He wasn't on campus Friday. I feel stupid for even noticing, but for whatever reason, his absence is always obvious to me.
My mind keeps coming back to that night. Do I mention it? Will he be expecting me to? Will he be ready to throw it in my face if I don't?
I wish we didn't have it hanging between us and could just be two people from the same town. This assignment would still be awkward, but our interaction wouldn't be so loaded like it is now.
His email said he lives in Suncrest. Of course he does. I'm sure he has one of those trendy loft apartments with a million windows and exposed brick walls, too.
I know people whose parents have money aren't bad people. I know this and yet something in me has still been conditioned to distrust them, to believe them soft and entitled.
Peeta seems different, annoyingly likeable and honest. But I can't afford to take the chance on trusting him. I worked too hard to get here and my mom and Prim are counting on me to succeed. I need to stay focused and avoid any interpersonal bullshit that could jeopardize my future.
Still, I can't keep my mind from wandering back to him throughout my shift at work. I work at the deli counter of a local grocer. It's decent work. Nice and solitary for the most part and I don't mind the butchering. My dad taught me how to do most of it at the same time as he taught me to hunt. We'd skin or pluck and expertly butcher rabbits, birds and larger game when we could get it. I'm sure it grossed me out the first few times, but I would never have let my dad know that. I remember wanting him to see me as brave and strong no matter what. Working here keeps him close.
When my shift ends and I get home home the first thing I do is check my email. There's nothing worth noting in my Inbox, so I open Peeta's message again. His email doesn't say much, but I appreciate the no-nonsense-ness of it. I pick up my old crappy pay-as-you-go cell phone and enter his number. I have so few numbers on my contact list that Peeta's ends up being one of only three numbers along with Gale and Home.
I think about going to sleep, but something is still nagging at me and I'm not sure what it is. I stare back at the screen, twirling my long braid absentmindedly.
I find myself writing back even though I know it's unnecessary. Who is this...girl I've become? My response doesn't even really say anything, but it does the trick. Almost as soon as I hit 'Send' the drowsiness sets in and I find I'm easily carried off into a dreamless sleep.
Saturday plays out like every other Saturday. I get up at an ungodly hour for my busiest shift of the week. The demanding orders and endless small talk wear me down and by the time my workday ends I'm spent and need to get back outside.
Gale is working most of tomorrow, but will be able to meet me at our spot for lunch. I'm looking forward to our time together like I look forward to little else. We're like separate pieces of the same person, as comfortable with each other as we are by ourselves. Gale means more to me than we've ever talked about and probably ever will. It's not romantic, at least it hasn't been up to this point, it's just...us.
But, before I can have my blessed day in the woods and my much-needed Gale-time, there's tonight to get through. An evening at Peeta Mellark's...who would've thought?
I get home from work and take a long, hot shower, hoping to wash away my foul mood and exhaustion. I pull on a pair of cargo pants and a black t-shirt and decide to braid my hair while it's still wet because it's easier than trying to dry it and actually do something with it. I know it's not exactly a fashionable outfit and there's a small part of me that wishes I was more style-inclined. Really though, my lifestyle of school-work-woods doesn't require much of a beauty routine.
I really should eat something before I leave, but when I check the fridge I discover I'm realizing this far too late to make anything edible out of the disparate ingredients.
"Shit!" I exclaim, to no one in particular. But, there's nothing to be done now. I head out towards Peeta's, my stomach protesting all the way.
When the door opens, I'm hit with a barrage of smells so unbelievably tempting that my mouth begins to water immediately. Peeta's wide and easy grin is the next thing I notice and I think I'm smiling back, remarkably, despite myself.
"Hey," he says, "you made it."
"Yup," I answer without elaborating.
He stands aside, ushering me in. The pseudo smile on my face slips a little as I take in the scene in front of me. Peeta's apartment is even cooler than I'd suspected. The layout isn't unlike my own, just larger. He's got a kitchen/living room area divided by a beautiful island on the kitchen side and a large, comfy looking, leathery couch creating a cozy sitting area on the other. I don't see a giant-ass television, which surprises me, but I do see an impressive looking stereo system and incredible, almost certainly insanely expensive, art. Everywhere.
He's got a desk area in a separate alcove with overspilling bookshelves, and another space that I can't determine the purpose of because it's blocked from my view by one of those room divider things.
My eyes eventually wander over to the space where his bed is. It's on a beautiful wood platform on an already slightly raised part of the space. His bed is on a goddamn pedestal! Unbelievable.
I look back in his direction and he's looking...embarrassed, I think. Who could be embarrassed by such a ridiculously nice apartment?
"I haven't had a chance to eat yet, so I was just going to have something now. Have you eaten? There's plenty."
My first instinct is to say yes I've eaten and no to the food, but I can't detect any pity or assumption in his voice, just a genuinely kind offer. I'm about to say no anyways, out of stubborn defiance, but then my stomach growls so loud we both smile, the tension eases and I agree to join him in eating.
