Author's note—This story is kind of a pet project of mine. I don't usually write fanfiction and never AU stuff like this, but this plot bunny bit me on the butt one night and it just had to be done. The setting for this is Southern Pennsylvania coal towns circa early 1918. The first World War, I think provides a fitting back drop for the characters of the Hunger Games. Please let me know what you think. Also anyone with time to spare to beta for me, please PM me. I am desperate for someone to help me with this. I have three chapters done already but am waiting to get a beta to post that far.
Stories of Us
"Katniss? Katniss, are you out here?"
I could hear her calling me, but I found myself unable to move from my little hiding spot. I just wasn't ready to face her yet. Ever since Rory stopped by this morning, I had been wandering the forest near our home. I could picture him just appearing from behind on of the trees, teasing me about something or other with that look in his eyes. I could picture us sneaking kisses hidden by the foliage from prying eyes. But I knew that wouldn't happen. Gale was dead.
"Katniss, please come back home!" Primrose called again.
This time, I emerged from the old hollow tree and faced my sister. My tears had mostly dried leaving a salty film on my cheeks. "I would have been back soon," I half lied. Truth was, I would have come back. It was the "soon" part I wasn't so sure of. I wasn't like our mother. I was damn sure not going to shut down and waste away. No matter how much I hurt, I knew Prim needed me.
Prim nodded and pulled her ragged shawl tighter around her shoulders. "I made some cornbread, but I don't suppose you feel much like eating."
"I'll eat," I told her mechanically. Not like mama, I reminded myself silently.
"I know it hurts, but it'll get better," she told me softly. Prim wrapped her arms around me and hugged me tight. She was still young enough to believe that broken hearts mended. She didn't realize that you just got better at hiding the pain.
We began to walk toward our little cottage—though I suppose shack was the better term—with Prim's arm around my waist. She chattered on a bit about trivial things. Trying to keep my mind from drifting to the inevitable, but nothing she can say took my mind off of the fact that Gale was lying dead on some God forsaken French battlefield. Though no one told me how he died, my mind kept seeing him lying with his eyes wide open and a bullet hole in his chest. The macabre image didn't fade when we made it home either. The cornbread Primrose placed in front of me almost made me throw up, but I was true to my word and ate with Gale's face never leaving me.
"Doc Haymitch stopped by. There were a couple of things he said he needs to talk to you about. He said it can wait till tomorrow but no later," Prim told me as she washed up the dinner things.
"Okay," I agreed flatly.
Prim kissed my forehead. "Go get some sleep. I can take care of things for a bit."
Usually, I was the one to comfort and care for Prim. Our father died when I was just fifteen and Prim was twelve. There was an accident in the coal mines that took the lives of Papa and all the other men that were down there with him. In truth, we lost both parents that day. Mama had always been fragile in her way, and she just plain went to pieces. Not a full year passed before she drank an entire bottle of laudanam and joined him in the grave. It was my job to look after Prim no matter what. I put my skills as a hunter to use to keep food on the table and did a little gardening, but it wasn't enough. Soon it became apparent that I needed real work. Problem was there wasn't much work to be had for a girl my age—less it was on her back for the unmarried miners. Thankfully, my prayers were answered when Doc Haymitch came to town three years back. He hired me on to help tend the sick and injured. The pay was just a little cash and a share of whatever he was paid in trade, but it was enough to keep us going.
That night was filled with nightmares of blood and dismemberment. I kept seeing him die again and again. Nothing I did could block out his imaginary screams. God how I hoped it had been quick for him. I prayed that he had died with a clean shot, but I would never know that. All I could do was try to tell myself that the dreams were nothing more than my imagining the worst. Before dawn, I gave up the fight and dressed.
For years, Mama had scolded me for wearing boys' clothes. Papa had started it all by teaching me how to hunt when I was no more than six. He had told me that it was foolish to try and move in the woods in skirts. The freedom that trousers afforded me was addictive, and before long, the only time I wore a dress at all was on our few trips to town. At home, I dressed and acted more like a boy than a girl. I refused to try and be someone else.
