The drive with Peeta was a nice change of pace. I was used to taking the long-ass, impossibly complicated bus ride back every time I went home. The one that stops a million times along the way and turns a 3-hour ride into a 15-hour one depending on the bus you're able to get on.
What surprised me was his vehicle. I didn't know he had one, but certainly wasn't shocked when he revealed that he did. I pictured some shiny, flashy model I couldn't pronounce, but instead it was an older minivan. He noted my arched eyebrow and explained that it had been his dad's before he and his brothers moved out and before his mom took over most of the out-of-town bakery business. He told me his mother took advantage of every opportunity to get out of Oak Hill she could, so she was the one with a shiny new van and his dad got a small used truck he could use around town.
Peeta said his mom hated the old van and hated that her son drove around in that "monstrosity." I was really starting to get how much of a bitch she really was. It was clear that image was what was most important to her. From what Peeta's told me, she doesn't seem to care about much else when it comes to her kids.
It got me thinking about those years after my dad died. How my mom checked out on us and totally left us to our own devices. It was awful. The being ignored, the feeling that she didn't care. It was a really dark time for our family. The way Peeta tells it, his mom has been that way his entire life. I can't imagine it. And I can't for the life of me understand how he could still be such a nice guy with a mother like that.
How does that even happen? Shouldn't he be a heroine addict or in jail or, at the very least, a total douchebag?
Peeta remains a colossal mystery to me. I just don't understand why he continues to be so kind and generous. It makes me suspicious, of course, but unless he has some nefarious plan I haven't figured out yet, he treats me this way with all sincerity.
I'm sure Gale thinks otherwise, thinks I'm out of my mind hanging out with a guy like Peeta, but sometimes I think mine and Gale's alienating attitude isn't working for either of us. We fuel each others' bitterness and I'm starting to wonder if maybe that's not who I want to be anymore. The thought of trying to be someone else though, now that's terrifying. Plus, I would never do anything to jeopardize my relationship with Gale. I just can't imagine a life without him in it.
My arrival was duly met with the high level of excitement I've come to expect from Prim. Every time I see her I can't believe how old she is, can't believe she's inching ever closer to adulthood. It's mind-blowing to me that my little duck is growing up and becoming an independent woman of her own. It makes me happy and sad all at once.
My mom was her usual guarded self. We've come a long way, my mom and I, but things are still tense between us. I keep telling myself that it's time to forgive and forget, but I can't quite pull it off. She pushes my buttons, always has, and the divide between us can feel overwhelming. So she treads lightly with me, especially during shorter visits.
By 10p.m. I'm tired and feel done with catching up. I say goodnight to Prim with a long, soul-soothing hug and head up to my familiar room.
The rooms in our modest house are small, so small that mine and Prim's rooms only contain a twin bed, a low dresser that doubles as a desk and a small chair each. Still, when you don't have much else, your own room is a pretty big deal. My shoulders relax a little bit once I'm in here, I feel lighter somehow.
I change into pyjama pants and a tank top, but keep a sweater and wool socks close to the bed. I remember the chill of this house well and know I'll likely wake up cold and need the extra layer later.
I'm just getting comfortable when I hear Prim opening her window, an odd move for the temperature outside. Moments later I hear her giggle and say, "It's the other window."
Something stirs inside me and I instantly know what I'm hoping for, but won't admit it to myself. I look out my own window and sure enough, Peeta is standing beneath it. Smiling, he gives me a sheepish wave.
As I hear Prim close her window, I open mine. "What are you doing here?" I ask, then realize that I probably could have greeted him in a better way.
"Sorry," he says, "I know it's getting late. I just needed to get out of that house..."
"It's gonna be a really long weekend for you, Peeta, we've only been back a few hours."
He smiles at me with an unreadable expression. "Do you wanna grab a coffee or something? I'm not going to be able to sleep anytime soon anyway. The truck stop's still open."
