Not him, anyone but him. That damn boy with the bread who's always...there. I started to dread this happening as soon as Professor Trinket started talking about drawing names. I should have known I couldn't escape this semester without something like this coming up. Why didn't I just drop this stupid class when I saw he was in it in the first place?
I chance a glance at him, but can't see his face, so I don't know if he's smiling, frowning, swearing or mentally high-fiving himself. I sigh and tune out the rest of the class, thinking instead about the time I'll get to spend outside this weekend, in the woods where I belong.
My mind starts to wander though, betraying me by thinking about that night. The horrible night in the rain. My mom was such a mess back then, like the walking dead. When she bothered to get out of bed at all. And Prim, she was so little and frail, so undeserving of such a shit life. We were wasting away and everything I was doing to keep us together and afloat was starting to fail us. I was wandering around, as desperate as I'd ever been, actually checking dumpsters for food. Anything to keep us going.
I only realized where I was when I heard his mother. Her rage was savage and cruel. He stumbled out the back door, one hand on his already swelling face, the other clutching two big loaves of bread. He didn't even look at me, but he must have known I was there because those loaves practically landed in my lap and nowhere near the bin.
I had barely even known him before that night, just knew he was one of those spoiled kids who wanted for nothing. Naturally, that meant I had engaged with him as little as possible. The fact that he, of all people, showed me kindness, saved my whole family in a way, pissed me off and humbled me all at once.
Instead of thanking him though, like I should have, I did nothing. Well, that's not entirely true. I stopped ignoring his existence or scoffing at him like I had before. I wouldn't say I started being nice to him, but I stopped actively being a bitch...for what that's worth.
It wasn't that he didn't deserve my thanks, because of course he did, it was that there was something so earnest about him. Something I couldn't quite put my finger on except to say that he was the first person that really muddled my understanding of the categories I'd always divided the world into. And something about that earnestness, that goodness, intimidated me. Made me question things about myself that maybe I wasn't ready to know.
So it's gone on this way between us, him smiling politely and me nodding in acknowledgement, for the last 8 years.
I don't think I was surprised when I realized we were going to the same university. I don't know why, but I just accepted his presence as the universe reminding me of how close I came to giving up. He's like this symbol of hope and shame and goodness and pride that comforts and overwhelms me all at once.
This though, this ridiculous assignment forcing us together like some cruel joke, is too much. Knowing he's close by is one thing, but working together is quite another.
I pull myself out of my head just as class is ending. I can see him making his way over to me and I know I won't be able to get my stuff together fast enough to get out the door before he reaches me.
"Hi," he says simply.
"Hey," I return, more coolly than I need to.
"So I guess...we're partners." His voice is friendly, his tone free of any of the attitude markers I never seem to fully shed.
"Apparently," I try to soften my tone, but I'm not sure I've succeeded. I shift my weight to hoist my backpack up onto one shoulder and look more than a little longingly at the door. I'm unprepared for this situation. Being this close to him is strange. Did I know he has blue eyes? I try smiling, but I'm afraid I just look crazy, so I go back to my usual blank expression.
His eyes narrow slightly, like he's looking for something on my face or in my eyes. I avoid looking at him directly. In truth, his face really is quite nice to look at, but I'm trying hard to pretend that it's not. That I don't notice those kind eyes, his good-natured smile or his warm expression. It would be too slippery a slope. It's best he doesn't start expecting anything from me, not with what I owe him already.
"Should we set a time to meet then? How 'bout this weekend?" He says, a little less confidently. I sigh before I can stop myself. This weekend? "If you have plans, we can find another time next week..." He says, and actually sounds...disappointed? Frustrated? I can't tell. I so rarely bother to try and read other people I don't even know how.
I try again, this time really focusing on total neutrality. "Um, I have to work every night next week... I work Saturday during the day...is that night okay? I do sort of have plans on Sunday."
"Sure, yeah, Saturday night. I think the libraries close early on Saturdays...we could go to my place...if you want."
Awkward. This whole exchange is so unbelievably awkward. I want to say no, so I don't have to see his place and know anything more about the boy with the bread, but I don't want to offer up my own crappy basement apartment and I definitely can't afford to go anywhere where we'd have to buy anything. He's staring at me, waiting for an answer and I can't come up with anything better.
