Stay With Me

Chapter 5

Chapter 5


Few joys in life could ever compare to the feeling of watching Katniss stare at my painting and seeing nothing but the most genuine of emotions play out on her beautiful face. I had contemplated taking the painting of the laneway behind our bakery down, thinking that it might upset her, but seeing her reaction and the way she was drawn to it tells me I made the right decision by leaving it up.

By the time we got started on our assignment, I was nothing short of elated with how things had gone up to that point. She ate my food and loved it, didn't bitch me out for having a nice apartment and responded to my art in a way no one ever has.

Our conversations have been relatively short, and of the two of us I'm definitely the talker, so I'm trying not to overwhelm her with too much chatter. It's hard though because my instincts would have me baring every last bit of my soul, something I know would send her running for the hills. I intend to be honest with her, intend to answer any question she ever asks truthfully, but for now the best I can do is not freak her out.

Now that we're wrapping up over hot chocolate and cookies, I'm starting to dread the end of our time together. I know I'll see her again soon, but I'm feeling the loss already. I'm afraid of what'll happen when she leaves, when the project's over, when we graduate... I just wish there was some way to slow down time, to stretch out every minute into years.

Katniss is enjoying her third cookie when she finally mumbles with her mouth full, "Did you make these, too?"

I nod, no longer embarrassed by my obvious preparations. She's been pretty cool about it and since cooking and baking really are my best moves, I kinda just have to go for it.

"They're good, I like the spice. I think I like the cheese buns better though," Katniss says matter-of-factly, which makes me chuckle.

"Thanks. Yeah, bread's always been more my thing. It's the decorating of desserts I'm better at."

"Is that how you got started with the painting?"

"Yeah, I mean, it's how I figured out I could do it. I liked the distraction, you know? It took so much focus to do each little flower or letter that the rest of the world just kinda fell away while I was doing it. When I finally started trying it out for real, sketching and painting I mean, I was hooked."

She doesn't say anything, just nods, looking pensive. I'm not sure if I should stop talking and let her finish thinking or keep going to fill the silence.

I wait for what must be a full minute and she still hasn't said anything. So I take a chance because she seems to have gotten everything I've said about my art so far and say, "I always felt a little trapped in Oak Hill, maybe it's because most people who live there act like they're stuck there, but I always felt a little freer decorating those cakes, like there was a piece of me that couldn't be trapped."

I think she shakes her head slightly, but I can't be sure. When she answers, her voice has become hard and defensive.

"Well, some people have a lot to deal with...and have people who can't be left behind. Most people who live there don't exactly live a charmed life." She doesn't look at me even though I'm now glaring at her incredulously. How did this become a conversation about money? My hand shoots up reflexively to the spot on my face where the heel of my mother's hand landed so often as a child.

"You know, Katniss, people's lives aren't as charmed as you think. Having food on the table and a pair of new shoes doesn't mean your life is perfect."

"Right, but it does mean you get to do things that aren't worrying about your family's survival, doesn't it? Things that aren't staring at your baby sister's hollow face, wondering if she'll die before you figure out how to feed her." Her voice has raised a little bit now and I can see that her eyes have turned to ice even though she still hasn't looked at me directly. I'm confused about how quickly things have changed. How did we get from, "Yeah, I know what you mean," to here?

Before I can really think it through though, I'm responding, "Sure, but you know who would've looked out for me if I were the one starving? No one. My mother thinks of us all as a series of mistakes and my brothers don't give a shit about anyone but themselves. You know what your sister has that's better than fancy bread and a nice house? You. I would've given anything to have just one person know I even existed."

I don't even know who I'm talking about anymore. Is it her I wanted to notice me? My family? What is it that I'm actually saying? I'm guessing things got a little too raw for me when we first started talking about my art and now I'm just being overly defensive too. Whatever's going on, it's probably too much for our first time actually talking to each other.

Now I let the silence hang in the air, not worrying about how long it's been there. She's back to looking deep in thought and her eyes have softened a little bit. It seems the heatedness of the moment has passed. I start breathing again, not sure where to go from here.

I get up to clear our mugs and the plate that has only one cookie left on it. I hold the plate out to her with a small smile, hoping she interprets it as the olive branch I'm intending it to be. Katniss looks at me for the first time in what feels like hours. She searches my face for a moment and must find what she's looking for because she returns a grin and takes the cookie, biting into it before I've even turned to walk towards the sink.

We wrap up our planning and start talking about our next meeting. We agree on Monday afternoon and decide to meet on campus because Katniss doesn't start work until 6pm and we finish our classes around the same time, so we'll have a good couple of hours.

