Everyone knows that Merchants are superior to Seam. It is a fact universally accepted. Seam rats possess substandard intellect and judgment, they are unhygienic and vulgar, they breed leagues of filthy, ill mannered children—it's not they're fault, of course, they are Seam, uncouth by nature. It's a pity, but what can be done? This is the way it is. The way it always has been.
It is impossible to love a Seam rat said my mother that day when I came home from kindergarten and told her about the girl, the one with a voice like a Mockingjay. "You better clean out your ears, boy!" she said, striking me hard on the sides of my head so that stars danced in front of my eyes. But from that day on, impossible as it might be, I never stopped thinking about her. Not once.
Merchants are direct descendants of the Capitol elite, Capitol blood runs in their veins, and nothing, nothing, is more important than protecting that purity. Seam vermin must be controlled, reminded of Merchant superiority, but this shouldn't be too hard, claimed the Capitol—Seam are subservient by nature. "Why? What makes us better than the Seam?" I once asked after mother had stormed out and my father was applying a cold compress to the angry purple welt across my cheek. I was thinking of the girl with the braid and the hollow cheeks and that haunted look in her eyes before I threw her the bread, as if she were already dead and watching her wasted body from above. The baker's eyes grew sad as he wrapped his strong arms around me and said, "Don't ask such questions, son. The Peacekeepers are armed with worse than a rolling pin."
The years rolled by and I grew up into a sturdy young man with broad shoulders and a head of tousled, blond curls. By my sixteenth year several pairs of blue eyes probably found me attractive, but there was only one pair of eyes that I was interested in, and hers were slate gray. They rarely flicker my way and yet sometimes when I am least expecting it they suddenly lock on my own with such fierce intensity that I feel as if my insides have turned into molten lava. Like today when she happened to catch me looking at her on the Seam side of the school cafeteria. Her expression—ranging from bewilderment, to fear, to anger—was so unsettling that I immediately dropped my eyes as if I had been burned.
I hadn't meant to stare, but I could see that all she had for lunch was a handful of sunflower seeds that she was chewing on slowly as if to simulate the feeling of eating an actual meal. She wears oversized shirts to hide it, but I can tell she is starving. I set down my own half eaten turkey sandwich in disgust, wishing I could give her some food, give her anything…give her everything. But even if she would accept something from me (which she wouldn't, I remind myself firmly), I am acutely aware of the patrolling eyes of my Merchant classmates. They would never let something like that go, it would be all over the school in a matter of minutes. It's not that I care what they said about me, but I know that such gossip could ruin Katniss Everdeen. A person of Seam birth can be publically beaten for "inappropriate fraternization" with a Merchant. I grind my teeth in frustration. Can there be any pain greater than forbidden love?
"Hey Mellark!" It's my friend and fellow wrestler, Anselm Ender. I shake myself out of my reverie.
"Oh, hey, what's up?"
"I've been calling your name for five minutes, what's up with you? Sometimes it's like you're on another planet, man." Anselm slides into the seat beside me and slaps me on the back jovially. "I said are you ready for the big match tomorrow? Think you'll take over your bro's title this year?"
My group of friends has assembled around the table forming a blue-eyed, blonde-haired barrier that obscures my view of Katniss' solitary luncheon, but it's probably for the best. My not so subtle staring is going to get me, or worse yet, her into trouble.
"Of course he will, Anselm!" shrills Dorna Mills, scooting up so close to me on the bench that she is practically sitting in my lap. Dorna's father owns the District 12 branch of Capitol Coal and has made millions by exploiting Seam laborers, the only citizens in the District willing to risk their lives in the old, unstable mineshafts. Most people would call her a good catch, I would call her an affront to the human race.
Artfully extracting myself from Dorna's grasp, I try to focus on wrestling. I've been way to distracted lately and I think my friends are starting to notice. "We'll see about it," I say. "I'm going up against Caius though, he'll be a tough one to beat."
"I would love to see that dirt bag go down," says Anselm vehemently. I grin back at him. This is why we are friends.
"Well, if bags of dirt are anything like bags of flour I'd say I have a shot at it."
Everyone laughs, but Delly Cartwright shakes her ringlets sadly. "I wonder what makes him so mean though," she muses and I follow her eyes over to where Caius is intimidating a pig-tailed little girl from the Seam. "Maybe he has a hard home life."
Trust Delly to try to worm out the good in someone, even someone who spends the majority of his time knocking goodness down and stealing its lunch money.
Tadd, the grocer's son, throws a French fry at Delly. "Bad home life my ass! Next time that maniac sticks a snake down the back of your shirt don't expect me to save you."
Delly flicks a grape back at him and does her best to scowl but she, unlike some people I know, fails miserably at it.
As we clear our trays and make our way to our next class Anselm and Tadd fall back into conversation about the upcoming wrestling match, but I feel my mind wandering once again. The lunchroom is not the only thing that is segregated at school. There are separate bathrooms for Seam and Merchants, separate desks, separate water fountains, hell, I think there would be separate school buildings if District 12 could just find the funding. Or perhaps the Capitol wants to keep us in one building on purpose, that way the Seam kids are subjected to nearly constant teasing and degradation, a perfect reminder that they are considered lower than dirt in Panem. A house divided cannot stand: It's a saying I heard somewhere, and it certainly rings true here in the district. Why should the Capitol waste its time and resources subduing all of us when we're perfectly happy to do their job for them? All they had to do was stick the wedge between us and we drove it in up to the hilt.
