Sixteen years ago, the explosion in the coal mines not only took many lives but threatened to turn the entire place into a ghost town. The mines were the most significant (though miserable) source of income for the majority of the citizens. The closing of the mines meant a death sentence for the entire town, which in itself was overcome by apathy. Unexpectedly, Mayor Undersee and Haymitch Abernathy, the district ranger, started a few projects hoping that they would save the town in doing so, however, no one but them believed in the cause.
Mayor Undersee had initiated an official investigation into the incidents in the mines. Even though it was an open secret that the mines’ administration cared little about the safety of its employees, it was nearly impossible to prove the company’s fault. Things however took an unexpected turn as soon as Effie Trinket – a media expert as well as a long-time friend of Abernathy’s – entered the stage. She set a national media campaign in motion and brought countless business affairs of the owners, the mines’ administration and dirty government officials to light. To avoid a large-scale scandal, compensation for the victims that had survived and pensions for the family members of the deceased miners were quickly decided upon.
The investigation that followed led to the closing of the mines. From the standpoint of the majority of the townsfolk this was the first victory in ages. Still Mayor Undersee was confronted with ridicule and cynicism. Then Abernathy took the lead in tilting at windmills; one rumored that he had once been very influential and that he had experienced a dry patch in his career due to alcoholism. He had been moved from some important position to the post of a provincial ranger more than three decades ago. It seems as if there was some truth to the tales about Abernathy’s former significance and influence because, upon his initiative, the construction of a pharmaceutical factory, which would source most of its raw material in the national park, was set in motion.
With sizeable subsidies, the national pharmaceutical corporation began the construction of a factory which meant much more than mere survival not only for the town but also for the entire district. The construction alone created enough jobs for unemployed citizens and the ceremonial opening would mark the beginning of an era of prosperity for the entire district.
As was to be expected, the citizens silently ignored the achievements of Mayor Undersee and Abernathy; of course, full attention would have been paid had they been unsuccessful. Considering that they had left the entire town in their debt, it was utterly natural for everybody to pretend as if nothing had happened. Anyways, the dignified citizens of the town, themselves worthy of respect without any credit, had more important business to attend to. Namely, the ceremonial opening of the factory, scheduled in a week, was preceded by the arrival of a perticularly handsome and very charming stranger, of whom it was gossiped that he was the new head of the factory. He moved to Main Street, into the very heart of the Merchant Circle, into the house that had been uninhabited for years and began with a thorough renovation, employing an army of workers. Regardless of his being obviously too busy, some virtuous lady would manage to engage him in a conversation – pleasant and open, to the delight of the interlocutor who would enjoy the compliments of the handsome flatterer. About 20 minutes after the chat, when the excitement would fade, the conversation partners would conclude, stunned, that they did not manage to extract any information from the chatty red-headed charmer. Of course that added fuel to the flame and stirred up the curiosity of the ilde ladies. Contriving in different manners, mostly interrogating the workers who were renovating the secretive beau's house, they managed to collect a few very significant pieces of information. Though unmarried, he was deadly in love since he would accompany the majority of decisions about the color of the walls, the type of kitchen utensils and the kind of flowers with the words „My beauty probably wants…“. Not only did his appearance take breaths away, but his commitment to the unknown beloved was so romantic that it stirred up the imagination of the female part of the population between 7 and 77. And there was some mysterious symbolism about the head of the pharmaceutical factory moving into the house which, about 20 years ago, was the only pharmacy in town…
Of course, there were people who knew everything or at least something here and there about the mysterious stranger. Unfortunately, one could not learn anything from them. When people gathered in the mayor's office to talk about the ceremony on the occasion of the opening of the factory, due to a happy coincidence, the waitress that served coffee overheard Abernathy talking to the beau: „Odair, if you, the way you are, all plain, managed to send a wave across all the skirts in town, what will happen when tomorrow your belle arrives…?“. In that moment mayor Undersee intruded tactlessly into the conversation saying that Mellark will do the catering for the party and the waitress already found herself behind closed doors without learning any more. Her curiosity elapsed neither Odair nor Mellark, who laughed and relaxedly exchanged a few insignificant phrases, both instantly taking a liking to the other. After the arrangement of the details concerning the party, Peeta Mellark was headed home to the bakery thinking about how new people will not only bring change to the monotonous trot of the town but also to his boring every-day life.