"Should I bring some leftovers? I've got stew here for a week." I offer it casually, without thinking.

"Peeta, you don't have to do that. I can get my own food." The edge to her voice is back.

Damn, one act of kindness too far - she's pissed at me again. I take a deep breath, waiting a few more beats before responding this time.

"I know you can get your own food, Katniss. I just have more than I can eat myself, you said you liked it so I thought I'd share it with you. That's all." I still sound frustrated. It surprises me because I'm usually abnormally patient. While I was pretty sure she'd tear me a new one during our time together, I wasn't expecting to actually fire back. I never would have thought that I'd be challenging her in this way, never in the thousands of times I imagined us spending time together.

My tone seems to pull her up short because she's looking at me with a look of shock that almost makes me laugh out loud. I'm pretty sure if I did though she'd kick me in the nuts, so I keep my face as passive as possible.

"Okay, I guess we'd be able to work longer if we have some food. Thanks." She speaks quietly, maybe even a little bashfully.

I don't say anything, only nod. I'm not sure what I could say anyways.

Katniss rises to leave and I just watch silently as she gathers her things and heads to the door. We confirm our meeting place for Monday, she thanks me and says goodnight, and I walk her out to the street. I watch her for just a minute as she disappears into the darkness, her silhouette mixing in with the shadows until it's gone.

I'm lying in my bed, staring at the same spot on the ceiling I've been looking at for over an hour. It was crazy to think I could fall asleep after the intensity of the day. Even now as I run through the evening over and over again in my head, it feels so surreal. Katniss was in my apartment. Last week the thought of saying "Hi" to her made me queasy with anxiety, today she sat a foot away from me, eating my food and complimenting my art.

I wonder what she thinks of me. I wonder if I totally blew it after those couple of tense moments. I couldn't help it though. The assumptions she has about me are so...painful. It's like she doesn't really see me at all, she looks at me and still sees a selfish person with money who'll only hurt her.

That night, all those years ago, I should have done more, should have...but I've been down the road these thoughts take me on before. I know she would've resented anything I tried to do. But then why? Why have I been doing all of this without her even knowing it?

I don't ask myself this question very often, it's embarrassing and depressing and just leads to my feeling sorry for myself. I know, though, that I do it because she should have someone looking out for her. I never did and I know what that's like. Seeing her basically raising her sister, with very few friends and no real mother to speak of... Watching her struggle to feed her family, keep it together at school, still dreaming of something better for herself... She's braver than I've ever been, even as she carries the weight of the world on her shoulders. She deserves to have at least some things go right. If she only knew, only knew that I would spend the rest of my life doing whatever it takes to give her everything she's ever wanted...

I'm only halfway through a mountain of homework by mid-morning Sunday, not sure if I'll get enough done in time to head over to my buddy's place to catch the game this afternoon. Some mindless entertainment and good company would go a long way right now, but not until I get this workload under control.

I wonder about the plans Katniss said she had today. Wonder if they involve that guy, Gale. I can't get a read on the exact nature of their relationship and it would be a weird thing to come right out and ask. I remember the way all the girls in high school talked about him; tall, dark and brooding is apparently the most desirable combination ever. I rolled my eyes at them all back then, but on the inside I couldn't help but be jealous. I can objectively say without any (or much) self-deprecation that I'm no competition for a guy like Gale.

I sigh and flip through my textbook knowing that my focus is gone and so is any hope I had of spending the afternoon watching sports. It's been happening to me more and more lately. I thought a business degree made a lot of sense back when I started, but I'm not so sure anymore. I've been going through the motions for months, and now I can't even seem to do that.

I'll have to work through the afternoon, but know I need to clear my head just for a little while. I head over to my easel and start a new painting. I settle on the image of Katniss walking away into the night, eerie and beautiful. It's one of the more striking visuals that has stayed with me since yesterday.

Colours mixed and brushes selected, I start filling the canvas with the picture stuck in my mind. I let my mind drift and decide that I can't keep doing what I have been. Just seeing Katniss' reaction to my offer of leftovers tells me that if she ever found out that I've been helping the odds work a little more in her favour she'd either kick the crap out of me, have me arrested or never speak to me again. Maybe all three, it's hard to say.

Actually spending time with her does open the door to a new kind of watching out for her though, one that can include cheese buns and cookies and showing her that I'm not the enemy, that I'd like to be the furthest thing from that there is. Whether or not she'll let me, well, that's a whole other thing.

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