could see the tears in her eyes. He squeezed her hand gently.
When she had finished, he scooted closer to her and put his arm around her shoulder. She leaned into his side. They sat there for a few minutes quietly.
When Katniss seemed to be calmer, Peeta asked, “Do you want to go swimming?”
She shook her head and leaned further into his side.
He leaned down and kissed the top of her head. He meant it as a comforting gesture. But then she pulled away and looked up at him and he couldn’t help himself. He put his finger under her chin, lifting her head up, and captured her lips, which tasted like the mint candy he’d just shared with her. It was a gentle kiss and he pulled back quickly, worried that she’d be offended and run off.
But Katniss’ arms reached round his neck and she pulled him back to herself. She initiated the next kiss, which quickly grew heated. Within a short time, his hands were on her breasts and she was unbuttoning his shirt.
It wasn’t until they were both naked and he was hovering over her body that it dawned on him that he didn’t have a condom. But the thought flew out of his mind as he proceeded. She let out a small shriek as he entered her and he stopped suddenly, but she urged him to continue. When it was over, he held her close, but then she pulled away and stood up, running into the lake.
He followed her and they splashed water at each other for a while, before getting out and falling upon each other again. The second time was more leisurely. Peeta tried to burn the memory of Katniss into his mind. She also seemed to be memorizing his body as well, as her hands explored him eagerly.
They were both quiet after they’d dressed. They held hands and walked back from the lake. “When can I see you again?” Peeta asked.
“You know where to find me.”
When they reached the tree where he had first seen her, she gave him a chaste kiss. “Good-bye Peeta.”
He watched her walk past the tree and onto the road toward town.
Peeta returned to camp that evening to learn that he wasn’t going home after all. He had orders for redeployment to the Pacific theatre. The ship would be leaving the next morning for Burma.
There was no hope of seeing Katniss again. He knew that every guy around him would laugh at him for taking what had happened so seriously. His friend Finnick had screwed his way through Europe and not thought a thing of it.
Instead, Peeta fretted. While the others slept he wrote Katniss a letter giving her his military address and his parents’ address. The next morning he asked Finnick, who was still waiting to be assigned a ship home, if he would return to the town and find a way to deliver it.
“You have to be kidding,” his friend laughed. “Are you going to become pen pals?”
He cautioned Peeta to not take her so seriously. “There will be many more Peetie, my boy, there’re lots of fish in the sea. You’re acting like a lovesick fool.”
Peeta frowned. He was too embarrassed to tell Finnick that Katniss was his first, and from the sound of her shriek, he knew he was her first as well. It had meant something to him. He thought it meant something to her. Was it possible to fall in love so quickly?
“How will I even find this woman?” Finnick argued.
“Her name is Kantiss Everdeen. She lives with her Uncle Haymitch. Maybe you can ask around. She was on foot. She has to live near the village.”
Finnick promised he’d try to find her and give her the letter.
Peeta boarded the ship, but the Pacific theatre closed shop in the middle of August when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Peeta never even went into combat. Instead he soon found himself stateside.
He returned to his parents’ home. He was numb. His brothers, who also returned, were angry. The house was in turmoil as his mother tried to treat three war veterans like the teenage boys they’d been when they’d left.
His oldest brother moved out within days. His middle brother left a couple of months later, marrying his high school sweetheart who’d been waiting for him for four long years.
Peeta stayed home and helped out in the bakery. It was routine work that helped ease his mind from the rigors of war. He’d seen too many good men die. He woke up with nightmares every night.
Meanwhile every day he checked the mail to see whether Katniss had replied to his letter. He couldn’t stop thinking about her. His mother attempted to set him up with every pretty girl that passed through the bakery’s door, but he wasn’t interested.
Eventually, after nearly a year of waiting, he stopped looking for a letter. He was a sap. Why did he think she would even remember him? She was probably married by now with a kid on the way. He needed to let her go and move on with his life.
1947 – New England
He met Clove in college where he enrolled under the G.I Bill. She reminded him of Katniss because she was small and petite and had long dark hair that fell to her waist. He asked her to coffee and for the first time, in a long time he laughed. She smoked non-stop throughout their conversation and when he kissed her goodbye he could taste the bitter, stale taste of the cigarettes on her tongue.
They dated for three months before he asked her to marry him. He loved her, but would never be in-love with her; that piece of him had been taken away by a French girl on the shore of a lake. But she was alive and was real and her soft, warm body kept him sane in the middle of the night when the nightmares overwhelmed him.
They moved to the suburbs after he graduated. He got an office job in the city and Clove gave birth to a son called Jeffrey.
New England 1951
When the boy was two, the old couple that lived next door took a trip to Europe for the summer, renting out their home to another veteran with his wife and five-year-old son.
Peeta heard the singing when he was in the backyard mowing the grass with the push mower. It was a warm day, but a shiver ran down his spine because he had thought he’d never hear that voice again. He turned his head quickly, glancing over the low fence between the two yards.
