A/N: Sorry, everyone, here is the real first chappy. Just now realized I posted the second one twice.
"Hey, Circe, you a little anxious for school to be out?"
I jerk up, realizing I've started to pound my pencil eraser on the desk again, and drag my gaze away from the literature classroom's clock—which I swear is running slow today—toward the classmate who teased me.
Iah is still grinning at me with his overly-shiny teeth. There's nothing wrong with them being white—they have to be perfect, after all, if his dentist family is to have any credibility—but it's such a rare quality in District 4 to have enough time for something like that that we get used to having yellowish teeth.
"Well, you know my dad's off today," I reply with a smaller smile.
"Ah, yeah," Iah sighs. "But that's no reason to slack on your rhetoric homework!" he nags with feigned seriousness.
"Yes, it is!" I stick my tongue out at him.
And it definitely is; I can't manage to stay awake in the late hours when Dad comes home and when he leaves for work, and he only gets a whole day off once a month. Now's one of those days, when I get to rush home and work with him instead of Mom.
I certainly have no problem working with my mother, but the only thing we discuss is the job—our next box of salmon, how the new knifes can cut slices so much thinner. But when Dad's here, his goal has nothing to do with making jerky. He's much more concerned with my life, my schoolwork, my friends, and most of all, making me smile.
Of course, I know this is Mom's only consistent job, while Dad is out catching the live stuff every day, but it's still so nice getting to chat with Dad.
The clock ticks more slowly than my recurring eraser-pounding thumps, and I'm about to start tapping my foot as well when I'm interrupted by an over-exaggerated sigh.
"Come on, Circe, the world's not going to end if you can't get home right this second," Laima huffs.
Laima's not exactly the girl I'd call my best friend, but we manage to get along most of the time. We're both in the same general meat-preparation business—though, of course, almost all women in this part of the district, The Tip, are—and we're both the only children of our respective families, but the similarities, for the most part, stop there. She's annoyed by almost everything I say and do, and I'm in turn annoyed by her annoyance.
"Maybe not for you," I reply with a roll of my eyes.
"Yeah," Iah throws in, "she might just have a heart attack, you know!"
I roll my eyes once more before subconsciously thumping my eraser on the desk again.
The minute hand is so close, so very close…
Ringdingdingding! I leap out of the chair-desk and sprint out the green classroom door, down the short hallway, and out the front door.
The salty tang of gulf air meets my nostrils as I start down the town's main gravel roadway. My little house is still a few minutes away, but today's not the day to stroll it with my friends; I couldn't stand to miss a second with Dad.
The halfway mark between school and home finally whizzes by; the tracks don't manage to trip me up and give me a very mockable bloody nose this time around.
I pass the bread market, where I mostly go for ingredients for the jerky rub, and the tiny chocolate store, where I've been known to blow my small allowance instead of being responsible and getting something generally regarded as useful. The blue plumber's place, where I luckily haven't needed to go, whizzes past, and I finally enter my little neighborhood.
There are exactly fourteen houses before my own. House number one is some sort of refurbished something-or-other—it's not the typical size or layout of a normal house. I think some sort of artist or decorator lives there. The next houses are nothing special—nothing standing out from the omnipresent soaked wood, and no one I know.
Iah lives in house number eleven. It's one of the nicer houses, with some brick on its walls and some lights for use on cloudy days. They mostly serve the richer part of the town—most of us workers aren't that concerned about our teeth—but the occasional newcomer who's desperate not to lose his last two teeth will show up every now and then.
My pace slows; I've finally arrived at house number fifteen. I only take a moment to catch my breath before parading through the front door with no handle and quickly passing to the utility room. I open up the little door between me and the family jerky factory and pad down the stairs.
The room is already filled with fluorescent blue light, so I'm obviously not the first one here. My heart speeds up as I catch a glimpse of a figure behind the seasoning table.
"Hello, Circe. You're home early."
My mood sinks as I register my mother's voice.
"Yeah, I…" I step over toward the table enough to make out Mom's ponytailed silhouette. "I thought Dad was here. Where is he?"
