This story is loosely based on the novel Burning by Elana K. Arnold, and written as a birthday gift in response to a prompt from my lovely friend, HGRomance. N, I can't even begin to express how much I appreciate you, your way with words, and your kindness - not to mention the amazing friendship we've formed. The remaining parts will be delivered to you as time and the muse allow, but I hope you enjoy the ride! ;) The characters of the Hunger Games belong to Suzanne Collins. I would also be remiss if I didn't thank a few people - Ameiko for help with pre-reading and hand-holding, dispatchesfromdistrict7 for her amazing research and listening skills, Ro Nordmann for the wonderful banner, and BaronessKika for moral support.
"Is everyone buckled up? Let's hit the drom!" my cousin Gale shouts as he climbs behind the wheel of our beat-up Ford Econoline van and starts the engine.
"Yes, chav!" Mama sighs as he backs out of the driveway and heads for the highway.
I'm really not looking forward to today. Or the rest of the weekend, for that matter.
My family and I are on the move again, albeit to somewhat more familiar territory; our destination is Panem, West Virginia, and its annual Harvest Festival. Honestly, traveling is nothing new for any of us. After all, we're of Romani descent, or what the rest of the world refers to as a Gypsy. Or at least that's the word the gaje, or people of non-Rom origin, invented for us. And by gaje, I mean the people who help us make a living by stopping at our booth to buy goods or have their fortunes read.
Although truthfully, if anyone were to ask, I'd have to admit that I'm part gaje myself. Our particular vitsa began intermarrying with the gaje a couple of generations ago, which is why we've become so isolated from other Rom. Take me and my thirteen year old sister, Prim, for example - we look almost nothing alike. I have the raven hair and grey eyes of my Romani ancestors, but my sister is blonde-haired and blue-eyed like dadro. In Europe, many families have suffered persecution because children who don't have the traditional 'Gypsy' features are often assumed to have been kidnapped or otherwise stolen from their parents. And it doesn't help that so many people have embraced these kinds of stereotypes about our culture. We attend public school right alongside the gaje, and I'll never forget the day in third grade when our teacher read us a poem by Shel Silverstein that started off, "The Gypsies are coming, the old people say, to buy little children and take them away…" I couldn't listen any longer after that and shrunk down in my chair, my breakfast roiling around in my stomach. Despite the fact that Prim and I were born here and our familia looks just like every other one in town, I still worry that Mama might someday be arrested or taken into custody for kidnapping and Prim will end up in foster care, leaving me all alone.
Now when I say familia, I'm not just referring to myself, Mama and Prim. My Aunt Hazelle, Mama's sister, and her four children are also making the journey with us. Mama, Prim and I will be setting up our fortune-telling booth at the Harvest Festival, while the Hawthornes will have their food stand right next door. Our families have manned booths there every year since Papa and Uncle Jasper died. It has somewhat frustrated me that despite our modern upbringing, our vitsa has always observed traditional gender roles. Dadro and Kako would travel for work, usually for some kind of construction or mining job, leaving their wives at home to handle all of the cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing. It was during one of their work trips just after my eleventh birthday that they were both killed in a tragic accident. Without their husbands, our mothers needed to find a way to support six children despite having never worked outside the home a day in their lives. It was our Uncle Haymitch who suggested that they start frequenting fairs and festivals - given my mother's abilities at fortune-telling and Hazelle's cooking skills - as a means of, in his own words, "staying alive."
These are just a couple of reasons why I despise traveling to these kinds of events - I don't enjoy pandering to the masses and embracing the stereotypes that so many people have about my culture in order for us to survive. Just because I wear long skirts and frilly tops, keep my hair in intricate braids, read tarot cards and practice palmistry does not make me different from anyone else. I'm not some exotic beauty like Esmeralda. I may be Romani, but all I have ever wanted is to be treated like any other girl, living a normal life. But after Papa's death, I promised his spirit that I would do whatever needed to be done for my family's well-being, particularly my little sister. If anyone deserves to have a normal life, it's Prim. And if that means playing the part of a 'Gypsy' seductress to make a little money and satisfy the gaje, then I'll gladly do it.
I watch the highways and familiar hills go by as we drive from our home just outside of Uniontown, through southwest Pennsylvania towards Maryland, and then we'll cross through more riverlands before finally reaching the little town located right on the northeastern tip of West Virginia, just outside of Martinsburg.