It was Katniss. She had a wicker laundry basket at her feet and was pinning wet clothing onto the line to dry. Her long hair was braided and pinned up around her head, giving a view to her slender neck.
She didn’t looked starved any longer. She was wearing a peasant-style dress that showed off the fullness of her breasts and the roundness of her bottom.
His first thought was to jump the low fence and fall upon her. It was all he could do to force himself to continue mowing. Up and down the yard, as he mowed lines into the grass, he reminded himself. She. Was. Not. His. He. Had. A. Wife.
Days later, he met her husband. His name was Cato Ableman. He was blonde like Peeta, but taller and very muscular. He’d met Katniss in August of 1945 in France while waiting for a ship home.
Over beers shared at the fence line, Cato told Peeta it had been love at first sight. That Katniss had slept with him the very first day they’d met. Their son had been conceived at that encounter and they’d married soon after.
Cato had studied engineering under the G.I. Bill. They were staying in Peeta’s neighbor’s house until Cato heard back from some employers on the West Coast. He had several job offers in the growing aerospace industry
Peeta wanted to hate the man, but he could find no fault in him. He wanted to hate Katniss for marrying Cato, but he couldn’t blame her. Maybe Finnick didn’t pass along the letter. And even if he did, what did it matter? Cato was there for her. He hadn’t been.
The two families never became friends. Clove was critical of Katniss. She called her French trash and criticized her son’s long blonde curls.
“She should cut that boy’s hair. He looks like a girl,” she fumed, pointing out Jeffrey’s buzz cut.
Peeta only had one face-to-face encounter with Katniss that summer. It was a few days after he talked with Cato over beers. Her son had been sitting in the yard with a sketch pad trying to draw a bird’s nest. Peeta called the boy over to the fence and helped him with his drawing.
“What’s your name?” he asked the boy.
“That’s a good name. My father was named Henry.”
The conversation was cut short when Katniss entered the yard, calling the boy in for dinner.
She glanced at Peeta shyly. Surely she recognized him. He didn’t look much different than he had five years earlier. Would she pretend that she didn’t know him? Was she scared he would tell Cato about their previous relationship?
“He’s a great artist,” Peeta said, nodding toward Henry.
She smiled, her cheeks growing pink. “He’s got his father’s eye.”
She put her hand on the boy’s back guiding him to the house.
“Katniss,” Peeta called, his voice hoarse with emotion.
She turned back to look at him. He could see the sorrow in her grey eyes. “No, Peeta. It’s too late.” Her voice was calm, her message was clear. There was no going back.
Things changed after that day. He didn’t see Katniss; they avoided each other at all costs. But something inside of him snapped. He became almost feral in his lust for Clove. It was a hot summer; it was difficult to sleep. He woke up nearly every night seeking Clove, burying himself into her relentlessly, pretending she was someone else, someone who tasted of mint.
He only had one more beer with Cato right before the couple packed up and moved to California.
The man announced Katniss was expecting. “I don’t know what happened to her since we moved here. She was like a wild animal this summer. It must have been the heat.”
Peeta didn’t say anything. He knew what she was doing because he was doing the same. He congratulated Cato and told him the news that Clove was pregnant as well.
The Ableman’s moved to California and Peeta’s life continued much the same, as always. Clove gave birth to a daughter who they called Cheryl. She had dark hair like Clove and blue eyes like Peeta. She was tiny, like her mother and sometimes Peeta would pretend that she was Katniss’ daughter. He’d been dreaming of Katniss every time he’d coupled with Clove that summer; surely something of her would have found its way into the creation of Cheryl.
The years passed. Peeta focused on his job and his family. Occasionally he wondered what had happened to Katniss. Should he have said something more to her, to Cato even? It would have changed the trajectory of all of their lives.
Jeffrey graduated high school and left for college, a big Ivy-league school on the East Coast. Three years later, Cheryl did the same, but she insisted on a school on the West Coast. He was against it. It was too far away, too expensive, and she was a girl. How could he protect her from danger when she was living 3,000 miles away? But Clove took his daughter’s side and wore Peeta down with her nagging.
He simply couldn’t stand the grating of Clove’s voice. Over the years, smoking had changed its timbre. It had once been sweet, but it now was continually hoarse. She coughed often.
Over the years he’d tried to convince her to stop smoking. He’d brought bag after bag of mints to sweeten the taste of her mouth. But she wouldn’t stop, couldn’t.
With the children out of the house, their relationship effectively ended. They stayed together, of course. He couldn’t afford to pay two college tuitions and alimony. Clove didn’t seem eager to leave, at any rate. And he, well, there was no other woman he wanted. At least one he could have.
Jeffrey got married his senior year of college. His wife was already expecting by his graduation. The war in Vietnam was still going and married men with children were less likely to be forced to serve. Peeta wondered at his son’s marriage. Did he fall in love with the first woman he’d been with or had he married her simply to avoid going to war?