Voices from the lobby and the banquet-hall carried to the kitchen of the municipal building – a sure sign that the majority of the guests have already arrived and that the appetizers will be served soon. Once the waiters have carried out the food, he would be able to take a breath and join the party. He was really thankful to Mayor Undersee for having offered him this catering gig. After a few strenuous and uncertain years, he had finally managed to tend to his business in an orderly way, pay back the debts and get into shallow waters gain. This job could mean the beginning of a successful business deal – unlike the fight for sheer survival hitherto. Trying to reign in the newly awakened hope and his fantasies about the growth of his business, Peeta decided to join the guests and relax. At the entrance of the banquet-hall already he could tell that the party was more than successful. Not only did the cream of the crop of town come together, but also regional and national journalists, politicians and financers. A pink wig stood out from the crowd, which meant that Effie Trinket was partly responsible for the attendance of the elite guests from the Capitol. He couldn't not smile at the thought of a relationship between the always ragged and drunk Abernathy and the curried, eccentric Effie Trinket. In that very moment he detected Abernathy who, staying true to himself, was ragged and drunk – which didn't stand in his way of keeping the attention of an incredibly pretty girl, who suddenly began laughing. This particular laugh that takes one's breath away made him stand still. After a few seconds, he set himself in motion and reached her – as if it hadn't been ten years since her last look and smile directed at him. While he mechanically moved towards her he was blind to everything around him but, as usual, noticed everything around her. Especially the irresistible, charming beau Odair who nonchalantly held his arm around Katniss' waist. Odair would have achieved the same effect if he had been holding his arm around Peeta's neck. He felt as though he were suffocating. Still – like a true masochist – he continued to walk towards them.
He was close enough to hear Odair say to Haymitch with a smile: „Katniss knows that I will always love her…”
„Please, don't kill him because of such heart-wrenching statements. I actually need him.”
„Don't worry, Abernathy. It is obvious that he has to love me as long as he shall live. After all, we do have joined custody of Jo.”
„Oh, yes. How's the little girl?”
„Ah. Neither Katniss nor I will tell you anything. You don't want to know, trust me! You'll start to babysit her soon anyways, and then it will dawn on you, and Katniss and I will be able to catch a breath.”
As soon as Haymitch saw Peeta he began talking to him: „Peeta, I see you managed to sneak out of the kitchen. Granted, you are a true artist if you succeeded in making me take a bite in between two gulps. You've already met Odair. I don't know whether you remember Katniss. I think the two of you went to school together. And this is Beetee Latier, the majority owner of the pharmaceutical company.”
Peeta introduced himself to Mr. Latier, greeted Odair and finally looked at Katniss. She hadn't changed at all. She was still the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. And different. As if an armor that was hiding her insecurities had fallen from her. A confident, successful young woman who radiated energy and conquered with a smile one could not resist was standing in front of him. He hadn't changed either – she still meant the world to him. She greeted him politely, distanced. Peeta wasn't able to pull himself together and she already slipped away, accompanied by Odair and Latier. Abernathy was still standing next to him and was sharply observing him – he eventually tossed in: „And just like that, in a similar situation, I drank my first whisky…”
Peeta went to the balcony without a word and, leaning against the wall, breathing in the fresh evening air, he plummeted into a memory…
„You're useless, just like your father. You destroy anything you lay your hands on. Take this bread and throw it to the pigs. And if you think these slaps have been punishment enough, you just wait and see…”
Silently he went to the yard and walked to the apple tree under which Katniss was sitting all curled up. Without saying a word, he threw both loafs of burned bread to her and returned to the bakery.