"Okay. I gotta go, so I'll email you for details." He looks stunned for a moment, but then quickly fishes out a pen and paper to jot down his email address. I take it from him, snatch it really, and bolt out the door saying "Bye" over my shoulder without looking back.
Once I burst through the outside door into the open air, I finally feel like I can breathe. I curse my unbelievable bad luck. Partnered with Peeta, what are the odds? I check my watch to see if Gale's out of class yet, but it'll be another hour before my misery will have company.
Gale is my best friend, has been since I was 12-years old. He's a couple of years older than me, but we've only ever been a grade apart. Not because he's not a smart guy, but because he, like me, has a story that's meant he's grown up way faster than anyone ever should.
His dad died down in the mine around the same time mine died in the war. We were a little young to really get it at the time, but we were united by their deaths and the feeling that if our dads hadn't been left with so few options to feed their families, we wouldn't be the ones having to do it without them. We bonded over our otherness; fatherless, poor and bitter kids who took refuge in the woods where we remembered happier times and felt free, normal.
My dad loved to hunt. Even though there were laws against carrying weapons without licenses and age restrictions, he started teaching me how to use a crossbow from the time I could hold one up properly. We would wander the woods, singing, eating berries, perfecting our shooting and every once in a while, taking home in-season game to supplement our flimsy weekly groceries. It was always a special time, our time.
Gale was the same, learned to hunt with his dad, learned at a young age how to make sure all of his siblings were fed. It was our second bonding point and it was enough to solidify our friendship in an 'us against the world' kind of way.
I was so relieved when he told me his mom decided the whole family would move so he could go to university. He would never have come if she didn't. They rent a small 3-bedroom apartment not too far from me, but Gale works construction when he's not in school to help pay the bills, so we don't get to see each other much outside of class. Still, knowing he's around during the day makes being here so much easier. Makes the distance between me and my sister and mother more bearable. I don't feel so far from home or from what I know with Gale here.
I decide I'm too cold to wait outside and don't feel like being around people in one of the surrounding buildings, so I abandon the idea of waiting for Gale and head back to my apartment. I could stand to get some homework done before work anyways.
My apartment is a bit of a hole, but it's the best a student on financial aid and scholarships can afford. The neighbourhood is decent and really close to campus, and even though it's a basement apartment, quite a bit of light comes in through the small windows.
There's a small kitchen area with a stovetop, small refrigerator, sink and a few cupboards. My bed's off to one side covered in a quilt someone gave my mom as payment for treatment. I've also got a little sitting area with a side table and an oversized armchair next to a small desk and chair where my ancient desktop resides.
I pour myself a glass of water and manage to find some edible leftovers to nosh on while I boot up my computer. It takes longer than it should so I spend some time rooting around in my backpack for the piece of paper Peeta gave me.
I find it, pull it out and roll my eyes as I stare at it. Even his quickly written letters are elegant. I just can't catch a break with this guy – he's infallible! I continue to smooth out the paper even though it's perfectly legible as is.
The next several minutes are spent wondering what he thinks of me. I really have no idea. He might think me rude and ungrateful, which would totally make sense. Or maybe he feels sorry for me, being poor as I am. I find myself wondering if he has a girlfriend which takes me by surprise. Why do I even care? I don't, it's none of my business and none of my concern.
This leads me to several more minutes of wondering what I think of him. A few images flash through my mind at once. The night with the bread, seeing him surrounded by friends in high school, his easy manner and thoughtful glances, his seemingly endless supply of new shoes and expensive clothing. It's hard to separate the competing ideas of him in my mind. I'm suddenly feeling defensive and know it's because sorting through my thoughts about Peeta means confronting feelings about myself. I'm in no hurry to do that though and promptly push the images out of mind.
Still, I decide that it's best to email him now and get it over with. Might as well get our plans worked out before the weekend instead of trying to figure them out at the last minute. I start to type but erase and re-start 4 times before I work out a message that I feel satisfied with.
Is 7 pm ok as a meeting time? Where do you live?
I'll be coming from my place in Sunnyside, so directions starting from there would be good.
See you Saturday,
I hit 'Send', feeling good about composing a mature message free from sarcasm or insults. I dig out a few textbooks and spend the rest of my time before work fighting an inexplicable urge to check my Inbox.