1974 - California
When Cheryl graduated, Peeta and Clove flew out to California for the ceremony. It was the first time they’d even seen the college campus their daughter had called home for the past four years.
Peeta was amazed at the brown landscape, so different from his home. His mind wandered to Katniss. How had she liked this landscape, so different from the grassy meadow near her childhood home in France?
He was sitting at the graduation ceremony, his arm around Clove in the hot sun when he noticed a woman on the aisle seat a few rows ahead of him. She was wearing a large sun hat, her long hair falling down over her shoulders. It was Katniss. A man’s arm was around her. Cato.
The child that Katniss had conceived the same summer as Cheryl must be a graduating student, as well. Peeta didn’t even know if Katniss had had a boy or a girl.
He watched her from afar for most of the graduation, amazed to be sitting so near. The years had been kind to her. He could see a few strands of grey in her dark long hair, but not much. She still had the figure of a lithe young girl. Her jaw line remained firm.
If she turned her head, would she even recognize him? He was closing in on fifty. He was a grandfather to a rambunctious toddler named Peetie. He’d changed, put on a little weight. His blonde hair had lightened in color.
But inside, where no one could see, he was still the same boy who had made love to a French girl on the sandy shores of a lake. He looked to see if there were any other children sitting near Katniss and Cato. There weren’t.
Peeta fantasized about making his move. All of their children were grown now. They could end their marriages and come together. They were still young. Why they’d have more than twenty years ahead of them.
But then Clove coughed next to him. Coughed so hard that blood appeared in the handkerchief she held close to her mouth. They had an appointment scheduled after the trip. She’d been having trouble breathing for months now.
The timing was wrong. He couldn’t leave his wife, not when she was sick. They’d been together over a quarter of a century. He owed Clove for not loving her, as he should. For letting another woman get ahead of her in his thoughts.
He turned his back from Katniss after the graduation, to ensure that she didn’t she him. It was such a large crowd; it wasn’t that difficult to avoid someone.
Cheryl had landed a job in California as a stewardess for an international airline. So Peeta and Clove flew home without her.
After months of testing, Clove’s doctor came up with a diagnosis. The smoking had finally caught up with her. Peeta threw away all the cigarettes he could find in the house. Clove had stashes everywhere. But she had friends who continued to give her more.
Things seemed to go downhill quickly. Peeta cut back at work to stay home and care for Clove. She would get better for a while, but then things would get bad again. One day he woke up early to make pancakes for breakfast. When he called for her, she never came. While he had been cooking, she had died in her sleep.
Jeffrey and Cheryl came home to help plan the funeral. Peeta was in a daze. The last time he’d been so alone and bewildered was when he was twenty and had returned home from the war and was checking the mailbox daily to see if Katniss had written. For so many years, he’d wanted to be free of the marriage he now realized had been a compromise at best, but now that it had ended, he didn’t know what to do.
He couldn’t imagine how to spend the rest of his life. He became a hermit, working late every night and using alcohol to put himself to sleep. It wasn’t grief. Any love he’d had for his wife had died years ago.
He was hurting because his life was empty. The nightmares were tremendous. Dreams about the war and about losing Katniss. Clove came to him in his dreams cursing him for cheating on her. But he hadn’t cheated physically, only mentally and Clove had certainly benefited from that form of cheating. Pretending that Clove was Katniss was the only way he’d been able to make love to her for years.
Finally his daughter got worried. “Dad, make a clean break of this place. Mom’s gone. I know you loved her, but there’s more for you. You need to move on.”
Peeta would have laughed out loud at her comments, if he’d had the energy. They were exactly the same thing he’d told himself more than thirty years ago when Katniss had never written and he’d realized he had to let her go.
He took his daughter’s advice. He sold the house and threw away nearly all evidence of his former life. He divided Clove’s belongings between Jeffrey and Cheryl. He threw away nearly everything he owned, except for a few favorite items of clothing and the sketchbooks he used during the war.
Cheryl convinced him to join her in California. He took an early retirement from his job and moved west. The brown landscape and the heat suited his gloomy mood. He purchased a small house and found a part-time job at a nearby bakery.
He didn’t need the money, but he needed to stay busy. Keeping his hands occupied by pounding dough or rolling it out brought back memories of his life before he went to war, before things changed. He thought about his parents’ marriage and wondered what had kept them together.
Cheryl tried to fix him up on dates, but he wasn’t interested. He went on a few but the women were all the same to him, middle-aged woman pretending to be young. If anything, they made him feel even older.
When he was in California for a year, he arrived home from the bakery one afternoon to find the new telephone book sitting on his front porch. He carried it inside and idly opened it to look for his name, Peeta Mellark. He looked up his daughter’s name as well. When he was done, he closed the book to set it on the bookshelf when a though crossed his mind. Is Katniss listed in the book?