Next morning, he tried to avoid her glance, hiding the bruises on his face. Nothing had changed between them but it did seem to him as if everything was different anyway. Every once in a while he would catch her glance, every now and then a smile. The situation at home after her father's death in the mines seemed to have improved a bit. She didn't look drained anymore. With time he noticed that she had found ways to survive and support her sister and mother. It was rumored that she was illegally hunting with a boy who was a few years older than her and whose father had died in the same accident as hers. He didn't have to worry about her survival anymore. The only thing left to worry about was whether he would ever get the chance to tell her how much she meant to him…
It seemed to him that he was in love with her ever since he could remember. Maybe that was merely a comforting thought to hide behind from the hardships at home, or an idea that gave him the strength to endure, or a habit that helped him survive the gray every-day life, or a quiet resistance he was putting up against his mother, who hated Katniss from the bottom of her heart. He never even tried to find an answer. He had accepted the fact that he had been infatuated with her since his early childhood and that, even though his general thoughts and wishes evolved in the process of him growing-up, Katniss has always remained an object of desire for him.
As a sixteen-year-old, though clumsy and chubby, he was the star among his peers. Although he wasn't brilliant at school, he did have solid grades. Many years of wrestling were beginning to show first results at school competitions. Maybe some schoolmate or other had even been interested in him, still Peeta wasn't aware of it. Behind the façade of a good-tempered, carefree and kind-hearted boy, he was sad, neglected and frustrated, used to concealing his real feelings. Having taken over his father's behavior patterns, he offered no resistance to his aggressive mother. Instead, he turned into a manipulative person who managed to avoid unpleasant situations and problems, not even trying to solve them.
All of that changed prior to the beginning of the last year of middle school. One evening, just before closing time, Katniss walked into the bakery. Surprised, he fumbled and dropped a tray full of pastries. Having heard the noise, his mother ran out of the kitchen. She began yelling at him and insulting him, taking no notice of Katniss. Most likely, the presence of that «pathetic Taíno savage», which is what she called her, aggravated her even more. It was his habit in these situations to drop his head and wait silently until the humiliating tirade was over. Even though a long time ago he had made peace with the fact that he would never build up the courage to approach Katniss, who was always out of his reach, somewhere inside of him there was a glimmering hope that an occasion would soon arise. After this scene, he had to give up the illusion of it. He hadn’t even noticed that the yelling had stopped – a touch awoke him from his stupor. Katniss was standing in front of him, touching his hand, looking at him, concerned. He expected to see hatred or pity but not honest worry.
From that moment on, he didn't know why exactly, he started spending time with Katniss. The casual conversations during random encounters turned into scheduled meetings, walks through the woods, trips to the lake. Both were trying to keep the friendship a secret. Katniss didn't want to give the town an excuse to gossip, for they didn't benevolently look at relationships between different classes and races. And she couldn't bear being the cause of his mother's attacks. Untypically for him, he was now willing to take a stand against everybody and everything. This friendship was worth the sacrifices and risks to him. For the first time, he was ready to fight for his opinion and stay true to himself. At the same time, he felt hope that their friendship would grow into something more. After all, Katniss did spend her every free second with him. Even though in public, she kept her distance, at school, he felt her glance resting on him more and more often. To his great relief, it turned out that Gale, Katniss' perpetual shadow, and in the opinion of everybody her boyfriend, was actually like a family member to her and she, in her own words, had sisterly feelings toward him. Nevertheless, he didn't dare speak of his own feelings, out of fear that Katniss would turn him down, which would end their friendship.