Getting dressed again and going out with Peeta in Oak Hill at this time of night is not something I feel prepared to do. I don't have the energy to make small talk with people I haven't seen in a while in town, nor do I have the restraint to not tell anybody off if I notice them talking about or staring at us. Which they almost definitely will.
"I'm already in my pyjamas. Why don't you just come in, I'll make us something here." He nods and takes a step towards the window. "Through the door, Peeta, we're allowed to hang out after dark...we are adults after all." I chuckle, shaking my head.
I quickly put a bra back on and grab my sweater before leaving my room. Prim is standing in her doorway, one eyebrow arched, arms folded across her chest. She wants an explanation, but I don't know what to tell her.
"We've been hanging out a little bit, it's no big deal," I try to wave it off, but she seems unconvinced.
"I can't wait to hear the whole story. Tomorrow," she says with a smile. I roll my eyes, already dreading how that conversation is going to go. I sigh loudly too, for good measure. She says nothing, but is still smiling as she closes her door.
I momentarily worry about waking up my mom, it's such a small house, but then remember that she regularly takes any one of a handful of natural sleeping pills and consequently sleeps pretty heavily.
When I let Peeta in, I see that he's only wearing a thin, long-sleeved shirt with no jacket. "You must be freezing! Here," I say, grabbing a blanket off a nearby chair and handing it to him.
"Thanks," he answers and follows me into the kitchen. We stay silent for a few moments while I busily put some coffee on. I root around to see if I can find something to snack on, but the pickings are slim. We mostly just have ingredients for tomorrow's Thanksgiving dinner.
Before I can even say anything, Peeta says, "It's okay, I'm not hungry." I appreciate how he has this way of diffusing what could be difficult moments for me. It has made the task of becoming comfortable around him so much easier.
I don't know why, then, that I choose to make the moment an intense one, but the words come spilling out of my mouth before I can stop them, "One of these days though, I am going to feed you for a change." As I hear what I'm saying, I realize I'm not sure I'm just referring to the last three or four weeks. The words have been spoken seriously, with intent, like I'm accessing some ancient feeling I didn't know was still so raw.
I can feel Peeta's eyes on me, but can't meet them. Before the silence becomes unbearable, he says with equal intensity, "Katniss, you don't owe me anything."
His words create a much needed release of something I'm desperately holding onto. The owing. I have always felt like I owed him everything. The boy with the bread I barely knew who threw me a lifeline in the rain.
"I do, you know I do." He's already shaking his head before I finish speaking the words.
I need to get out of this serious moment I've backed myself into, but I don't know how anymore. I'm sure he can see me panicking, and so I stay silent and wait for him to diffuse the situation one more time like I know he will.
He touches my hand across the table. It's the first time he's ever touched me. My hand twitches slightly, acknowledging a deeply ingrained impulse to avoid human contact, but I stop the instinct before actually pulling it away. I look at our hands, but I can feel Peeta looking at me. He holds his hand there and doesn't speak until I look up at him.
His face reveals a pleading look, a pained, desperate to be really heard expression I can't ignore. "No, Katniss, you don't. I've never thought or expected otherwise." And I believe him. I believe him and I want his hand to stay where it is and I want this to be the way we sit every time we're together. I will myself to say something meaningful, to convey this feeling that's building and taking hold.
But I'm not the girl who knows what to say, can't match his apt remarks. So, as usual, I say nothing. Peeta gives my hand a squeeze then lets it go and says, "So, I take it your return to Oak Hill is going better than mine?"
I stare fixedly for a moment at the place our hands were. He's done it again, brought us back from a place I don't know how to navigate. For this, he gets a warm, natural smile before I answer, "Sounds like, so what happened?"
I like that he came here to talk to me. I'm not the warm and fuzzy type, so I'm more used to people seeking their comfort elsewhere.
