No More Owed
The weather was unusually warm and clear for early spring. It was a shame such a perfect hunting day had to be wasted on a funeral, mused Katniss Everdeen.
Her little sister, Prim, squeezed her hand, and Katniss took a moment to wrap her arms around her sister and kiss the top of her blond head. Prim had hardly known the baker, but the sensitive girl still had tears streaming down her rosy cheeks. Katniss considered that perhaps she made the wrong decision in accompanying her mother to the funeral; perhaps should have stayed home to watch Prim, despite the younger girl's pleas for otherwise. Katniss would have preferred to protect her sister from the reality of death, although she admitted there was no real way to do so. And death by heart attack, even at the relatively young age of 40, was a lot less tragic than most of the deaths in District 12.
Mr. Mellark had been well-liked and his funeral was well-attended, although Katniss couldn't help noticing the Everdeen family and Katniss's best friend, Gale Hawthorne, were the only inhabitants from the Seam present. Katniss felt out of place, and the dark looks Mrs. Mellark kept shooting them did not make her feel more welcome. But she held her head high and refused to let that foul-tempered woman make her feel unworthy. Her mother had been childhood friends with Mr. Mellark; she, Gale, and even Prim had traded regularly with him. The baker used Prim's goat cheese in his baking and had a fondness for squirrels that Katniss and Gale were glad to capitalize on. They owed it to the soft-spoken baker with the friendly smile to come pay their respects.
And of course there was the matter of the baker's youngest son, Peeta. Katniss owed it to him, too.
She had never told anyone about the day five years ago when Peeta had saved her life. It had only been a couple months after her father had died – blown to pieces in a mining accident that had also claimed Gale's father – and her mother had descended into such a deep depression that she didn't notice her two daughters were starving in front of her. Driven to desperation, Katniss had opened the bakery's dumpsters, hoping to find stale food, but found instead they had recently been emptied. Mrs. Mellark had come out then to shoo her away and gripe about Seam brats pawing through her trash, but Katniss had hardly heard her and had barely taken notice of the blond boy from her class standing behind the screaming woman. Katniss had collapsed against a tree behind the baker's pig pen, waiting to either die or be taken away by the authorities and placed in a group home.
But before either of those very real possibilities could take place, she had heard a clatter and a following commotion from inside the bakery. The blond boy had stumbled out the backdoor with a red welt on his face and two loaves of burnt bread in his arms. Katniss could hear his mother yelling in the background about how he was a clumsy idiot and now the bread wasn't good for anything except feeding pigs. He began to tear off the burnt chunks and toss them to the pig, but as soon as he determined his mother wasn't peering over his shoulder, the boy threw both loaves at Katniss's feet and hurried back inside.
That bread had fed Katniss and her family for days. It had given Katniss strength and reminded her that she wasn't doomed. Her trips to the woods beyond the district fence with her father had been more than just bonding opportunities; she had knowledge of edible plants and access to her father's bow and arrows. She would survive. She would make sure of it.
The time had never seemed right to thank the boy with the bread, the boy who had saved her life yet never spoke a word to her. But she knew she owed him, and she hated owing people.
Katniss stole a look at the boy now. Unlike his mother, who stood by the graveside stoically, he was crying steadily as his father's coffin was lowered into the ground.
"At least he has a body to bury," Gale muttered softly, and Katniss was startled, not by Gale's callousness but by the fact that she was just thinking the same thing herself.