A Debt Unpaid

As Effie Trinket puts her hand into the glass bowl full of slips, twenty of which have my name on them, I keep hoping that it's not me. Trinket selects the female tribute and announces, "Dana Haskins."

It's not me. I feel relief flow through me before I see who has been selected. It's easy to spot her because she is the only one moving, making her way to the stage. She is clearly from the Seam, with her dark hair, gray eyes and being nearly starved to death. It seems District 12 will send its usual lamb to the slaughter. As the tribute makes her way up the stage, Haymitch Abernathy stands up and slurs, "Well, finally, … decent meal!" He slumps back down into his chair.

I turn to catch Gale's eye before the boys are selected. He gives me a smile, but I can still see the worry on his face. I start to worry as well when I remember the forty-two slips with his name.

Effie pulls out the piece of paper and reads a name, "Peeta Mellark!"

Not him, how could it be him? He only has a few slips in the Reaping. Suddenly, I realize that my hand is at my mouth with a look of shock on my face. I force myself to hide my emotions.

I look to Gale to see if noticed my moment of panic for a boy I don't really know. I find him in the crowd, but he is just getting over his own relief from not being selected. He gives me a smile, and I try to smile back. His smile changes to a look of worry; I can tell he knows that something is still troubling me.

I turn to look at the broad shouldered boy, with blond hair and blue eyes, heading to the stage. This boy saved my my life and the life of my family.

Five years ago, my father died in a coal mining accident. My mother went into a stupor. She couldn't do anything for herself, let alone take care of Prim and I. I was left at the age of eleven to take care of my mother and little sister. I struggled to cook and clean and keep Prim out of a community home.

I was at my wits end and starving to death when I met Peeta. I was looking through the garbage of the bakery when his mother chased me off. At this point I was ready to die. Then I heard a commotion coming from the bakery. The boy was carrying two pieces of burned bread toward the pig pen. Instead of giving it to the pigs, he threw the bread at my feet. I grabbed it and ran home to feed my family.

The next day at school, he didn't say anything about it. When school was over I found him in the crowd looking at me, but he looked away quickly. When turned, I saw a dandelion, which reminded me of the skills I learned from my father about hunting and gathering food.

Later on, I found out his name was Peeta Mellark. Even though I trade squirrels with his father I have never really talked to Peeta. I still feel like I owe him because I never even said thank you to him. To me, the boy with the bread has led to everything good still in my life. Without him, I wouldn't have my family or Gale. Now I will never get the chance to pay him back.

Wait! The tributes are allowed visitors before they leave for the Capitol. If I go, then at least I can thank him before he dies.

The rest of the Reaping goes by like a flash. As the anthem ends, the tributes are taken into custody and walked over to the Justice building. I'm tempted to run straight to the Justice Building, but I decide that I should tell my family first. I find Prim and begin moving through the crowd looking for our mother. I finally spot our mother next to Gale and the rest of his family. I let my mother hug Prim and me, but only for Prim's sake. I don't think I can ever forgive her for leaving us like she did.

"Hey Catnip," calls Gale, "looking forward to our little feast."

"Of course," I reply, "but there's something I need to take care of before we head back to our house."

"What is it?" Gale asks. I was hoping there wouldn't be too many questions about what I was doing. I don't really want to have to explain why I'm visiting a boy I've never even talked to.

"I'm going to visit Peeta Mellark in the Justice Building." A look of surprise comes across everyone's faces. Gale looks at me quizzically.

My mother asks, "Are you friends with Peeta Mellark? I've never seen you two talking before."

Luckily, Gale interjects, "Well, I guess we do a lot of business with the Mellarks, and Mr. Mellark did give us a little extra bread during our trade this morning. It couldn't hurt to be friendly. Isn't Peeta in your class?"

"Yes," I answer, "we're in the same history class."

"Do you want me to come with you?" inquires Gale.

"Uh... No, I think I should go alone." I can see the look of surprise cross Gale's face. I guess I'm full of surprises today.