It's now my turn to be embarrassed. I take my first bite of the amazing smelling stew and I can't stop myself. I begin to devour it like a hungry dog, barely breathing or stopping to look up. It's one of the best things I've eaten since being back home.
Peeta chuckles lightly and says, "I'm glad you like it." I put my fork down for the first time since picking it up, feeling my cheeks getting hot.
"I didn't realize how hungry I was. It's really good." I say, stating the obvious.
"It's my grandma's recipe...one of my favourites. I have these too," he says, passing me a plate of big, beautiful buns with bubbly, melty cheese on top.
I take one eagerly and sink my teeth into the soft, airy bread. "These are amazing," I say, my mouth still full, "where did you get them?"
That look is back on his face, that same bashful look he had when I first arrived. "I, I made them," he stammers.
Still the boy with the bread. I don't know why it didn't occur to me that he might have made them. I guess because it seems like such an atypical thing for a college boy to do on a weekend. But who am I to judge? I butcher meats and run around in the woods on weekends. Not exactly typical college girl things to do either.
"Wow, I never knew what I was missing all those years in Oak Hill," I say knowing it's a lie. We could never have afforded Peeta's family's baked goods.
He knows this too, of course, but is gracious enough to reply evenly, "Well, you're welcome to as many as you want. I really shouldn't eat the whole batch myself."
"Thanks," I say simply before reaching for another.
After my second helping of stew I finally feel full and figure we should probably get to work. Peeta senses this without my having to say it out loud and quickly clears the table, leaving it as an option for us to work on. "Do you want to get started here or maybe over there?" he asks, nodding towards the living room area.
I'm torn by indecision. I shift uncomfortably on the hard kitchen chairs, looking longingly at the puffy couch. Is it too informal? I mean, we're not buddies or anything...would I even want that? I'm being stupid, it's just a couch, but then why am I feeling so weird about it?
I'm guessing he can read the uncertainty on my face because he offers an alternative, "I have a few chairs that are probably more comfortable than these ones, I'll just pull them up to the table."
I watch as he disappears behind the room divider and emerges with two paint-splattered chairs with a curve to them that does look much more comfortable than the wooden kitchen chairs.
"Don't worry, it's dry," he says, presumably about the paint. There are dozens of colours marking the chairs and I'm momentarily confused about their origin. Then I look around, really look at all the art surrounding me. It's all so raw and vivid and definitely came from the same artist.
"Are these? I mean, did you...?" I trail off, moving to a painting I feel especially drawn to. It seems familiar and as I look more closely, I realize it's the view from the back of Peeta's parents' bakery. It's the laneway from that night. The spot where I would have been is obscured by shadows. It's haunting and beautiful.
"Yeah, I did. It...it helps me to, um, relax." And he's embarrassed again and I feel horrible for obviously making this guy so uncomfortable in his own home.
"They're really great, Peeta. And I totally get it, I go crazy if I can't get outside and into the woods...it's the only place I'm ever completely relaxed."
The uneasy expression on his face is replaced by a far off look I know all too well. It's the same one my mom had for several years after my father's death. I wonder where Peeta has gone inside his own head, wonder what has sent him so far away.
I stay silent, waiting for him to speak next. When he does he says, "Thanks. It's weird to talk about it actually, I never really do. Even my family...my dad's the only one who knows I paint."
"Why?" I ask quietly.
"You know Oak Hill, art isn't exactly a popular activity...especially for guys. It's just the kind of thing I don't want to share with people who don't get it, you know? It would change it somehow."
I'm floored by his frank admission. I'm not sure I ever talk to anyone as honestly as he's talking to me. Well, maybe Gale. And suddenly I'm feeling weird about the intimate turn the conversation has taken, especially having just thought of Gale. I guess because he's been the only person I've ever been close to other than Prim.
The only words I can force out of my mouth are, "Yeah, I know what you mean."
Peeta shakes his head, like he's willing himself back to the present and gives me a warm smile, then he carries the chairs towards the table and begins rifling through his binder for the project instructions.
I turn back to the painting, searching for some unknown thing and feeling more than I thought possible from a canvas and some paint. I couldn't say what about it I find so moving if asked to explain it out loud. It's sad but hopeful, dirty but startlingly beautiful, so beat down but so enduring at the same time.
I surprise myself by having to fight back tears, take a deep breath and turn to join Peeta at the table to continue our work together. He's already looking at me, perhaps he'd been watching me while I was looking at his painting. His eyes don't flit away as they have before, instead he meets my gaze with an unwavering intensity. I know he must see the emotion I'm attempting to wipe from my face, but this time I don't try to hide it or look away either. His mouth curves into a brilliant, beaming smile and I can feel that mine has miraculously done the same.