Seasons of Wither, Chapter 3

I sit at the old, warped lunch table in our school cafeteria, being careful not to snag myself on one of the splintering pieces of wood that make up it's seat. I remove the small package from my backpack wrapped in a small square of gingham fabric and unfold it onto the table before me. My lunch today consists of one small red apple and a generously sized glob of Lady's goat cheese, a gift from my sister. And, although I requested it, for some reason the site of the goat cheese makes my stomach churn. The way it sits there like a sticky glob before me puts me on the edge of vomiting, and I quickly remove the apple and wrap the cheese back up inside of the fabric, trying desperately to ignore the fact that it is there.

It will do little to settle my rumbling stomach, but it's something. There are many kids in this school whose parents can't afford to feed them three times a day. Unfortunately, we are forced to spend the half hour that is our lunch in the cafeteria, so the less fortunate are made to watch everyone else eat as their stomachs gurgle in desperation. Coming into lunch empty-handed is a bit of an unspoken shame here, but I used to be one of those kids myself. Until I began hunting with Gale, that is.

Madge Undersee takes her usual spot across from me at the lunch table, clanging her lunch tin loudly on it's top. Our eyes meet for a second, and just as usual, we don't bother with exchanging formalities. I notice that Madge has packed herself a nice, sufficient lunch today—a sandwich and a handful of dried figs. Figs don't grow here, of course, but it's one of the many delicacies her father is allowed, him being the mayor and all.

I try not to look at her sandwich too enviously, but my stomach is empty and I feel that recognizable sensation of it trying to digest itself. There were a handful of times when I wasn't able to bring my lunch when Madge would discreetly slip me part of hers without my asking or her offering. I suppose that I should have been grateful, but the act only succeeded at making me feel inadequate. Madge must have sensed this, too, as it doesn't happen anymore.

I remind myself of the roasted squirrel I could be devouring right now, and my brows draw together as I think of my last hunting trip with Gale. I had shot three of them, clean in the eyeball like always. However, upon skinning them Gale insisted the the bald patches on their skin and dull coat must be the symptom of a serious illness. After much bickering, I ended up burying them in a shallow hole in the woods. It didn't help that the number of squirrels and rabbits seemed to have been decreasing over the past few weeks. We both went home both hungry and angry that day and haven't spoken since.

I let out an audible sigh when I realize how bad things have gotten between us.

"My father misses your strawberries," Madge offers. I look up when I realize that she's speaking to me. It's surprising, considering that more often that not we don't make an effort to hold a conversation. Her blue eyes meet mine peculiarly, and I realize that it is her attempt to cheer me up. All I know is that I must have looked pretty down if she's actually discussing something as dull as strawberries with me.

"Another six weeks or so. That's when they'll begin to ripen," I tell her.

"I'll tell Father."

It was a nice attempt, but it only reminds me of those sweet, red berries that only bloom in late spring and summer. Gale and I would always eat more than we picked. On a hot summer afternoon, they were the best. We'd laugh and joke around as we picked them off the vine and ate them right there in the patch. They were always best straight off the vine. I think of Gale, realizing how those days are long gone. I miss him even though I still see him almost every day.

My stomach lets out a loud rumble as I bite into my apple, and Madge tries hard to ignore it. I turn my attention away from the blonde-haired girl sitting across from me, my eyes landing on a hearty loaf of bread being broken between it's table's inhabitants. Peeta Mellark is tearing generous pieces off of the large loaf and handing them around the table of merchant's kids. The bread looks heavy and filling, and even from across the room I can see the hodgepodge of nuts and berries baked into it's hearty crust. Oh, how I longed to be a merchant's kid right now, sitting between Peeta Mellark and Delly Cartwright, happily snacking on pieces of the baker's bread.

I stare longingly at the loaf when I feel a pair of blue eyes on me, and blush when I realize Peeta had just caught site of me ogling his bread. He stares at me curiously for a second before glancing down at the bread that he holds in his hands. I quickly tear my gaze away from him, swinging my leg over the bench were I sit and tossing my apple core into the trashcan before waiting out the rest of the lunch period staring out the cafeteria windows.

I walk alone down the dirt road home from school that evening. My mother had been there as the bell rang to collect Prim. She had a bedridden patient, and needed Prim's help cleansing his bed sores. I wrinkle my nose at the thought of it.

The sun has just begun to set as I make my way through the square and a tall figure begins walking in time with me. Gale glances towards me with a friendly nod, and I find myself forcing back a smile.

"Have fun in the mines?" I ask him, recognizing his soot-covered clothing and skin. Field trips to the mines are a regular thing as you near the end of school. Since Gale's 18, he's already going down a few times a week to train. They don't waste any time in training new miners, and in a few months, school will be over and he'll be sent directly to work full-time in the mines. The thought of him going down in the same place where our fathers were killed frightens me, even though it will mean more money for his family.

"A blast," he says. "Figuratively speaking, of course."

I smile at the easy conversation that has taken place between us.

"Elevator got stuck after we came up for lunch and they let us out early," he goes on.

"Lucky," I say. "So what are you doing back here?"

"Made a trade at the Hob and thought I'd see you home," he says, taking a hold of my wrist and veering me off to walk down the alley which runs behind the business district. I stare at him confused until he reaches for something inside his jacket. "Happy birthday, Catnip," he says, placing a hunting knife into my hands. I marvel at the object's craftsmanship—a steel blade with a finely carved maple handle. Though the used knife has a noticeable patina, I can see that the blade has been freshly sharpened. It feels smooth and comfortable in my hands, much nicer than any new knife ever could.