He quickly turned to the “A’s.” Cato Ableman was listed as living in a town about ten miles away from Peeta’s home. Could that be right? Was Katniss living only ten miles away? He wanted to pull out a map and look for her house. Get in his car and drive past it.
Instead he settled for dialing her phone number. The phone rang three times before someone picked it up. Peeta hung up quickly after he heard Katniss say “hello.”
He pulled out a bottle of liquor he kept in the cupboard. Peeta hadn’t had a drink in over a year. He knew it would be too easy to slide back into the person he’d been after Clove died – hopeless. But he allowed himself one drink and he sat back on the couch wondering what he should do now. He was free. Should he dial the number again and speak with Katniss?
Would it be wrong to call Cato and tell him that he’d moved to California a year ago and had decided to look up an old neighbor? Their families had never kept in touch. It would look odd.
Instead, Peeta dialed the phone number every day, waiting for Katniss to answer. As soon as she said, “hello,” he hung up. He called at different times of the day and even the night sometimes. Once he even called in the middle of the night. But it was always Katniss who answered, never Cato. He began to think Cato might be dead. Was Katniss widowed, too? Maybe they had divorced.
On the day he finally decided not to hang up, instead of hearing the ringing of the phone, he heard a recorded voice saying that the number had been disconnected.
Immediately he jumped into his car to drive by her house. Had she moved? He’d driven by her house once, weeks ago but had been nervous. What if she saw him? What if Cato saw him?
Who was he kidding? They hadn’t seen him in almost twenty-five years. Would they even recognize him?
But when he drove by the neighborhood this time, it looked exactly the same as the first time he’d been there. A simple tract home in a street of cookie-cutter houses. The only thing distinguishing it from the others was the beautiful planting of flowers surrounding the house. No “For Sale” sign. In fact the same blue sedan was still parked in the driveway.
When Peeta returned home, he called the operator to find out if there was a new number. The operator said there was, but it was unlisted so she couldn’t give it out.
For some reason, the Ableman’s had changed their phone number. Maybe the daily hang-up calls were too much.
Without being able to call, Peeta drove the ten miles to Katniss’ house each day. He parked down the street, sitting in his car for a couple of hours, hoping to get a glimpse of her. He never saw anyone come in or out of the house.
Within a few days though, his plan backfired as a nosy neighbor called the police on him for suspicious activity. After being questioned at length by some police officers younger than Jeffrey, he left.
He thought he must be going crazy. What kind of person would spy on an old love from his youth when he was already a grandfather? He needed to speak to someone about it. He ended up seeing a Dr. Aurelius who talked with him at length about his wartime experiences.
The doctor told him he was suffering from a faux love – that his brief interlude with Katniss that had caused him to become so obsessed with her over the years wasn’t about her at all. It was about his longing for his youth and the trauma he’d experienced during the war that had never fully gone away. Dr. Aurelius told him that faux love situations were usually one-sided. He assured Peeta that Katniss likely had no residual attachment to him. She’d probably be horrified to know that he’d spent so many years pining away for her.
Peeta weighed his options carefully, thinking everything through. Of course the doctor was right. So he doubled down his efforts at containing his feelings.
He threw away the phone book. He became a part-owner of the bakery. He went back to school to study art, something he always wanted to do. He buried himself in activities the same way he’d sought out Clove that summer so many years ago.
And again, like so many years ago, the frantic feeling lessened and he found himself thinking of other things. Occasionally thoughts of Katniss popped into his head, but he gently pushed them away. He did think it odd though, that he never thought of Clove at all.
The years passed. Jeffrey’s wife gave birth again, giving him a second grandson.
Cheryl married a pilot. She moved to Paris and gave birth to a daughter. She wanted Peeta to visit her and his new grandchild. “I’ll pay for the ticket,” she said. “You’re graduating with an art degree, Dad. Let it be my gift to you.”
Peeta thought it over. He’d managed to keep thoughts of Katniss out of his head for some time. Would a trip to France bring it all crashing back? Maybe not. He was really going to see his daughter and his grandchild. He could bring his sketchbook. He could paint. He could go to the Louvre and see the famous paintings. So he accepted Cheryl’s gift.
Peeta had reserved a window seat on the plane. He settled down for the long nonstop flight. Seated next to him was a man who reminded him of Jeffrey, blonde and stocky. Peeta concentrated on his book, but out of the corner of his eye he noticed his seatmate pull a sketch pad out of the bag that lay under the seat in front of him and begin to doodle.
Peeta returned to his book, but when the stewardess came by to offer beverages, he set his book down in lap, and pulled out his tray. His seatmate began flipping down the cover of his sketch pad, but not before Peeta noticed he’d drawn cartoon characters, Mickey and Minnie Mouse. The sketches were quite detailed and didn’t look like those of an amateur.
“Do you work for Disney?” Peeta asked.
“I do,” the man said, looking a bit startled.
“I have a lot of classmates who would kill to be sitting next to you,” Peeta mused.
