September 1923, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Saturday is 5-year-old Peeta Mellark's favorite day of the week.
It's not that he doesn't like school. He does. Kindergarten is actually kind of fun– or at least, more fun than he'd expected. He gets to spend time away from Mama every day, now. At school he gets to run and wrestle with his friends away from her watchful eye.
Of course, school isn't all fun. There are long stretches of time, every single day, where he's supposed to just sit and listen. Peeta doesn't like that part. It's hard to sit quietly for so long, and sometimes he just can't stop fidgeting, no matter how many times Fraulein Schultz raps his knuckles with her ruler and tells him to be still.
But last week Fraulein Schultz taught Peeta how to write his name, and Peeta had never been prouder than he was when he later showed Papa the large P-E-E-T-A he'd written on his school tablet.
None of that matters, though. Because no matter how fun school can sometimes be, Saturday, his one day off, is still the best. Now that he is old enough to be in school Mama and Papa have finally, finally decided he is old enough to go with his brothers on their Saturday deliveries. So now, every Saturday morning, he helps Streusel and Rye load up their bicycles with loaves of bread, cakes, and cookies for delivery to the other merchants who, given that Saturday is everyone's busiest day, can't spare the time to come to the bakery for what they need. Peeta has wanted to do this for forever, it seems, and cannot believe that he is finally allowed.
Before Peeta started making deliveries with his brothers he hadn't seen much of anything at all outside the little part of town where he has lived all his life. But now, every week, he gets to ride his little bicycle all over Frankfurt, seeing places and people he's never seen before. The people Peeta sees on Saturdays are the best thing about being 5, he's decided. The thing that keeps him awake half the night on Friday with anticipation. So many different kinds of people, doing so many different things. People playing musical instruments for coins that other people toss into their instrument cases. People driving motorcars along the narrow strasses. People wearing the wildest clothes, in the most vibrant colors. People sitting outside cafes drinking coffee or smoking cigarettes, chatting and laughing with each other in German or, sometimes, in languages he cannot understand. He has always known that there was more to the world than his little neighborhood but it is one thing to know something like that and quite another to actually know.
Every Saturday night, after deliveries have been made and the bicycles put away for the week, he lies awake for hours wondering, in awe, just how big the whole entire world must be. He wonders if he will get a chance to see for himself someday.
On this particular Saturday, Peeta and his brothers have been on their bicycles for about four hours (his brothers always staying a few meters ahead of him) when he sees his brothers dismount, errands nearly done for the day and both of the older boys ready for a short break. Although Peeta isn't tired in the slightest – he could, and would, peddle around Frankfurt all day, all week really, if they'd only let him – Peeta slows his bicycle and hops off it to wait for them. He watches Streusel roll a crude cigarette with some tobacco and a bit of paper he has pulled from his pocket, and looks on as he lights it. Peeta doesn't think Streusel really knows what he's doing, but with the cigarette between his lips Peeta thinks Streusel almost looks like a grown-up. Peeta wonders if perhaps that, rather than the cigarette itself, is the point.
(Peeta does not like how his brothers treat him like a baby sometimes, still, even now that he's started school, or how they have jokes they share with each other but not him. They are all he has ever known, though, his brothers, and they're never exactly mean to him, so he guesses he can't really complain.)
After Streusel finishes doing whatever it was he was doing with the cigarette – smoking it, maybe, or perhaps just pretending to– he and Rye jump back on their bicycles and Peeta does the same. They only have a few more deliveries to make and then they will be ready to go home. Peeta peddles quickly to keep up with the older boys as they pull up to Herr Everdeen's butcher shop. He's only met Herr Everdeen once before but he knows he likes the butcher (although he also knows his Mama does not like him, for some reason) with his sparkling grey eyes and cheerful voice.
Peeta and his brothers climb off their bicycles and lean them against the side wall of the butcher shop. Rye hands Peeta the small bag of cookies they'll be delivering to Herr Everdeen while he and Streusel, between them, bring in the three loaves of bread. His oldest brother opens the door to the butcher shop and Peeta can hear the tinkling bells over the door signaling their entry.