"Gale, do you think you'll need me to drive at all?" I ask, having called dibs on riding shotgun this time.
"Nah," he responds, "It's only about three hours, give or take, depending how many rest stops Posy needs. We should get there just after noon. I think I'm good. Get some rest."
"All right," I say lazily. It's Autumn and in my opinion, there really isn't much to look at this time of year. We drive past numerous game lands and lush forests filled with all kinds of plant life and foliage as far as the eye can see, most of which have started to turn from my favorite shade of deep green to rusty reds, oranges and browns. It's somewhat nice to look at, but after about 20 miles, I've feel like I've seen enough. As I nod off, my head falls against the window with a loud thump, which makes Gale and his brothers chuckle.
"Fuck off," I mumble to them as I drift off to sleep.
"Wake up, Catnip! We're here!"
The sound of Gale's voice jars me from my nap, and as I open my eyes, I'm blinded by the midday sun. He's been calling me 'Catnip' for as long as I can remember. The way bibio tells it, whenever he tried saying my name when we were kids, it always came out as Catnip instead of Katniss, and after a while the nickname just stuck. Gale, who is two years older than me, is the one who taught me how to shoot a bow and arrow when I was twelve. He needed a hunting partner after our fathers died. Rory was too young, and the last thing I wanted to do was sit at home when I could be doing something far more useful, like bringing in extra food for our family. Working together has helped us grow closer, making us feel more like brother and sister as opposed to just simensas.
As I slowly come back to reality, I realize I must look a fright. As I wipe away a small amount of saliva from the corner of my mouth, I feel the raised marks on my skin from where my cheek must have been resting against the seatbelt.
"You know, you really do look better when you sleep, Kat. It improves your looks a lot," my sister teases.
"Hush, Prim!" I shout back as my face takes on its usual scowl. "Can I really help it if I drool in my sleep?"
"Awww, you know I'm just teasing you. You know you're rinkini, Katniss. Every single boy at school thinks so," she says and sighs. "I wish I looked like you and daj."
I step out of the van and wrap my sister up in a big hug. As we separate, I look down into her blue eyes and smile as I tap her on the chin. "No, phei, I wish we looked like YOU."
"All right, enough of this chit-chat, I'm hungry!" Rory grumbles. "Let's get this van unloaded and drive over to the festival grounds so we can set up our booths. The sooner we finish, the sooner we can eat!"
I step away from Prim and head toward the back of the van with the others to grab some of our bags as Mama and Aunt Hazelle approach with our room keys in hand. I put one duffel over each shoulder and walk towards a large, drab grey building labeled The Seam Motel. It's definitely not the Ritz-Carlton, that's for sure. The exterior paint is chipping from the walls and the color has faded from years of Mother Nature's abuse. Upon entering our room and turning on the light, I notice the faint odor of pipe tobacco and white liquor. There are dirty, faded red drapes hanging loosely hanging from rods above the windows, stained from what I can only guess must be dust mites and cigar smoke.
The carpet, also blood-red in color, is old and worn, hiding what must be decades of filth underneath. Two hard chairs and a plain wooden table sit by near the corner to the right, which houses the kitchenette. There's a small dorm-sized refrigerator for us to keep food in, along with a single mud-colored porcelain sink and two electric burners. I open the cabinets above to find a mish-mash of plates, glasses, and a couple of pots and pans. Next to the kitchenette is a medium-sized chest of drawers with an old TV on top. Against the far left wall are two double beds - one for Mama, and the other for Prim and I to share. In the far left corner opposite the entrance is a door leading to a modest bathroom.
"Wow, this is it, huh?" Prim sniffs and coughs as she looks around our temporary home.
"Yeah, it's your typical fleabag motel," I tell her. "Not much to write home about."
"Yes, but the rate is only $35 per night," Mama informs us as she enters the room and sets one of her bags on the table. "And the owner, Mr. Cray, insists that the rooms here are dry and free of pests. That's all we need for a few days." Prim and I both nod solemnly in agreement.
It only takes about fifteen minutes to bring in all of our personal belongings from the van. Everything else we've brought along will be unloaded once we arrive at the fairgrounds.
I head back outside with Gale and his siblings while Mama, Prim, and Aunt Hazelle take a few minutes to freshen up. We stand quietly, taking in our surroundings before he finally breaks the silence.