We stop for moment to let Delly grab her history book out of her locker and I notice that the Seam water fountain is so mangled that it looks almost impossible to drink out of. While we're idling there a scruffy looking Seam kid sidles up to the spigot on the tiptoes of his oversized sneakers, but no matter how he twists his head he can't seem to reach the trickle of water. Without thinking I walk over and tousle the kid's hair.
"Hey there little guy, need a boost?" I hoist him up, wincing when I realize that I can feel his ribs through his worn t-shirt. The kid takes a couple greedy gulps of water and I wonder if he actually had anything for lunch to wash down.
Suddenly I hear another of Dorna's signature shrieks. "Eww, Peeta, what are you doing with that little rat?"
The kid hears and squirms out of my grasp at lightning speed. He gapes up at my blond hair and carefully pressed clothing, realization dawning on him.
"Th-thank you sir," he stammers before streaking off down the hallway, obviously terrified.
"What'd you do that for?" I say angrily, rounding on Dorna.
"You don't know where it's been," says Dorna impishly, basking in the titters of laughter that break out from the gang of merchants around us. "Don't expect to hold my hand now, Peeta," she says, bumping me with her hip flirtatiously.
I make a mental note to help more Seam kids use the water fountain.
The last lesson of the day is history, but the only historical event I can ever focus on is that fateful day at the beginning of this year when Mr. Finchly decided to seat Katniss Everdeen directly behind me. Sometimes I can feel her eyes boring into my skull so intensely that I swear I'm going to leave the lesson with a lobotomy. I spend most of my time doodling in the margins of my notebooks (you guessed it, sketches of her) and the rest of the time I spend devising complicated strategies for turning around in my seat to catch a glimpse of her. Said "strategies" have only served to get me detention for suspected cheating and an egg-sized lump on the back of my head from when I leaned back too far in my chair.
Since she's already caught me looking once today I decide to play it cool and keep my eyes down. Instead I try to imagine Katniss in the forest. I know she's been poaching there since she was about 12 years old and her father disappeared. No one knows exactly what happened, I'm not even sure if Katniss does, but one night the whole town woke up to the sounds of gunshots and the smell of fire from the Seam. I remember standing on the bakery steps watching the flames lick the sky and praying to God that she was all right. But she wasn't. And she isn't. The carefree little girl who sang so sweetly at the assembly blew away like ash on the wind.
Soon after I threw her those loaves of charring bread I noticed a bit of color return to her cheeks, and her arms, though still thin, began to look less skeletal. A few weeks later she showed up at our back door with a squirrel shot clean through the eye. My father paid her double its worth.
I slide a rubber band off a roll of paper in my satchel and twist it between my fingers, imagining that it's bowstring. How does she do it? I wonder, trying to imagine aiming an arrow into the trees, getting the squirrel in my sights, pulling back on the string and—twang! To my dismay the rubber band springs from my fingers and into the air. Face flushing, I slouch down in my seat, hoping that Mr. Finchly hasn't seen. He hasn't. But Dorna has. The band hit her between the shoulder blades and from the coy smile she's shooting me, I'm assuming she's interpreted this as an act of flirtation. I smile weakly at her and wish fervently that Katniss would just send a real arrow through the back of my head and end it all now.
Thankfully, the bell rings right on cue and I spring from my seat, hoping to make a break for the door before Dorna can pounce on me. I'm nearly there when I notice a familiar-looking tan glove lying on the floor and as I'm bending down to pick it up, it suddenly dawns on me where I've seen it before. There is a God! I think feverishly. It's hers. I see her lithe frame about to step out into the teeming corridors and without thinking I launch myself at the door, catching her just into time to tap her on the shoulder and utter her name as a strangled sort of yelp, "Katniss!" She whirls around, fists raised, eyes narrowed, ready for attack.
"Woah!" I gasp, throwing my hands out defensively. "Sorry, it's just you—you dropped this." I hold out the worn, leather glove to her as a peace offering.
Her eyes dart from the glove to my face and I see a flicker of recognition. "You," she whispers in surprise. She shakes her head violently as if to erase what she's just said. "I mean, thank you."
Our eyes lock for the second time that day, and feeling emboldened by my good fortune with the glove, I'm about to open my mouth and do the one thing I've been dying to do since the ripe old age of five—talk to Katniss Everdeen. Unfortunately, it seems that fate can only bestow so much luck in one day because at just that blissful moment Dorna decides to swoop down on me like a perfectly coiffed, over-perfumed bird of prey.
The spell is broken. Katniss snaps back into action immediately, snatches the glove from my sweaty palms so quickly that I barely feel it leave my grasp, and disappears into a throng of guffawing 10th years.
But even as Dorna grabs my arm (practically yanking it out of its socket) and plants a sloppy kiss on my cheek, I can't contain the goofy smile breaking out over my face.
"Thank you," I whisper to myself, feeling a tingling sensation spreading from my fingers to my toes.
"What's that?" says Dorna absentmindedly.
"Nothing," I say.
Something, I think.