I put grabbed my gun on the way out the door. It had been Papa's gun, and though old, I kept it in good working order. There wasn't any money to buy a better one now. Besides, the piece was as much a part of me as my very own heart. I could shoot the eye out of squirrel, or so people said. All I know is that I almost never came back empty handed.
The forest that day was exceptionally quiet. Even the call of the birds above seemed more distant. I walked my usual paths slower than normal taking in the sun that shown through the leaves and the soft rustling wind. Gale had once told me that he felt more of God here than he ever did in Sunday service. Not that I attended church much, but I agreed. The still grace that abounded in the woods had a way of freeing up bits of my soul that otherwise seemed too dark and knarled. Without much thought, I seated myself on a large stone and pulled an apple from my pack. I bit into the sweet crisp fruit and wondered if Gale's soul would return here to rest of if he would wander the world looking for the adventure he had always craved.
Gale wanted more than the life of a coal miner. I could still remember the day he'd told me he was joining the army. There had been a spark in him that day that I had never seen before. It was almost as if he relished the thought of rushing into the heat of battle. He had dreams of seeing the world as an officer—of returning home as a hero. Gale was brave and resourceful. Surely he could make a name for himself in the military. And just perhaps, he could make a life for me at his side. Gale never asked me to marry him, but he swore that when he came home, he would put a ring on my finger. Funny thing was, even being the pragmatist that I am and knowing that soldiers often died in battle, I never imagined that he wouldn't come back.
A subtle crack broke my thoughts, and I was once again alert. My eyes scannedthe tree line for whatever creature was moving ahead of me. With my rifle gripped in my hands and my eye trained down the barrel, I watched as slender doe appeared ahead of me. Her graceful strides carried her down along the edge of a dense corpse of trees and right into my sights. I took a deep breath and concentrated on just the right spot. Just as my finger brushed the trigger, she looked right at me. Though it was too far for me to actually look into her eyes, I met her gaze as best I could. Suddenly it struck me: I wondered if the man who killed Gale had looked into his eyes. I wondered if so, how he had been able to pull the trigger and snuff out the light from those eyes I knew so well. I lowered the gun and doubled over vomiting up bits of apple and bile.
I returned home to find Prim slathering some of her prized jam on a bit leftover of cornbread. She gave me a soft smile and offered me the bread. Still feeling sick, I just shook my head and reached for the coffee pot. The strong, hot liquid helped wash away some of the film from my mouth and helped settle my stomach a bit.
"No luck in the woods?" Prim asked.
I shook my head. "No, but I heard Mrs. Callahan tell Doc that she would pay give him a couple of hens for taking such good care of her son."
"Oh," Prim sighed whistfully, " a laying hen would be real nice. Just think of all the eggs!"
I shrugged. I had been looking forward to fried chicken, but if Prim wanted eggs... My sister had a way with animals. We had an older than dirt nag, a damn near useless goat, and a meaner than hell she-cat. Two out of the three only lived by my sister's grace. The nag, I reasoned, was at least useful.
"I should get dressed and head on into town. I'm sure there's plenty to be done," I said as I drained the last of my coffee.
Prim frowned. "I don't think Doc would expect you to get back to work so soon after...well, after the news."
"Well, I expect me to," I countered.
I changed into a faded blue dress. It had come out of my mother's chest and was so worn in spots that you could read through it, but it was still usable for now. I pulled my dark hair back into a no-nonsense braid, and stared at my reflection. Vanity was never my greatest sin. I knew that some men found me attractive, but all I saw was just plain old me...nothing special. I briefly wondered what Gale had seen in me. Swallowing hard, I shoved my old straw bonnet onto my head and tied the frayed ribbons.
By the time I came outside, Prim had already hitched up the horse to our rickety old cart. Much as I hated the cart, Papa had never gotten the gelding saddle broke. I hauled myself up without too much leg showing and took the reins that Prim offered. "Want to ride in along?" I asked.