"So, has your Mama mentioned anything to you about prospective husbands yet?"
"Kek, not a word since school started."
"Well, that's good, I guess. Are you nervous about it all?" he asks.
"I don't know…. should I be?"
"Well, I certainly would be if I were you…" He pauses before continuing, "You're amazing when it comes to telling fortunes, Katniss… probably even better than your mentor. Any other vitsa would be honored to have you and might even see you as a gold mine. With your talents, there's no doubt you'll fetch a high bride price."
The mere thought of a bride price sends my mind into a tailspin. While it's somewhat relieving to know that my dowry will take care of both Mama and Prim, the idea that I'll be auctioned off and reaped by the highest bidder, only to serve as a potential cash cow for another family makes me nauseous. I've never been interested in getting married and having babies, especially after what happened to Papa. But I know it's inevitable once I turn eighteen in May, and I can feel my body start to shake in response. Thankfully, Gale notices.
"Easy, Catnip… calm down. I'm sorry, I wasn't trying to upset you. Av akai," he says and when he opens his arms to me, I can't help but fall into them. He wraps me up in his warmth, and the familiar scent of his worn leather jacket has an immediate, calming effect on me, just like Papa's used to. I breathe in and out deeply, trying to match his breathing pattern as my racing heart finally begins to slow.
"Don't worry, Kat. Nothing's going to happen, at least not for a few months," he states. "And even when it does, you're like a sister to me, which means I'll protect you. Promise. Are you gonna be all right?" he asks.
"Yeah," I reply, my voice wobbling as I pull away from his embrace. "I'll survive," I add, this time with more conviction.
He answers with a wry smirk and cocks his head in the direction of our mothers and Prim, who are approaching the van.
"Your daj and I going to stay here with Vick and Posy to work on the habben," Hazelle tells us. "We've brought enough food for the booth to get us through tomorrow, but there won't be near enough working space at the booth until after it's ready. You kids have seen us do this enough times before, so we trust you to do the set-up. Head on over to the Hob and take care of business."
"Sounds good," I answer and climb into the van's passenger seat while Rory and Prim buckle themselves in back. Gale continues talking to his mother, and I vaguely hear her saying something about going to the market and finding out if the local butcher has more lamb.
"But you girls hurry back!" Mama shouts. "We'll need every pair of hands for kitchen work!"
I turn back to look at Prim, and we both roll our eyes at the same time. It's our silent agreement that we'll take as much time as possible to set up our booth… anything to avoid kitchen work!
By two o'clock, we've arrived at The Hob, or what the gaje of Panem like to call their fairgrounds. On the outside it looks like your typical abandoned warehouse, a neighborhood eyesore that sits neglected because it's no longer used for holding coal from the nearby mines. A few times a year, however, the owners clean up the inside and allow people to set up shop as a makeshift kind of flea market. A hodgepodge of other vendors will be here come tomorrow, ranging from woodworkers to folk jewelry artists, and even a couple of moonshiners. Old Ripper is probably my favorite of the bunch, because you never know what kind of crazy distillery set-up she'll be bringing along.
The rest of our afternoon goes by fairly quickly. Prim and I keep busy setting up our fortune-telling booth. We drape heavy, velvet purple curtains over the top and through the center to make the area feel more intimate. These curtains also give us a private area in the back, where we stash a small cot to be used during rest breaks. We also set up the tables and chairs we've brought from home and adorn them with silk tablecloths, statues of the Hindu goddess Kali, and small, framed posters that explain the important palmistry lines and tarot arcana. Tomorrow, before we open, we'll set out flowers and light incense to complete the ambience.
Once we're done with our work, we help the Hawthornes set up their food stand. The hardest part is assembling a wooden fire pit and pot rack, as Hazelle plans on making the biggest cauldron of lamb stew I've ever seen in my life. I look over Rory's shoulder, watching him write additional items and prices on the chalkboard menu - sarmi, or cabbage rolls stuffed with meat and rice, and guzvara, a strudel-like dessert made with peaches.
As Rory brings in the last of the wood for the pit, I look at my phone to check the time. It's about 4:30.
"Do you think we're done?" Prim asks.
I look around at both stands, which seem to be in pretty good shape. "Yeah, I'd say so. What do you think, Gale?"
"Yeah, there isn't much more we can do today. Besides, Rory and I need to take off. Ma wants us to hit the local market for some fresh vegetables, plus I need to see what the butcher shop has in terms of lamb."