It was through this friendship that he recognized her true value. She was honest and outspoken, always ready to listen and help, unconditionally devoted to family and her few but carefully selected friends. In her company he began thawing and became more open and honest, more ready to stand up for what he believed in. He gathered the courage to rebel against his mother who, to his great surprise, backed down and stopped harassing him every day. He gained confidence – which was reflected in his behavior at school and with company. These changes didn't go unnoticed by the girls at school either. They would come up to him in hallways, touch him casually and invite him to parties. He enjoyed these moments because it seemed to him that Katniss then appeared out of nowhere and shot darts at the obtruders with her eyes, as if she were jealous. And admittedly, the attention he received from girls, which seemed to confirm his value and raise his social status, flattered him.
With the end of the school year drawing closer, two problems weighed on him increasingly, uneven in significance but both nevertheless important for the status of his new relationship with Katniss. The pending question of how to design his studies bothered him. Considering that he did not enjoy his parents' financial support or a scholarship, he decided to enroll at a college in a town nearby. That way, he could continue working at the bakery and would not have to burden himself with big student loans, especially as, aside from the fine arts «that one cannot live off of», like his mother always said, nothing was of particular interest of him. And after his finished studies he saw himself working at the bakery. Katniss was a different story altogether. She had offers from a few prestigious universities that would grant her full scholarships. Every single one of these offers would have taken her far away from him and that would have been the end before any beginning. He lulled himself into a false sense of security, hoping that Katniss would pick a local college after all to stay near home because she couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her beloved sister alone with her mother, who, after the death of her husband, suffered from depression and was neglecting her duties. The second, less important but for him very symbolic question was that of going to the prom. He worked up the courage to ask her out on an official date on that occasion so they could not only start a relationship but also make it public.
Three weeks before the prom, at a secret get-together at the lake, Peeta was preparing to ask her to go with him, as his girlfriend. Though before he uttered the question the answer to which he was afraid of, Katniss began talking about college. That immediately caught his attention and he was selfishly happy when she told him that she was thinking of staying at home with Prim and studying at a nearby college. As if she was trying to convince herself, she counted the pros and, seemingly joking and shooting a side-glance at him, added that that way they would be able to continue seeing each other. That was the right moment to ask. And then Gale came along, joined them and offered to escort Katniss home. Watching them leave, he felt anger, disappointment and humiliation. He spent a good portion of the night juggling different thoughts in his head, all of them negative and defeating for him, until he began doubting his own worth and Katniss' interest in him.
Unsure of himself, jealous and sleepy, he let the morning classes pass by and didn’t pay attention to anything. In the hallway, after the classes, a group of friends stopped him to talk about training. Suddenly, Glimmer appeared in front of him, the most popular girl in school, who was determined to «add Mellark to her collection of school trophies» – partly because there weren’t many handsome but unused boys left at school, but even more so because he stubbornly resisted her attacks and didn't show any interest. There, in front of everyone, she asked him loudly when he was intending on asking her out to prom. Before he managed to answer, she went away and his pals enviously tossed in that they didn't understand what Glimmer saw in him, that he was a bluffer or that he will get lucky at prom night. All of that was very flattering and gave his confidence a nudge.
Carried away, he said in a loud voice, laughing: “Hate on me. While I’ll be walking around with the most beautiful girl at school, you'll be able to watch me all lined up at the wall.” Suddenly Darius spoke looking at something behind Peeta: “Hey, Everdeen, if you went with me, I'd be with the most beautiful girl at prom!”
He slowly turned around and saw Katniss, who was looking directly into his eyes, with an ice-cold gaze of hatred, simultaneously tossing in “Dream on” and heading to the exit, where Gale was waiting for her. The group started teasing Darius, who calmly declared: “At least I had the courage to ask her. As if we don't know that everyone here would do anything just to go out with her.”
To Peeta's surprise, they all began mumbling and agreeing with him. Until this very moment, he hadn't realized that she was the object of his schoolmates' secret fantasies as well. Seeing his surprise, Darius said all seriously: “Why so shocked? We're all crazy about her. But there's no use in talking about it because no one stands a chance but Gale.”