She shook her head. "I have a pile of mending that I took in from the laundress and she expects it all done by tomorrow morning," she explained making a face. Prim was quick with a needle, but that didn't mean she liked it much. In fact, I had a feeling that given the chance she would love to learn more healing skills from Doc. Our mother had been an apothecary's daughter and taught us both a bit. Prim excelled while I had struggled with the basics. If not for her age when Doc had first come around, I didn't doubt she'd have been his first choice of assistant.
Town wasn't much of anything really. There was a merchantile and all of the usual stops (post office, church, tavern and the like), but it wasn't much that would make anyone want to live here really. I found most of the town folk to be difficult, but I wasn't really the best judge of that. Doc Haymitch always told me that I had the same soft of soft feminine disposition as a grizzlie bear with a thorn in its paw. When Papa was still alive, he had been friends just about every citizen in the damn little map dot but after he died not a soul seemed to care that we almost starved that winter. I guess it kind of soured me on most of them.
Doc Haymitch owned a house just on the edge of town. He had bought both the house and the small office that was attatched to it when the last doctor decided to move back to Philadelphia It was a large drafty old thing with lots of intricate scrolling along the wrap around porch. The shutters and door were a bright cheery, freshly painted by one of the locals who was too poor to pay for the care of his pregnant wife. I always thought it a bit odd that one lonely old drunk had perhaps the nicest house around—with only the exception of the Mellark's summer "cottage."
I parked the cart out back and unhitched the gelding. Prim had been right when she said that Doc probably would have given me the day off, but I was determined not to waste a ride out here just to see whatever bit of news Haymitch had deemed important. If there were no patients to be tended to, I knew that I could always busy myself cleaning up around the place.
One of the downsides of working with Doc was that I never knew what sort of state I was likely to find him in. Some days he was a sober as a preacher on Sunday and other days he was so drunk that I did more tending to him than anything else. I had even had to strip him out piss and vomit stained trousers a time or two. Most days though, he was a functional drunk. On that day, I found Haymitch seated in his office writing furiously. When he looked up at me, his eyes were clear and alert.
"I wasn't sure you'd come today," he told me without preamble. He set aside his pen and motioned for me to have a seat in the chair across from him.
I shrugged. "You told Prim you needed to speak with me no later than today."
Haymitch nodded. "Either way, it's good that your here. I have a job offer for you."
"Job offer?" Even though I knew Haymitch well enough to know better, my mind flashed back to when the owner of the town's lone bar offered me a job as one of his upstairs girls. To say I was hesitant was an understatement.
"Mrs. Mellark stopped by. Her youngest damn near got himself blown to bits in France. It left him crippled and mostly blind. I guess he wants to live at their house outside of town rather than Philly. She's lookin' for somebody to be a in nurse and companion for the boy," Haymitch explained evenly.
I bit my lip thoughtfully. "She didn't hire some fancy nurse from the city?"
Haymitch chuckled. "She did, but guess the boy has quite a temper and sent her packing. Left poor Mrs. Mellark in a bind. Don't suppose she wants to stick around and be motherly for very long."
"I don't know if I am really a good choice for something like that," I said honestly. Though I knew how to tend a wound well enough and how to cool a fever, I wasn't a born healer. What did I know about caring for some one with that kind of disability?
"He ain't sick and his injuries are as healed up as they'll ever be. You'll be pushing him around in his wheelchair, reading to him, and seeing to his private needs. I think you are qualified to empty a damn bedpan, Katniss," he assured me sarcastically.
"How much is she offering?"
"Eighty a week plus room and board."
My mind spun. Eighty dollars a week? Hell, I doubted that Doc Haymitch even made that kind of dough. I could do a hell of a lot with that money. In my mind's eye, I could see the dress that Prim had been eyeing up in the store window when she thought I wasn't looking. "Do you think she'd pay me more on account of not needing the room and board?" I asked still in awe.
Haymitch sighed. "Well, you see that is the non-negotiable part of this. She wants someone there all hours of the day. I already asked her about that. I know you won't leave Primrose behind without good reason."