A wary look crossed the man’s face.
Peeta laughed. “I just graduated with an art degree. But don’t worry; I’m not looking for a job. It was a labor of love.”
The man appeared to relax. He took a sip from the glass of soda in front of him.
“This trip is, in fact, a graduation gift.”
From the back of the plane, a baby screamed.
His seatmate frowned. “Sounds like my son,” he said. He explained that his wife and mother and son were sitting further back in the plane. “We booked our tickets too late; we couldn’t get them together.”
“Is this your first trip to France?” the man asked.
Peeta shook his head. “No, I was there during the war.”
The man smiled. “I imagine it’s changed a lot.”
“I hope so.”
The man nodded. “I served in Viet Nam. I don’t think I’d want to visit there anytime soon.”
The two men made small talk as they ate dinner, but eventually Peeta returned to his book and the man to his sketch pad. After a while, the movie ended, and the lights dimmed in the plane. Peeta pulled down the shade on the window. Everyone was beginning to fall asleep.
A petite Vietnamese woman with dark hair stood in the aisle next to their seats. She spoke briefly with his seatmate. Peeta caught something about the baby finally falling asleep, before he fell asleep as well.
When he woke up the light in the plane was dim. He wanted to get up and stretch his legs and use the bathroom, but his seatmate and the man sitting on the aisle were both sleeping. Peeta thought he’d wait a while before waking both men. He pulled his book out to read, turning on the overhead light and directing it at himself. But after a while, he realized he needed to get up and stretch.
He tapped the shoulder of his seatmate who startled awake, scooting back in his seat to let Peeta by. The man on the aisle gave Peeta a nasty look as he brushed past and headed down the narrow pathway that led to the restrooms at the back of the plane. Most people were sleeping and the sound of snores and squeaks sounded above the dull hum of the aircraft’s motors.
Close to the back of the plane, he noticed the slim woman who had been speaking to his seatmate. She was slouched in her seat, with her head tilted to the side, gently snoring. Next to her was an older woman, with a baby that looked to be about a year old sprawled across her chest.
Peeta smiled when he saw the baby, thinking about the new grandchild he was going to meet. His eyes drifted up to the sleeping woman holding the baby. There was something familiar about her, but he couldn’t place her. Could he possibly know her? From a college class? A customer at the bakery?
He went into the bathroom, used the facilities, washed his hands and then rinsed his face. He looked in the mirror. His blue eyes were bloodshot. Dark circles hung under them.
He was drying his face with a rough hand towel when he realized who was holding the baby. It was Katniss. He hadn’t though about her since he’d told Cheryl to buy the ticket. He took a deep breath and held tightly to the counter of the tiny sink. His throat tightened. His heart rate sped up until he could hear it pounding in his chest. A thin layer of sweat formed on his forehead. He could feel his muscles getting tighter
A thought entered his mind. He hadn’t seen Katniss since that college graduation seven years ago. How could he even be sure what she looked like anymore? The thought calmed him. He was wrong, of course. He was on a plane headed to the place where he’d met her and he had subconsciously superimposed her features, or his best guess of her current features on the woman holding the baby.
Pull yourself together, he chided himself. What kind of trip would he have if every middle-aged French woman reminded him of Katniss? He quickly ran through the mental exercises Dr. Aurelius had given him years ago. He took a deep breath.
My name is Peeta Mellark. I’m on a plane traveling to France. The plane will land in a couple of hours. I’m going to meet my new granddaughter.
As he redirected his thoughts, his breathing slowed. He looked at his face in the mirror again and grinned slightly. I’ll get past this.
He left the bathroom, not even turning his head in the direction of his seatmate’s family and fled back to his own seat. Both men were awake in his row and he quickly pushed past them to his window seat.
People in the plane were waking up now. The overhead lights were turned on. Stewardesses were dragging the rolling cart down the narrow aisle to serve breakfast. When the cart reached his row, Peeta took the soggy cheese omelet, dry croissant, and wilted fruit salad and set it on the fold-out tray in front of him. When given a choice between coffee and tea, he chose the tea without sugar.
His seatmate chuckled and asked for the same beverage. The stewardess looked at him and smiled, “Like father, like son,” she said nodding toward Peeta.
His seatmate shook his head. “No, no, we’re not related,” he said. “Just don’t like sweet tea, I guess.”
The stewardess handed him his tea, and then began pouring coffee for the man on the aisle.
“Man, you have more in common with me than my own father,” the man muttered to Peeta.
“How’s that?” Peeta asked.
His seatmate took a sip from his tea and continued. “With your interest in art and the tea.”
“A lot of people drink tea and like to draw,” Peeta said, taking a bite of the dry croissant, mentally comparing it to the buttery ones his bakery sold.
The man laughed bitterly. “My dad was an engineer who built airplanes. He didn’t have much use for someone like me who liked to draw pictures of mice. At least my brother made him happy by following in the family business.”