That was not true. He stood a chance. And he gambled it away like a real idiot. For the first time in his life he wondered whether his mother was right to claim that he was a worthless nobody condemned to failure. It was clear to him that it was of no use to try to apologize to Katniss or explain to her what had happened to him and why he had behaved like a peasant. Katniss was skillfully avoiding him from now on. She showed up at prom with Gale, stayed as long as courtesy dictated and left soon. She didn't even look at him. During the school break, at the bakery, he found out from the local gossips that she had taken the scholarship from some fancy university, «as if that was for her,» they huffed waving their hands around and wrinkling their noses. During the first semester, Prim and Mrs. Everdeen left town. No one but her close friends, who were well-known for their discretion, has heard anything about them anymore. And not one day had passed without him thinking of her, wondering what if…
The applause coming from the hall startled him as he had been deep in thought. It was time for the speeches. And indeed, as soon as he entered the hall, he saw Odair on the stage, confidently controlling the masses, taking his applause with a smile.
“I'd like to thank everyone for the warm welcome. I'm sorry that I couldn't convince Katniss to join me on stage. At least that way you could have enjoyed the view, while I’d be boring you with the details…”
He waited patiently for the laughter that followed to calm down and then continued, composed: “Like you already know, next week, the pharmaceutical factory will begin its work. Side by side with little me, who will take over the management of the factory, the meritorious daughter of this town, Ms. Everdeen, will be the head of the research lab. I hope that we will run the factory successfully, to everyone's satisfaction, and enable the entire town to grow. Thank you for your attention.”
Before he managed to get off of the stage, a local newspaper journalist asked: “Aren't you and especially Ms. Everdeen too young and inexperienced for such important positions?”
Odair, not hurt at all by the somewhat offensive question, answered the journalist politely: “Thank you for your compliment. I am not that young, really. When it comes to our experience and qualifications, from this moment on, you will be able to find all information about us which is relevant for the job on the official website of the factory. I have been collaborating with Ms. Everdeen for ten years now. My first encounter with her work showed me that she has the courage to fight and the urge to save the world. Thus, as an undergraduate, she wrote a polemic article about the deadly impact of military maneuvers and uranmunition at the Vieques island in Puerto Rico, about the people but also about the flora and fauna there. During her Master's she discovered a variation of a plant endemic to Puerto Rico, which she named the Primflower. And finally, I would like to add that, unlike me, who only has a Ph.D. in pharmacy, Ms. Everdeen has a Ph.D. in pharmacology. So, in that regard, just like in all other disciplines, she is better than I, which Haymitch will surely confirm to you as well. And Mr. Latier certainly agrees with him. He is, by the way, the majority owner of this factory, which he has entrusted to us.”
Everyone laughed, the journalist backed down, a little ashamed, and Haymitch took over the microphone. Without much ceremonial ado, in his usual barbaric way, he announced the end of this party, adding that this pair of beauties has come to stay, so people can bother them with any other indecorous questions in their home, where once there was a pharmacy that Odair managed to successfully ruin by renovating it to the wishes of his beloved.
His gaze followed Odair, who, coming from the stage, without paying attention to anybody else went straight to Katniss. She awaited him with a smile, hugging him without a word…
He had no business here anymore. Happy to now be able to further torture himself scrutinizing all the available information on the factory's web page, he headed home. There, another disappointment was waiting for him. In the abundance of photographs that all featured Odair, there was not one of her. Katniss' CV was more than impressive – from a BA from Berkeley to an MA in pharmacology from the School of Medicine at the University of Puerto Rico, to a Ph.D. at the Berkeley. And not one single piece of private information. Odair's page didn't contain private information either; however, it was obvious that they lived together.
Peeta was proud of her. She succeeded in making all of her dreams come true. He was glad that she had found happiness in her private life as well. And he hated Odair, who was the embodiment of every woman's dream yet had the only woman Peeta has ever wanted.