"Do you think they'll actually have lamb around here?"
"I don't know," he says as he scratches his cheek. "It doesn't matter, though - I'll buy whatever meat they've got. Times like these, we've gotta make due. And besides, it's like Ma says, 'Once it's in the pot, it's lamb!'" Prim and I laugh raucously at his joke, but at the same time, we know he's right. The gaje won't really care what's in the stew, as long as it tastes good. And it will - at $5 per bowl, it is by far her best selling item each year.
"Do you two want to come along with us, or should I drop you off at the motel?" Gale asks.
"Nah," I say absently, giving my sister a look. I know that if we go by van, we'll be back in a matter of minutes and I'm not quite ready for kitchen duty. "It's not dark out yet, so I think we'll walk. Is that okay with you, Prim?" She gives me a quick, curt nod in reply, understanding my hidden agenda.
"Hey, no argument here. We'll see you back at the motel. And if you run into any trouble, just call. I've got my phone," he says as he pats his jeans pocket and looks to Rory. "Ready, phral?"
Rory nods and follows his brother. I pick up my satchel from off a nearby chair and look to my sister. "Ready, Prim?" She smiles and nods, taking my hand as we walk around our booths and out through the warehouse's main entrance. We watch our cousins drive away in the van before starting our mile or so walk back to the Seam.
The main street through Panem is fairly quiet, as most of the businesses are getting ready to close up for the day. As we near the halfway point, I notice that my sister is no longer walking by my side. I turn and see that she's about a block or so behind me, looking into a shop's window.
"Prim!" I call to her, but she doesn't budge. It's like she didn't even hear me. Annoyed, I walk towards her, wondering what's managed to captivate her this time.
"Primrose!" I hiss, using her full name, which snaps her out of her trance. I look up and find that we're standing in front of a large brick storefront, with the words "Mellark's Bakery" painted on the marquis above in bright blue letters.
"Katniss, look at the pretties!" she says, pointing to the window. As I follow the direction of her finger and gaze through the glass, I'm greeted by an assortment of fancy cakes and desserts artfully displayed on tiered servers and overflowing from baskets. From pale pink to bright orange, each item is decorated with colorful flowers and other intricate designs, causing my jaw to drop in awe. Now I understand why Prim is so mesmerized. There's no way these should be eaten; they look like miniature works of art rather than food!
"Come on, let's go inside for a better look," Prim pleads, tugging at the sleeve of my blouse.
"No, Prim, we can't! We've got kitchen duty!"
Prim rolls her eyes. "Nuh-uh, you're not fooling me with that one! Just a few minutes, please?" she begs as she draws out the last syllable, making it impossible for me to resist.
"Oh, all right. Just five minutes!" I warn as she opens the door. I hear the jingle of a bell as we walk inside. I'll admit, the inside looks just as wonderful as the front window, as baskets filled with bread line the interior walls. Even the cracked and floured crusts look too perfect to be real.
"One minute, I'll be right there!" a male voice shouts from the back.
A moment later, I watch as a blonde boy makes his way to the front counter. He's a little taller than me and stockily built, as if he spends a lot of time lifting weights. He's clean-cut with short blonde hair that falls in waves across his forehead. The one thing I can't miss, though, are his eyes. They're bright blue… somehow bluer and even more beautiful than Prim's. I don't usually give gaje boys a second look, but I have to admit, this one is definitely the most handsome I've ever seen.
"Welcome to Mellark Bakery," he says with a cheerful smile. "My name's Peeta. How can I help you ladies?"
"Pita?" I repeat, somewhat confused. "You mean like the Greek bread?"
He lets out a hearty laugh at my question, which causes the corners of his eyes to crinkle. "Well, sort of, but not quite. It's spelled P-E-E-T-A, but still pronounced the same way."
"Oh," I say quietly as I look away and feel my face flush. I've only known this boy for two minutes and I already feel like an idiot. Way to go, Katniss. Wait, what am I saying? I look down at my sister, who is still dumbfounded by the sights and smells before her.
"Nice to meet you, Peeta!" she exclaims, looking directly at him. "My name's Primrose, but everyone calls me Prim. This is a beautiful bakery you have here! Did you make all of this stuff yourself?"
Peeta smiles brightly at her question. "Well, some of it. My dad and brothers make the bread, but I do the cakes myself."