The man said was. His father must be deceased, Peeta concluded. Cato was an engineer, Peeta remembered. No, he reminded himself. Don’t go there. Southern California is full of engineers; it is a big center for the aerospace industry.
My name is Peeta Mellark. I’m on a plane traveling to France. The plane will land soon. I’m going to meet my new granddaughter.
“Do you have any children?” his seatmate asked.
Surprised, Peeta nodded. “Two. I’m going to visit my daughter now. She lives in Paris. She just had a baby.”
“That’s great,” the man said. “Your wife..”
Peeta shook his head. “She died five years ago.”
“Sorry,” his seatmate muttered. “I’m Henry, by the way,” he introduced himself.
“Peeta.” He automatically put his hand out to shake. The younger man awkwardly squeezed it. That was the name of Katniss’ son, the blonde kid drawing the bird’s nest in the yard. How in the hell could he even remember that? It was thirty years ago. But he remembered the child’s name because it had been his father’s name.
Just a coincidence, Peeta told himself. Henry is a common enough name. Lots of men had it.
The stewardess’ rolling cart came by to pick up the remains of breakfast, interrupting their conversation. The plane would be landing in less than an hour.
Peeta lifted the window shade and stared out at the clouds. He would be glad when the plane landed. He hadn’t slept much. He was overtired and his imagination was running away with him.
He pulled out his book, which he’d placed in the pocket in front of him and tried to read. But he couldn’t concentrate. He closed his eyes, trying to rest a little.
He woke up as the plane was descending to land at Charles de Gaulle Airport.
“We’re almost there,” Henry said.
Peeta nodded. He’d made a decision. He wanted to get another look at Henry’s mother before they left to go their way into the airport. He had to be sure that the woman was not Katniss. He needed to stomp that thought out of his head entirely, otherwise his entire trip would be ruined because his mind would be continually going places he needed to leave behind.
Once the plane had landed and the chime sounded for everyone to unbuckle their seatbelts and exit the cabin, Peeta sat back in his seat and picked up his book.
“You can go ahead,” Henry turned to him and said. “It’s going to take me a while to get everyone together.”
“That’s okay, “ Peeta said. “I’m not in a hurry.” That was true. He’d told Cheryl he’d take a cab to her apartment.
It took a while for everyone to exit the plane, as the overhead bins needed to be unpacked and garment bags retrieved by stewardesses and delivered to passengers. As the crowd thinned, though Peeta had less of an excuse to remain in his seat. Henry stepped out of the row and retrieved a suitcase from the overhead compartment.
“Is this one yours?” he asked Peeta, pulling out the last piece of luggage atop the shelf.
Peeta nodded. He stuffed his book into his carry-on bag that sat by his feet and reached for the suitcase from Henry. Henry’s wife was standing in the aisle and pulling out luggage from the compartment over her row.
“You help her, I’ll watch your stuff,” Peeta said. He wondered if his seatmate would be suspicious. Was he acting too friendly for someone who he’d just met a transatlantic flight?
“Thanks,” Henry said and hurried toward his wife, pulling down two suitcases. When Henry had retrieved the bags, his wife took one of them plus another tote that was at her feet and followed Henry up the aisle. Peeta noticed the older woman was still holding the baby. Her dark shoulder-length hair framed her face in a soft bob. Her skin was smooth, her grey eyes softened with age lines.
His heart raced. He couldn’t be positive but it could be her.
“How did we ever get all this stuff on the plane?” Henry complained as he made his way to Peeta to get his other suitcase.
Peeta chuckled and handed Henry his bag, his hand shaking ever so slightly.
“Well, thanks for all your help,” Henry said. “I hope you have a great trip.”
“You too,” Peeta muttered, turning away and slowly walking down the aisle to exit the plane. He had to find out if it really was Katniss.
If it was her, though, he had no idea what to do. Should he identify himself? Hi, I’m Peeta Mellark. We had sex thirty-six years ago. I’ve been obsessed with you ever since. Yeah, that would go over well. Henry would probably punch him in the nose.
But could he just walk away? Dr. Aurelius had said that his obsession was very likely one-sided. If he admitted his feelings, would she laugh? Even if she didn’t it would be awkward as hell, especially with her family nearby.
It would be better to walk away. Let her go. Keep the past in the past.
He walked off the plane slowly following the signs that led to Customs. Several counters with lines snaking off from each of them were ahead.
Suddenly he heard a baby shrieking. He turned back to look. It was Henry’s child. His wife had taken the baby from her mother-in-law and was bouncing the child trying to quiet it. The older woman was attempting to lift the luggage the younger woman had been carrying. Henry had stopped walking and was talking to his wife.
Without thinking Peeta turned back and walked toward them. “I can help you with that,” he said to the older woman. He reached for one of the suitcase’s handles, pulling it from her.
She looked at him curiously, her grey eyes searching his face.
Henry looked away from his wife, shaking his head. “No, Peeta you don’t have to do that.”