The butcher shop is small but noisy, and very crowded. He sees Herr Everdeen behind the counter, waiting on an elderly woman with a large cloth satchel in her hands. When the butcher hears the bells over the door jingle he looks up and smiles at the boys, motioning with his free hand for them to head over to the other side of the room to where a small girl, probably his daughter, stands behind the counter, busying herself with something that Peeta cannot see.
Peeta is about to head over towards where Herr Everdeen motioned them when he feels an elbow in his side. "Peeta," Streusel whispers loudly to him. "You see that little girl over there?"
Peeta looks at her then turns to his brother. "Um. Yeah?"
Streusel nods at him and says, "Papa wanted to marry her mother, once. But before he could ask her she ran off with that Jewish butcher."
Peeta is confused. He adores his father and cannot imagine why anyone would refuse to marry him. So he asks, "Why would she marry a butcher when she could have had Papa?"
Rye, overhearing, snickers and mutters something that makes no sense at all. Something about Jewish men, and how they cut off part of their… their things, and how some women must like that.
Streusel punches Rye's arm, hard, and rolls his eyes. Calls Rye "an idiot." Turning back to Peeta he says, "She married Herr Everdeen because when he sings, no matter how loud the room was before, no matter how many people are in it, the room falls silent and everyone stops to listen."
Peeta doesn't really see how a thing like that is even possible. But it wouldn't be the first time his brothers had tried to play a joke on him. He lets it go and approaches the counter where the little girl stands.
She's finished with what had occupied her and her eyes move between the three boys as they approach. Peeta notices right away that the girl is about his age, although he's positive he has never seen her at school before. She definitely was not here the last time he and his brothers made a delivery to Herr Everdeen; he would have remembered if she had been. Peeta also notices that she looks somewhat different from him and most of his friends. Where his hair is blond and curly, her hair is dark and straight, in two neat braids that flow down her back. His eyes are blue; hers, however, are grey like her fathers'. Peeta's entire family and most of the people in his neighborhood are very fair-skinned but this little girl has a much darker complexion.
She's standing there, staring at Peeta, at his brothers. She doesn't say a word but just watches them. Something about her, about her even gaze, makes Peeta nervous. He doesn't know why.
After a few more moments, Herr Everdeen makes his way over to his daughter. "Katniss, Liebchen - have you met the Mellarks yet?" He gestures to Peeta and his brothers.
The girl, Katniss, continues to look at Peeta and his brothers. "No, Papa. Not yet."
Herr Everdeen smiles and says, "Young Peeta here is going to be in your class when you start school next week, I think." Turning to Peeta he explains, "Katniss' mother just had a baby. So we kept her home from the first few weeks of Kindergarten so that she could help at home. But now that Frau Everdeen is mostly recovered we have decided it is time for her to start Kindergarten with her friends. She starts tomorrow." He turns back to Katniss. "Won't that be nice?"
Katniss smiles, although the smile does not reach her eyes. Peeta wonders if perhaps she is not nearly as excited to start school as he had been. This thought troubles him.
Herr Everdeen reaches across the counter and takes the packages from the boys. "Thank you for these. See you next week." Peeta smiles at the butcher. The three brothers turn to make their way to the door.
But before they reach it Peeta hears a voice that stops his footsteps, his breathing, his heart. It's Katniss. She's singing. Before he can stop himself he spins around where he's standing so he can see her. She seems to be singing to herself – she isn't looking at anyone while she's singing, but rather going about her business on the other side of the counter. Peeta has never heard anything like her voice in his life. He's unable to understand the words she's singing, over and over again – "Hevenu shalom alecheim" – but he hears the words, whatever they are, clear as a bell, because suddenly there's nothing else in this busy, noisy butcher shop besides her voice, her sparkling silver eyes, her.
Her voice sounds like angels singing. Like happiness itself. And even though he's only 5 he knows, he knows, that he wants to hear her voice again and again and again. For the rest of his life.
He is vaguely aware that he's staring at Katniss now, and that his brothers are rolling their eyes at each other as they snicker at him. He doesn't care.
For the first time since Peeta started making deliveries with his brothers he cannot wait for school the next day.