"You mean the ones in the window? They're rinkini - like little works of art!" I smile and shake my head at my sister's exuberance as she somehow manages to echo my thoughts.
"Well, thank you very much for such a nice compliment. It's nice to know that someone appreciates my handiwork," he says and winks at her. I notice a slight streak of red spread across her cheeks at his gesture. Prim has always been a charmer, but this Peeta has somehow managed to one-up her. "But really, is there anything I can get you today?"
"No," I tell him as our eyes meet again. That shade of blue is so captivating… I could look into them all day. "We were just stopping in to take a look on our way back home. Sorry to bother you."
"Oh, it's no bother at all. We're just about to close up shop, and I still have all these cookies left. Would you ladies like one to take home?"
"YES!" Prim shouts before I can even get a word out. I grab her lightly by the arm and turn her toward me, scowling as I give her the evil eye. "I mean, yes, please…" she corrects herself. I sigh and shake my head, because she's still not getting it.
Peeta smiles and heads behind the counter, pulling out two cookies from a tray. He puts each one into a small bag and hands one to Prim, who graciously accepts hers, before handing the other to me. I smile politely as I take it from him and place it in my satchel for later.
"How about a loaf of bread, too, for your dinner?" he offers. Before I can even respond, he's already back behind the counter again, wrapping up one of the cracked loaves and shoving it into Prim's hands.
I want to say something, perhaps offer a word of thanks for his kindness. "We don't have any money," I blurt out instead. I'm obviously not very good with words.
"Oh, you don't have to pay me-"
"But we must!" I say, cutting him off. "I insist!"
"I know how we can pay you back," Prim starts, stepping between Peeta and me. "Peeta, why don't you stop by our booth at the Harvest Festival tomorrow. Katniss is an amazing fortune-teller and can give you a free palm reading in return for the cookies and bread."
I'm a bit taken aback by her suggestion, but it's not an entirely bad one. I really don't like owing people for things, and Prim's compromise gives me the opportunity to pay him back. Peeta appears to be considering it too, as he looks to me for confirmation. I give him a polite smile and nod in agreement.
"Well, how can I say no to that? I'll definitely be there. Any particular time?"
"No, we'll be there all day, so whatever works best for you is fine. But we need to be going now. Come on, Prim! Mama is waiting for us!"
"It was nice meeting you, Peeta! Latcho Drom!" my sister calls out as I push her towards the door. Peeta gives us a little wave as we head outside.
Once we're back out on the street, I grab Prim by the hand brusquely and begin marching down the street toward our motel, pulling her behind me. She stays quiet for a block or so, and then stops me.
"What's the hurry? I thought we were trying to avoid kitchen duty?"
"Yes, but that doesn't mean we should stop and talk to every gaje that crosses our path!"
"Awww, lighten up, Katniss. Peeta was really nice. And I'm pretty sure you were checking him out..."
"Hush, Prim! I most certainly was not!" I insist, but I know it's a lie.
"Yes, you were… you were totally on fire for him, admit it!"
I shake my head vehemently, refusing to answer. "Come on, let's hurry back before Mama gets worried and sends Gale out to look for us!" We walk the remaining few blocks back to the Seam, silence enveloping us both.
Upon returning, Mama immediately puts us to work in the kitchenette, peeling potatoes and washing/chopping vegetables for our evening meal. Dinner is oddly quiet, though we do slice up and eat the bread that Peeta gave us. It's filled with raisins and nuts, making it both hearty and delicious. Prim and I agree not to tell Mama where it came from, and thankfully, she doesn't ask.
Once the dishes are cleaned up, Mama suggests we sleep so that we can be at the Hob early tomorrow. As we settle into our bed for the night, my mind continues to race for what seems like hours. It isn't until I allow myself to think about Peeta and how I can't wait to see those beautiful blue eyes of his again that I'm finally relaxed enough to fall asleep.
A/N: The SCRIBE Network has an excellent Romani dictionary that has been VERY useful to me while writing this story (link in my profile)
The Shel Silverstein poem referenced is from his collection, "Where The Sidewalk Ends". At some point, either Mr. Silverstein or his publisher made the decision to change the word "Gypsies" to "Googies" due to the history of discrimination against the Romani people, though older versions with the original poem are still in circulation.
You can find me on tumblr as chelziebelle - stop by and say hi if you'd like! :)