"He's at work, still," she informs, picking up a newly-dipped slice of salmon and pinning it to the drying line right above here. I slowly crank the stiff lever in front of me, scooting the jerky-to-be and all its neighbors over a few inches.
"But why? Isn't it his day off?" I ask softly, my good mood still dropping like a stone in the Gulf.
"Circe," Mom sighs, "you know we haven't been as… well-off as usual lately. He needs to work overtime, and help bring in a little extra cash. Speaking of which, you need to get to work since you're here."
I nod and step over a table to slice some of the mounds of salmon that have already been laid out.
"But, why didn't you tell me?" I ask, trying not to sound too disappointed as I pick up the thin, sharp knife.
"It was a last-minute decision," Mom tells me, barely audible over the creak of the drying-line rigging as she moves it. "Besides, you'll still see him tomorrow, for…" She trails off so she doesn't have to mention it.
"You know that's not the same," I mutter, walking over the ten slices of fish I'd prepared.
"Of course I do," Mom sighs. "But once it's over, we'll have a nice family supper." Her voice sounds oddly high-pitched and superficial all of a sudden.
I guess she's just worried about me. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but I can't say her panic doesn't affect me.
I'm fifteen this year—though I'll be sixteen just two days after the Reaping—and I've never signed up for tessarae, so I don't have a particularly high chance of my name being drawn.
But my hands are still shaking, and I cut an awkwardly thick piece of fish before taking a second to cool down.
Why should I be worried? For the last eleven years, every year but the very first, someone has volunteered for the original tribute. This is District 4, after all, and we train winners. Why would someone like me end up sticking around for the Hunger Games?
I've sliced up two more boxes of salmon before Mom dubs it time for supper. She heads into the kitchen as I gather up today's scraps—the three pieces I messed up, and some fish that had defect—sort them, throw out the particularly bad bits, and pad up the stairs to the kitchen.
Mom's already started our usual stew with her odd-tasting broth and some assorted veggies. I walk up and let her see the fish I brought before throwing them in.
She continues to stir and throw in something powdery as I take a seat at the rickety, old dinner table. We have three mismatched chairs, the largest of which I hardly ever get to see in use. I always sit in the smallest, a faded, green lawn chair, and Mom sits in the wooden chair, whose back right leg is so short we have to use a sizeable chunk of wood to right it.
Dad's is a large, circularly-backed metal chair, with some spots of rust on the top and a dull, beige cushion in its seat. I can only look at it and wish Dad would somehow appear for dinner, joke around and entertain us with odd little happenings out on whatever lake he'd been fishing at. Then we'd all go down to make more jerky, and he'd figure out a way to make even my rhetoric homework fun.
But it's suppertime, and as Mom sets down our mismatched bowls full of stew, there's no sign of a magical appearance by Dad.
We sit and eat quietly, as is usual. After all, Mom's never very interested in what happens at school; there's usually not much, except some funny things, but I've never heard her laugh. The only thing she'd be concerned about is if I'd gotten into drugs or something, but there's no way we could afford that, anyway.
We both finish at about the same time; Mom gets up to do the dishes, and I start for the jerky factory.
I've had about enough of slicing for today, so I decide to take the spicing. There are only a few slices Mom haven't dipped and pinned yet, and I don't think she'll get down and have another fish chopped up for me by the time I've finished them, so I take a look around.
The lines of suspended jerky zigzag across the low ceiling, all the way to the far door that houses the oven. There, we crank up a hot fire under a large rack of slices to dry them out more quickly.
But now I hear the door from the utility room open, and I turn to the dry rub as Mom understands my position and heads for the slicing table.
We slice and spice another box of fish before Mom tells me to go ahead with my homework.
I head toward my room, which consists of a mattress, a table, a lamp, and a nice candle to light when the lamp doesn't work. I end up lighting up the candle—might as well save electricity when our family is struggling, after all—and I shuffle through my bag to find my homework.
I pull out the pages and get started, even though I barely know what I'm doing. Doesn't help to pay attention in class when I get overexcited about Dad coming home.
By the time I'm finished, I can tell it's pretty late—my body is definitely ready for a good night's sleep. If only I could tell it to stay awake so I could see Dad…
But it won't happen, and I've only just gotten settled on my bed before I doze off.