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District 12 is not the same.
A thin layer of ash still covers parts of the Seam and where the Hob used to stand. Bodies that were found lying in the street and in the town square are now buried under a layer of dirt and grass in the meadow. Families are still dealing with loss, children are growing up without their biological parents, and people still watching the skies for hovercrafts that no longer exist. But the real difference in District 12 is the freedom. The fence that once separated District 12 from the vast woods outside no longer exists. Peacekeepers are now citizens. Children laugh and play and have no idea what a reaping is. My daughter plays on a graveyard that holds the bodies of my friends, neighbors, parents, and brothers. My daughter, who thinks I can do anything, does not know that I am burdened with horrific memories from so long ago.
She represents all things good and right and safe. Some nights when I find myself wondering what is real and not real I peek into her room and watch her chest rise and fall slowly from underneath the covers until I remember everything clearly again. Lucy, my daughter, doesn't know she brings me peace.
"Daddy! Watch me!"
I watch as she does a flimsy cartwheel in the grass. She almost doesn't land on her feet but she finds her footing just in time so she does. She smiles wide at me and I smile back. Her sweaty black hair clings to her cheeks and I can see the sweat glistening on her face but she doesn't care. Katniss and I decided last night that it would be a good day to go to the lake since it would be too hot to stay inside the house. Lucy could barely contain her excitement and she struggled to fall asleep. Even with her lack of sleep, we struggle to keep up with her as we travel through the woods.
"Your daughter is something else," I whisper to Katniss. She looks at me and raises an eyebrow. "My daughter?"
I roll my eyes. "Come on, Katniss. Look at her. She's at home in the woods."
Katniss' eyes soften when they see Lucy picking dandelions next to a tree.
"She's all ours, Peeta," Katniss whispers almost to herself. Her eyes have that look like she's far away and I know she's thinking about Prim. Seventeen years and the pain still hasn't loosened its hold on Katniss.
I kiss her temple and say,” I know. She's ours."
The lake is empty like always and the water reflects the sun just right so that it looks like the water is sparkling. Lucy jumps right into the lake, not even waiting to take off her dress. I jump in after her, my clothes still on, and as I go under the water I hear Katniss starting to yell at me. When I surface, she just shakes her head at me, wearing her usual scowl but I see the start of a smile break onto her lips as she turns to undress.
Half of my attention is on Lucy who is swimming in the water pretending she's a minnow but the other half is on Katniss. Her hair is in a braid that touches the middle of her back. Wisps of hair frame her face and I watch her take off her shirt. Her olive skin is dotted with burn scars and cuts that will never be erased from the war. I know that every time she looks in the mirror she only sees what's wrong with her body and expects me to do the same. But I don't. All I see is the woman who stayed up all night with Lucy the night after she was born just to make sure she wouldn't disappear. I see the woman who hums every once illegal song she knows as she washes the dishes. I see my wife, my ally, my friend.
When she sees me staring, she blushes and turns away. She comes to the water not meeting my eyes. I hold out a hand to her. She stares at it and then looks into my eyes. Her hand fills mine and I lead her into the water with me. Lucy shrieks in delight as the fish circle around her toes and she yells out to Katniss and me to come and see. As I watch her face fill with love and admiration, I feel guilty. My daughter doesn't know that I killed a man. My daughter doesn't know the reason I have nightmares is because I was thrown into a game I didn't want to play. My daughter only knows that I am her father who, in her eyes, has done no wrong.
I look over at Katniss and see that she is thinking the same thing. I squeeze her hand and she takes her eyes off of Lucy to look at me. She squeezes my hand back and offers me a smile. There are certain things I try to hide from Katniss. I hate waking up in the morning and worrying if I'll have a flashback I front of my daughter and scaring her. I hate looking back into my past and questioning whether the memory is real. But no matter how hard I try to hide these things from Katniss, she knows. She knows because she worries about similar things. We both have demons, ugly ones we want to bury and never see again. The thing is every day we will go on, we will try to erase them from ourselves but now they are part of us just like we are part of each other. We just have to look past them and love each other for who we are. Demons and all.