The contrast between Katniss' and his own life was defeating. His abandoned studies after the second year; him taking over a bakery that was on the verge of downfall; his fight to save and improve a family business – a fight that was going on for years now; his father, lethargic, soft, having given up on his life when he had lost his only love, Mrs. Everdeen; his mother a bitter, unloved woman that used to let out her anger and hatred above all on her family and then on everybody around her, spewing choleric comments about everything and everybody; his brothers who ran off without looking back as soon as they had the chance; Delly, the useless on-and-off relationship that had lasted for years and had been encouraged by their mothers…
It seemed as if, for the first time since his teenage years, he hated the early morning ritual in the bakery. The defeating and humiliating thoughts made him lose sleep. Honestly, all comparisons – all of her successes and his failures – were actually of no significance. The only thing that was of infinite importance was the fact that he loved her still, obsessively so, and that he would obviously repeat his father's destiny.
The morning rush at the bakery was more intense than usual. A few older ladies, the societal cream of the crop of the Merchant Circle, loudly exchanged information and impressions about yesterday's party.
“And they're living together here, in the house next to the bakery. I've heard that her grandmother has left her the house. Suspicious business, if you ask me. To renounce her daughter, not have any contact with her for years and then suddenly leave the house to Katniss?”
“Say please, did you find out whether they are married?”
“Nope. They live like savages. And apparently they have a daughter. Her name is Jo. They mentioned her to Haymitch. Peeta, honey, you were talking to them when they said that. Is it true that Mr. Odair and Katniss have a daughter?”
“I really do not know, Mrs. Jensen!”, he said, quickly going away to avoid further questions.
“Big deal, a degree from Puerto Rico. That's basically a bunch of Indian heathens like her, if you ask me. And she came back here to rub it all in…”
“Nah, that's not it for me. Now, how did she manage to charm the pants off of such a man? That Finnick is a real treat. And she’s pale by comparison…”
“True that. But she's twisting them all around her little finger. And that old savage Haymitch is crazy about her. And moneybags Latier wants to leave her the factory, as if. That's a girl who knows her business, I'll tell you that, just like her mother, who was a heartbreaker…”
“Yes. That old one destroyed my husband and that young one my son.”
He froze when he heard his mother's voice.
“She's a witch. Who knows what kind of ingredients went into that love potion, if you know what I mean, to take away a man's mind like that. That's what her folk is like. Her grandmother was like that too. Why the old Everdeen brought her here, I'll never know…”
Having heard that, he went up to his mother and to the surprise of everybody gathered in the bakery, as well as his own, he said to her in a cold voice: “Enough is enough. For decades you've been spreading hatred, insulting Mrs. Everdeen and Katniss, torturing your own family, not seeing how many lives you've poisoned. And you have nothing on them. Do you know what it is that they have and you don't? Kindness, honesty, love, devotion. In a nutshell, they have pride and a heart.”
An unpleasant silence spread. At the door, to the astonishment of everybody in the room, one could hear a giggle. When the crowd divided, he saw Katniss who cheerfully winked at him, wished a good morning to the ladies and ordered cheese buns as if nothing had happened.
A month or so has passed since Katniss had come home. On that day, when she came back to the bakery, Annie and Jo moved into her house. It turned out that Jo had come to discipline Haymitch and eventually take his place at Forest Service. In the meantime, disputes were being fought over who's babysitting who, Jo him or he Jo. And Annie came to take her place next to Odair, her fiancé of several years, who does know how to flirt and flatter but does not know how to breathe and live without his Annie. The entire town was elated by the turn of events. The story was much juicier than was to be expected. They were all living in some sort of a sick commune, regularly joined by Haymitch. To the great joy of the local baker, rumors had spread that they had enchanted him as well, so he joined that cult of theirs and was visiting them every evening. At the door, he was awaited by Katniss, with a smile and look that were just the same as on the day when he had almost managed to stutter an invitation to the prom. Of course, he still stutters in front of her, but not asking the right question at the right time would never happen to him again.