“It’s not a problem,” Peeta said, picking the suitcase up. It was heavy.
Henry rubbed the back of his neck. “All right, then.” He looked at his mother. “Mom, this is Peeta. He sat next to me on the plane. Peeta, this is my mom Katniss and my wife Chau.”
Peeta nodded, but he couldn’t speak. His tongue had gone thick and numb in his mouth.
Henry’s wife turned and gave a quick “hi” and continued to bounce the crying child on her shoulder.
Peeta heard Henry say, “Give him to me,” and was vaguely aware that Henry’s wife had passed the baby to him. But all Peeta could focus on was Katniss. To an outside observer, she looked as cool as a cucumber, but Peeta could see the surprised look of recognition in her eyes.
For a brief moment, Katniss glanced at her son and then turned to look at Peeta again.
“We should go on,” Katniss finally said.
She still has a slight accent after all the years in America, Peeta thought. He walked slightly ahead of the family. Henry got into the nearest line. Everyone sat their luggage down, pushing it forward with their hands, as the line got shorter.
Peeta ended up going through Customs first, but he stuck close to the family to help them with their luggage as they cleared that section of the airport.
“Do you need a ride to the city?” Henry asked. “I’m renting a car. I could drop you off.”
“I was going to take a cab to my daughter’s apartment,” Peeta said, shaking his head.
“Let me get you as far as town,” Henry suggested. “They’ll charge you a fortune if you take a cab from the airport.”
“All right,” he agreed. He could see that Henry was having trouble dealing with the luggage and the crying baby. They were all tired and the crying baby made things worse.
The group slowly made their way to the rental car area. There were seats nearby and Peeta sat down with the women to wait. Chau handed the baby to Katniss to hold while she excused herself to use the restroom.
Peeta sat tongue-tied next to the woman he’d been obsessing over for most of his life. He looked at her objectively. She wasn’t very big. She wasn’t particularly pretty. But he had thought about her for so long that it was almost as if she was a part of him.
He reminded himself that his feelings were not likely be reciprocated. He needed to let her go.
The baby had stopped crying and was leaning back in Katniss’ arms asleep.
“He’s a lot fussier than his father was,” Katniss said, as she gently rocked the child. “So you have a daughter?” she asked changing the subject entirely.
“Yes,” Peeta said, startling at bit at her question. “She and her husband live here. They just had a baby and I came here to meet my granddaughter.”
“Your wife...” Katniss began.
“Deceased,” he murmured.
“I see,” Katniss said. She put her hand to the baby’s hair and wrapped a strand around her finger.
“Do you remember me Peeta?” she asked softly. She searched his face.
His heart pounded and his throat grew tight. “I never forgot,” he choked.
Her voice took on a sullen tone. “I went back to that damn tree every day for a month, but you never came back.”
Surprised at her response, he tried to explain his actions. “I couldn’t. When I got back to the camp that night I had orders to redeploy to Burma. I left the very next day. I wrote a note, though. Didn’t Finnick get it to you?”
She laughed bitterly. “Oh, your friend with the red hair. He gave me your note, then he tried to sweet talk me out of my clothes.”
Peeta scowled, incredibly angry at an event that happened thirty years earlier. He’d never seen Finnick since that day he’d handed him the note. He didn’t even know if the man was still alive.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized. “But you got the letter, right? You never wrote back. I assumed you got over me.”
“Peeta, I had no choice.” She fiddled with the buttons on her grandson’s sweater. “I was pregnant.” She didn’t look at him as she spoke.
Her daughter-in-law walked over and sat on the bench next to Katniss. “Give him to me,” she said. “Use the restroom while you have the chance.”
Katniss stood up and left.
“It’s very kind of you to help us with the luggage,” Chau said. “I think I overpacked because of the baby.” She sighed. “I love him dearly, but he’s changed everything.”
Peeta smiled faintly at her, but his brain was like cotton. He was tired because of a lack of sleep and overwhelmed with the first real conversation he’d had with Katniss in thirty years. He rubbed the back of his neck.
Pregnant. For years he had thought there had been something special between the two of them. But he’d been wrong. She was just a female version of Finnick. Didn’t Cato mention that she’d slept with him the first time they met?
Katniss returned from the restroom. She sat beside her daughter-in-law. Peeta was glad for the space between them. He glanced at the rental car counter. Henry was in the front of the counter talking with the woman. He was rubbing the back of his neck. He signed some paperwork and reached for the keys. He turned, running his hand through his blonde hair and walked toward them.
In an instant, the fog that had surrounded Peeta’s brain cleared and he realized exactly what Katniss was trying to say as he watched the man that was so obviously his son walk toward them.
Chau stood up holding the baby. Holding his grandson. “Are we all set?”
Henry nodded. “We can take an elevator down to the parking garage below.”
It took the group a while to find the car, put the suitcases in, and maneuver their way out of the underground parking area.