"It's just so tense. I'm not that close with my brothers. They're older, I don't know, we didn't really have a lot to do with each other growing up. And my dad, he tries, but my mom...she's just so miserable and cold. I don't know why I ever think things will be different..."
"I'm sorry, Peeta," is all I can say.
"It's cool, I just have to get through tomorrow and then I can go back to doing my own thing. Do you have a deck of cards or something? I could really use some distraction." I smile again and nod.
Minutes later we're drinking coffee and playing Crazy Eights. We end up talking and playing cards until one o'clock in the morning when Peeta catches me yawning and decides to head back home. I go back to my room, pull on my wool socks and return to my bed, smiling.
"Spill it," Prim demands as she hands me a cup of coffee and returns to prepping the turkey. I've slept in, it's already eleven o'clock, but Prim's insistence still feels like too much, too early.
I groan, resting my forehead on one of my arms on the table while gripping my mug tightly with the other hand.
She doesn't wait for me to respond and instead begins babbling excitedly, "I knew it! I knew he liked you and I always thought you guys would get together. Well, it was always a toss up between him and Gale, but I knew it!"
"What are you even talking about, Prim? We're not together, we're just, I don't know, friends." And you always knew he liked me, what?
"Oh yeah right, Katniss, guys don't just show up at your house at night throwing rocks at your window when you're just friends. He's so into you! Do you like him?"
"Prim, I'm not fourteen years old anymore. I'm not going to ask him to the school dance or wear his jersey. We had an assignment together and now we hang out sometimes. It's not a big deal."
"You're so blind! Trust me, Peeta Mellark does not just want to be friends with you."
"Okay Prim, seriously, you don't even know him. How could you possibly know that?" I honestly had no idea. This was the first time Prim and I were even talking about Peeta, or liking boys for that matter. She knows it's not a comfortable subject for me, or even a relevant one up to now, so she never bothered bringing it up. Now she's on about ending up with Peeta or Gale and Peeta being into me?! The whole conversation is suddenly a nightmare.
"You've seriously never noticed? He stares at you all the time! And I'm pretty sure he follows you or something because he's wherever you are, like, always. I was always so jealous of that...a guy like Peeta crushing on you and Gale as your best friend. You've always been so lucky."
My head is swimming with a thousand thoughts. The way Prim tells it, I've got it made when it comes to boys, but none of it makes any sense to me. It's true, Peeta has always just been there, but it somehow never occurred to me that he was following me or there on purpose. I always just assumed there was some unnameable force that kept crossing our paths as some sort of cosmic reminder.
It's taking me a long time to respond. I can't untangle the mass of revelations enough to form a coherent sentence or question. I can't even reply with a snide remark because I don't know what to make of any of it, let alone dismiss or mock it.
"I've always thought it's really sweet, the way he adores you from afar. It's so romantic, Kat, he's like your secret admirer! Except, less of a secret one now I guess..."
"Prim, stop! I doubt any of this is true and even if it is we're just friends, so stop freaking me out. I don't want things to be all weird tomorrow." I feel the need to escape. To run into the woods and think all of this through.
"What's tomorrow?" Now Prim's grinning from ear to ear. I think I liked it better when we didn't talk about boys this way.
"We're just getting together to put the final touches on our project. It's not like a date or anything." I respond with a pissy, impatient tone.
"You know, Kat, you're going to have to face the fact that guys are into you sooner or later. Two totally hot guys, actually. If I were you, I'd make up your mind and go for it before you lose them both."
My eyes bug out at her. Who said anything about going for it? What the hell is going on here?
I avoid everything she just said by asking, "Are you and mom cool to get things started? I really need to just get outside for a while."
"Yeah, you have a lot of thinking to do." Prim responds with a wink.
I get changed and tear out of the house like I'm on a mission. And truthfully, I am. It's mission What-the-hell-was-Prim-talking-about-and-how-do-I-figure-it-out-without-everything-getting-awkward-and-weird-and-complicated? Otherwise known as, Mission Impossible.