Gale pulls himself together enough to say, "Well alright, we'll see you back at your house. Bye." I give Prim another hug before she heads off with the mother and the Hawthornes.

In the Justice building, I find Madge standing next to her father, who is talking to one of the Peacekeepers. I tap Madge on the shoulder and ask, "Where do I need to go to visit Peeta Mellark?" Madge's eyes go wide for a second, but she doesn't seem to be as shocked as everyone my family was. Madge takes my hand and leads me down a hall to a door.

Even outside the door, I can hear the crying going on inside the room. I'm suddenly having second thoughts about visiting Peeta at all. I start to head back the other way when Madge grabs my hand. She says in a soft voice, "I think Peeta would really like to see you."

"Why?" I ask a little too loudly. "I've never even talked to him," I end in a whisper.

Madge raises an eyebrow, but asks the question I didn't want to answer, "Then why do you want to see him?"

"Because I owe him," I mumble, " because if it weren't for him I would have died. I never had the courage to thank him." This is easily the most personal thing I have ever told Madge. Even though we sit together at lunch because we are both quiet and loners, I have never been sure whether we are really friends.

Madge holds my hand a little tighter and says, "You should stay, it's never too late to make things right. I'll stay with you until it's your turn." She pulls me toward a bench and we sit down. Clearly, I've underestimated Madge for all these years. Perhaps, we really are friends after all.

After a few minutes, Mr. Mellark exits the room, eyes still puffy and red from crying. After wiping his eyes, it takes him a few seconds to recognize me sitting on the bench in front of him. He tries to smile at me, but I can tell he doesn't have it in him.

"Katniss, I didn't know you were friends with Peeta."

"We have some classes together at school," I answer weakly.

"I'm really glad you came to see Peeta. I'm sure he'll be glad to see you too." I respond with a nod, but I don't understand why people think Peeta will be happy to see me. He barely knows me. He might not even remember giving me the bread for all I know.

After a few more minutes, Mrs. Mellark leaves the room. Her face is dry, she doesn't even look worried that her son is going to die. A surge of anger rises through me. I knew she was a witch, but I thought that even a witch would care for her son. I'm about to scold her when I hear the impossible. A whimper escapes from Mrs. Mellark, and then sobs coming from the woman I thought had no heart. I guess all those times she was mean to her sons, she was trying to keep her distance, trying to brace herself in case she lost one to the Reaping. Clearly, it didn't help, as she starts to break down from the loss of her son. Mr. Mellark half leads and half carries her away from us.

Finally, Peeta's brothers, Tom and Reese, emerge from the room. It's clear they have been crying, but Reese, the older of the two, puts on a smile anyway. Reese jabs his brother in the ribs and says, "It seems our brother has been keeping secrets. It didn't know he had a girlfriend, let alone two."

I scowl at Reese, but I can see he was just trying to cheer up Tom. Tom could have volunteered for Peeta, but he didn't. He must be blaming himself for Peeta's eventual death. No one in town will blame him for not taking Peeta's place; usually, familial love does not cause anyone to volunteer for their family members.

Reese smiles at me and says, "Just a little joke Katniss. He's all yours." As they walk away, I wonder if I would take Prim's place if she were called. No! I can't think about something like that happening.

I stand up and walk towards to the door. I turn back to Madge and ask, "Do you want to come with me?"

"No," she answers, "I'm sure Peeta would like to see you alone." I nod to Madge and open the door.

The room is amazing. It is the richest place I have ever seen in my life, with velvet chairs and a thick carpet. Peeta hasn't noticed me yet because he is still sobbing to himself. I make my way to a chair sitting across from him, but Peeta doesn't notice me until I say his name. He looks up at me, a bit startled, and smiles at me. Unlike the smiles I've seen from the rest of his family today, his seems genuine, like the smiles he has at school when he's with his friends. Maybe everyone was right about Peeta wanting to see me.

"Hi Katniss," says Peeta while wiping away the tears from his eyes.