Peeta was sitting in the back seat along with Katniss. She was holding the sleeping boy on her lap.
“The rental car representative said you could catch a cab at Place de la Concorde,” Henry said. “I’m sorry, I’d drive you to your final destination, but I have no idea how to get there.”
“That’s fine,” Peeta said. “I appreciate you getting me this far.”
As Henry made his way though the heavy Paris traffic, Peeta reached for Katniss’ hand.
She put her tiny hand into his big calloused one and squeezed it. She turned to look at him.
“I’m sorry,” he mouthed. “I had no idea.”
He could see the understanding in her eyes.
In the front seat, Chau had unfolded a map and was giving directions to Henry.
Peeta let go of Katniss’ hand and reached into his pocket, pulling out a small notebook and a pen. He wrote down his daughter’s address and phone number, as well as his own in California. He tore the paper out of the book and handed it to Katniss.
She took the paper from him, shoved it into her purse, and then reached for his pen and notebook. He handed it over and she wrote her personal information down as well before closing it and handing the book to him.
He shoved the notebook and pen back into his pocket.
“We’re here,” Henry said a few minutes later as he found a spot to park. Across the street, Peeta could see a long line of taxis.
The two men exited from the car and Henry opened the trunk to retrieve Peeta’s bags. “Thanks again for helping us with the luggage. I think we took one suitcase too many,” he muttered.
“Thank you for the ride,” Peeta said. “I appreciate it.”
“Hey, maybe we could meet up later this week, go see the Louvre or something,” Henry suggested. “It would be nice to see it with a fellow artist. I’m not sure how long Chau and my mom and the baby will last in there.”
“That would be nice,” Peeta said.
Henry fished in his pockets. “Do you have anything to write with?”
“I gave your mom my information,” Peeta said.
Henry gave him a curious glance. “Oh, okay, I’ll get it from her. Well, thanks again Peeta, I’ll see you soon.”
“Right,” Peeta said. He shook Henry’s hand, waved to Katniss and Chau, and walked toward the crosswalk.
Peeta watched Henry enter his car and edge his way back into traffic.
When he got into the cab and had given the driver Cheryl’s address, Peeta reached into his pocket and pulled out the notebook to see what Katniss had written. In very neat printing was the name of the hotel they were staying at in Paris, and her home phone number and address in California. It was the same house he’s staked out years earlier. Underneath she’d written a short note.
Please call Peeta. I just want to spend every possible minute of the rest of my life with you.
Yes, he would definitely be making that call -- as soon as he got to his daughter’s apartment.
The United States military commissioned The Hershey Company to design a special chocolate bar for the soldiers during World War II that would be used as an emergency ration, not a treat. The bar had to withstand melting in the field and be at least 1,800 calories. The resulting product tasted awful and was hard on the digestive system. The Hershey Company made 40 million bars for the military during the war.
During World War I, the U.S., which was the only country that didn’t supply soldiers with condoms, spent more than $50 million treating soldiers for venereal disease (VD). During World War II, the military sold sets of three condoms for ten cents at “pro stations” placed for easy access, day or night. There was also an aggressive advertising campaign promoting safe sex through prevention tying together images of sexy women with the effects of VD.
The end of World War II in Europe was celebrated on V-E (Victory for Europe) Day, May 8, 1945. (Does anyone wonder if Suzanne Collins was giving us a hint that Katniss Everdeen would be victorious by mentioning her May 8th birth date?) Camps near Le Havre, France, were designated as redeployment centers to reassign some American units to the Pacific theatre and to demobilize others and return men home to the U.S. A point system was established to determine the order in which the soldiers were sent home. Because most of the U.S. ships were being used in the Pacific theatre, it took until 1946 to get all of the troops home. Some soldiers, who were redeployed to the Pacific theatre, got home to the U.S. even quicker because the war ended there in August 1945.
The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, known informally as the G.I. Bill, was a law that provided a range of benefits for returning World War II veterans. Benefits included low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans to start a business, cash payments of tuition and living expenses to attend college, high school or vocational education, as well as one year of unemployment compensation. By the end of the program in 1956, roughly 2.2 million veterans had used the G.I. Bill’s education benefits in order to attend colleges or universities.
Psychiatrists say false/faux love situations are common. They are defined as occurring when a person obsesses over a former sweetheart. It is often one-sided. Generally the ex-sweetheart has no residual attachment. Additionally, the person who obsesses over a lost love often had a devastating life event that occurred during that romance years ago, which may be the trigger for the obsession.
President Franklin Roosevelt created the first peacetime draft with the signing of the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940. From 1948 until 1973, during both peacetime and periods of conflict, men were drafted to fill vacancies in the armed forces, which could not be filled through voluntary means. During the U.S. involvement in Vietnam (1964-1973), there were many ways that draft-eligible man avoided military service including attending college full-time, and marrying and having children.
The name “Chau” means “pearls” in the Vietnamese language.