"I won't leave Prim behind at all!" I barked. "You know I can't leave her."
"Calm down," he said holding up a hand. "I thought about that too. Mrs. Callahan is thinking on taking on a boarder. Being that her husband moved on and little John isn't too hale, she needs the money. Girl's almost seventeen and doesn't exactly need to be tied to her apron strings either."
Everything that Doc told me was true. I knew that Prim could do well enough boarding with Mrs. Callahan. The widow was a good person. Poor, like most folks around here, but she was much kinder to us than many others were. She had even given Prim some of her daughter's clothes when they were too small for the older girl. I wished I could have said something bad about her. Something that would have discounted the idea, but I couldn't. With Gale's death still fresh in my mind, I just didn't want to be away from Prim too. I wanted to hold my sister close enough that nothing bad could ever happen to her.
Haymitch leaned back in his chair. I suppose he knew me well enough to see my fears written plain as day on his face. "Think on it a night or so. I told Mrs. Mellark I would need a day to convince you but that you were worth waiting on. I told her that I doubted the devil himself could run you off."
The rest of day went by painfully slow. I spent the better part of the morning putting away a shipment of medical supplies that had come in the day before. After that, I boiled the sheets that young John Callahan had been sleeping on the previous nights and scorched the bed pans. My body was occupied by the tasks but my mind was elsewhere.
I didn't know too terribly much about the Mellarks. They owned the coal mine and some other factories both in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but despite owning a home nearby, they were seldom seen near town. They were cut of a much finer cloth than the folks here. Every July there would be a bit of hubbub when the Mellarks opened up their cottage. Folks were always twittering on about how fancy the cars that drove through town were or how finely dressed the Mellarks were, but as far as I knew not one of the locals had much association with them. I had met one of the Mellark boys, but it was frankly a time I didn't care much to think about.
It was right after Mama had killed herself. Prim and I had been surviving well enough on what I was able to forage, but there was no money to speak of. One of the neighbor boys came down with the chicken pox and Prim soon followed. Remembering what Mama had taught me, I was able to get her through the first few days, but then her fever set in. God, how quickly she got sick. I rushed into town with what little I had to my name—a few pennies and a costume broach of my Mama's, but the old druggist wouldn't sell give me anything to bring down her fever. I pleaded and begged promising to do anything at all to work off the balance, but he wouldn't budge. The Mellarks owned the store and they weren't known for Christian charity. Now I understand that he would probably have been fired for helping me, but at the time that didn't matter.
But that was when I met him. I was just about to walk out of the store when I saw a boy no older than myself staring at me. He was just an average boy to look at, but he was dressed in clothes that probably cost more than every single thing I owned. The only physical detail I remembered about him was that he had eyes so impossibly blue you'd think you could swim in them. With no more than a gesture to the druggist, he saw to it that I got that medicine. I owed him a debt, and that didn't sit well with my pride. I wondered if it was the same young man who was now horribly maimed. I hoped not, but either way, there was a lot to consider.
Back at home that night, I found myself curled into our threadbare old couch with my feet curled beneath me. I watched as Prim sat in Mama's rocking chair still sewing just as as she had predicted earlier. For about the twentieth time that day, I wondered if it was fair to Prim not to take the job. That money would mean that Prim wouldn't have to sew till her fingers bled anymore. She could wear nice dresses and eat a full belly's worth at every meal. Prim could become lady enough to step out of the black shadow that the Everdeen name had cast over us both. I remembered last year's social dance. Prim had scrimped and saved enough to buy some lace for on her best dress, but no boy had asked her to go even though she was by far the prettiest girl around. I could still remember how hurt she'd looked as she'd tucked the dress away. She'd smiled at me and said "it's just nice to dream a bit," but just the same it had made my heart ache. Eighty dollars a week could change a lot. I had no choice but to do it for Prim.
"Prim," I began hesitantly.
She looked up at me over her stilled needle and frowned. "Yes?"