I'm a little surprised that he knows who I am, until I remember that I am rather well known in town for my hunting. A little nervous, I blurt out, "I came to thank you, … for the bread."

He looks at me in surprise for a few seconds, but he seems to remember. He responds, "You mean the bread I gave you, a few years ago." I nod my head gravely. He laughs at me. I start to get angry when he adds, "You don't need to thank me for that. You needed it more than I did."

Still angry, I shout "Of course you don't understand!" I continue,"You've always had enough to eat. That bread saved my life, and the life of everyone I love! You don't get how much I owe you for that! You didn't even know me. I still don't understand why you gave me that bread."

I can see that what I've said hurt him, and I immediately regret saying it all. "I'm sorry for yelling at you," I add lamely.

Peeta looks at me with his piercing blue eyes and says, "I'll tell you why I gave you the bread. Honestly, there's been something I've wanted to tell you for long time."

"It all starts on the first day of school when we were five," he explains.

"What does this have to do with the bread," I interrupt.

"I'll get there." he responds and continues the story. "Anyway, you were wearing a red dress. My dad pointed you out and told me, 'See that little girl. I wanted to marry her mother, but she ran off with a coal miner.'"

"No way!" Maybe that's why Mr. Mellark is so nice to Prim.

"True story. I asked my dad why she chose a coal miner when she could have had you. He told me that it was because when he sang, even the mockingjays stopped to listen."

"They did stop to listen," I say wistfully, remembering my father.

"Later during the music class, the teacher asked if anyone knew the valley song and your hand shot up. The teacher stood you up on the stool, and you sang. I swear, all the birds outside stopped singing."

"That's not true! " I contend. I realize now, that the reason I haven't sang in years isn't because I dislike music. I just don't like to sing because it reminds me of my father. One thing I still don't get is how this relates to the bread.

Peeta continues, "It is true, and just like your mother," he hesitates for a second," … I was a goner." As he says those last few words I see him starting to blush and he stares at the floor.

It takes a few seconds before I realize what he just admitted to me. "You have a crush on me?" I ask almost accusingly. He nods, his eyes still not meeting mine. "So, you gave me the bread because you had a crush on me." Suddenly it's obvious. The bread, all the times I caught him look away when I looked at him, why everyone seemed to know Peeta wanted to see me.

He nods again, and finally looks up at me. He explains, "I tried to build up the courage to talk to you, but it was, um, … you're difficult to approach."

"I'm sorry. I can't." I take a step away from him.

"You are dating Gale then?" he asks with defeat in his voice.

"No, we're just friends," I say defensively. I see hope returning to his face, but I don't want to give him the wrong idea. I continue, "I don't want to get married, or have boyfriends, or have children."

Peeta looks a little confused before a smile spreads across his face. "Well, I guess I can understand, given my circumstances." I laugh at his morose humor.

"I think we could have been friends," I say carelessly. Realizing my mistake, I continue, "I mean, we will be friends."

He smiles and says, "It's okay, you don't have to pretend I'm going to survive the Games. But, if by some miracle I do make it, will you be friends with me?" When I see his blue eyes, I know that he is serious about this. There's no way that I could deny him this, even if I didn't owe him. I give him a smile and tell him, "Of course we will be friends. I promise."

I hear a knock at the door, it must be the Peacekeepers. I stand up to go when suddenly, Peeta takes me into a hug. I let him hug me, since this is probably the only thing I can do to repay my debt. I've hugged Gale before, so this shouldn't be any different.

I hear the Peacekeepers coming up behind me to pull me away, and Peeta's grasp around me tightens. I still feel like I can never repay Peeta for what he's done for me, so I do something stupid. I stand on my toes and give Peeta a kiss on the cheek.

The Peacekeepers pull me away a moment later, and I am led out of the room. The door closes in front of me, and I feel like a part of my life that could have been is gone forever. Except for the Games, I will never see the boy with the bread again. I only knew him for a few minutes, but I still feel like I will miss him.