I'm at a loss for words at his gesture. "Gale..." I finally stutter. "Thank you, but my birthday isn't for another week." The thought that he had actually bought me a gift was odd. We do acknowledge one another's birthdays, though we're never in a position to buy each other gifts. Usually Gale will do something nice for me on my special day, like skin the squirrels or retrieve the arrows from my missed shots, but he's never gotten me an actual present before.

"I figured you'd need it now," he says with a grin and I smile back as I slide it into the belt and hide it behind my jacket. It's not illegal to carry knives, but it also doesn't sit well with the Peacekeepers to be walking around brandishing one in town.

After walking for a few minutes in silence Gale finally speaks.

"Things have been bad, Catnip."

I nod as I look forward. "I just hate how everything between us changed after..." But I still can't say what I intended to. "I didn't want anything to change," I admit.

I wanted him to say that we'd forget what happened so everything can be semi-happy and normal again. I wanted him to tell me that our friendship was stronger than the distance that we had put between ourselves. Of course, he didn't say any of these things.

"The thing is that it did," Gale says, not bothering to meet my gaze. "We crossed a boundary that day. There's nothing we can say or do that changes that."

"I wish that it had never happened," I say, placing my face into the palms of my hands. "I was stupid, and I really wish I wouldn't have been. We were so delusional to think that we could snap back from something like that. You're my friend, Gale. You'll never be anything but," I say, my chest suddenly feeling a bit heavy. "And we blew it."

Gale glances at me, and for once I can't tell what he's thinking. He walks silently for a few moments before speaking again. "You didn't feel anything?" he finally asks.

"No. Of course I didn't! I started feeling sorry for myself, and that's when things went so horribly wrong." I didn't want him to go thinking that I had fallen in love with him just because of the fact that we'd slept together. If giving him my virginity didn't already ruin our friendship, my thinking that there could ever be something more between us now most certainly would.

"Well," Gale finally says, clearing his throat. "Let's make a pact, shall we? No more awkwardness. No more not talking about it. What happened, happened. We'll get past it...eventually," he promises.

I nod because, really, it is the only thing we can do.

"We need to hunt. Tomorrow," I say and he nods. It'd been a bad couple of weeks. As our friendship suffered, so had the number of kills we had been bringing in. I was hungry, and there was only one way to fix that.

"Have you been eating?" he asks, almost as if he'd just been reading my mind.

I nod, grimacing when my stomach growls at the exact same time.

Gale shoots me a curious look. "We'll go out first thing tomorrow. This time I'll let you keep your bald squirrels."

I smile, adjusting my backpack and suddenly remembering the small lump of cheese I had stashed there. My stomach rolls slightly at the thought of it, and I quickly withdraw it from my pack and place it into Gale's hands. "A gift...from Prim," I lie. I know that if he knew it was meant for me, he would never accept it, but if I have to look at it again I'm in danger of puking.

"Cheese," I say as he goes to unwrap it, hoping he'll spare me the agony of having to see it again. Of course, that doesn't work. With a smile, he dips his pinky finger—probably the only clean appendage on his body right now—down into the cheese before sucking it off and wrapping the remainder up for his brothers and sister.

"Thank her for me."

I nod, but I can feel the color quickly draining from my face. I'm not even sure why I find the goat cheese I used to love so revolting right now, but I struggle to hold back a dry heave as I swallow hard to keep from vomiting. I advert my eyes to the ground when I feel Gale's large hand come to clasp over my forehead. I look up at him as he pulls it away, frowning.

"You okay there? You look awful pale."

"F-fine," I stutter as I try to keep from throwing up the little amount of food that is actually left in my stomach. "Something I ate," I offer.

"What did you eat?" he asks me, disbelievingly. It was obvious to both of us that I hadn't had much at all to eat lately.

"An apple."

"An apple?" His brows draw together. "From where?"

"The Capitol," I tell him, a smile pulling at the corners of my lips. "I thought it was awful thoughtful of them to send it. It tasted kinda funny, though. And now I'm deaf in one ear-"

"Ha ha," he fakes laughter at my answer.

"And I walk with a limp now," I go on, dragging my right leg behind me slightly.

"Okay, Catnip. I overreacted that day. We'll make up for it tomorrow though," he promises as we part ways and I walk back towards the empty house I share with my mother and Prim.

I find that she's left a covered pot simmering on the stove top and something wrapped for me on the table. I lift the cover on the pot and find dandelion stew, one of my mother's specialties this time of year. It doesn't taste bad, but I've never found it too filling and I eat two bowls of it without a second thought. I drop my spoon into my empty bowl with a clang and unwrap the package sitting in the center of a table and almost wretch right then.

Goat cheese.

Inside there is a little note from my sister, but I don't have time to read it before bolting outside of the house to throw up over the railing of our broken porch. I watch the dandelion stew I had just eaten collect into a puddle before standing up to wipe my mouth with the sleeve of my shirt, my entire body feeling weak. I give myself a moment to recuperate before going back inside to rinse my mouth out with water before collapsing wearily onto my bed.

The cramping, the nausea, the fatigue, my long-awaited period which chose not to make an appearance.

I think I know what this is. I'm just not sure that I want to accept it.