A/N: This story takes place in present day US. Panem is a town in an undisclosed state (think of it like Springfield in the Simpsons) where class warfare has taken its toll on the community. Sorry this chapter is a little exposition heavy, but this story sort of parallels The Hunger Games, so I wanted to kind of show what's the same as in the book and what's different.
A loaf of bread. This is how it begins.
I'm at the checkout stand of Arena, Panem's only grocery store, leafing through a magazine. Gale is in the back office with the store manager, Mr. Undersee trying to barter on the price of today's haul. We won't get nearly as much selling to the market, that's why it's our last stop. First picks go to the people at the Hob, which is the field next to the Seam where we make our unofficial trades. Unofficial being off books, so paperwork is never filed and taxes are never paid. Selling to merchants is more difficult because they're liable for the quality of our goods and can't make many purchases from vendors without proper licenses.
But our goods are fresher than his and Mr. Undersee can appreciate that. We've worked out a deal where Undersee appraises the trade and "sells" us groceries at factory cost. Unfortunately in the dead of winter, the few meager chestnuts we've collected won't get us more than a carton of eggs.
February is usually the toughest. The plants we gather are frozen beneath a sheet of ice and the animals have hidden away to keep warm. We try to collect and freeze as much as we can, but there's only so much our small icebox can hold and by the tail end of winter our rations are limited.
I reach into my pocket and pull out a few crumpled bills. Our food allowance has run out for this month so we'll have to live off of spare change for the rest of the week. I long for the Spring, pray for it everyday. Some people put their faith in a groundhog to tell them when the heat will bring us relief. I'd rather just eat him. We need protein. I have enough for a jar of peanut butter, maybe, but as my eyes scan the store, I long for the sweet taste of fresh baked bread.
A sack of flour will take us further, but the compact oven of our mobile home is incapable of baking an even loaf. It's either too doughy in the center or too crisp in the crust. The only other option is the tasteless, mushy, over processed stuff that is barely passable as the real thing. A "Wonder" indeed.
For a moment I consider slipping a loaf in my jacket. It's loose enough to carry two or three and the elastic drawstring at the hem allows me to tie the jacket tight against my waist so the loaves are trapped without looking suspicious.
I've done it a hundred times before and judging by the sea of nervous gray eyes that clutch their arms tightly against their chest, I can tell that I'm not alone in the temptation. I refuse to fall into that pattern again. I provide for my family the honest way now. As honestly as I can at least.
Taking an animal from the woods is different than taking a cut of meat from the grocer, even if I don't have the right license to hunt it. There are hundreds of squirrels that line the roads mangled by asphalt and tires. Why is my clean disposal of the same rodent with an arrow through the eye punishable by law if performed in the wrong season? It's probably less painful for the little guy.
I shake away the thought and turn my attention back to my magazine. My eyes are barely skimming the pages. It's but a distraction from the food that surrounds me and the grumble in my belly.
That's when the bread falls.
I hear the plastic wrap hit the tile floor from across the market. Immediately my eyes lock with Prim's. She stands frozen in terror, the loaf resting inches from her feet. I hadn't even seen her wandering the store. She blends in with rich kids, whom we call "the Caps" with her sparkling blue eyes and golden blonde hair.
In Panem you're either a "have" who lives in the Capitol District, the gated community on the North side of town, or a "have-not" who lives in the Seam, a field filled with double wide trailers. The Seam is near the coal mines, in fact most of the people that live there are employed by the mines, and all of the inhabitants have a look about them. Dirty. Pale gray eyes. Dark tangled hair. Sometimes the classes mix. Usually it's a wealthy Cap using a Seam as his whore before abandoning her when the stick turns blue. But sometimes a Cap, like my mother will fall in love with a Seam, like my father and you'll get a pair of Mutts like me and Prim. Like most Mutts, I look 100% Seam, Prim however has the soft and pale features of a Cap. There is no middle class in Panem and those from the Seam will never attain the social standings to call the Capitol District their home.
"Were you trying to take this?" A man with a red vest and a brass name tag demands. I'm not sure why he's yelling. He's Seam too. There's no way a Cap would be stocking the shelves, not even the young ones pretending they'd ever have to work a day in their life to support themselves. Maybe the store deducts loses from their employees paychecks, maybe he had planned to steal that loaf himself. That's the only way I can imagine a man who's known hunger to get so worked up over something as simple as bread. "This fell from your jacket. Were you stealing?"
Prim gasps on air. Her eyes grow heavy with tears. Instinctively she begins to run.
She wasn't built for this. Most would excuse it as accidentally knocking the loaf from the shelf or say they were carrying it to the register. Prim is honest and pure though. She doesn't know how to lie. She's never felt the desperation before that would lead her to this because I was there to provide for her.
It was my job to protect her and I failed.
For a moment I want to strangle her. Why had she not told me she needed more? She knows that I'd do anything to take care of her. It's then I realize that she's trying to take care of me.
Prim barrels through a display case as I find my own feet taking flight. The exit doors seem to grow smaller, with each passing step. My sister crashes into a shelf in a blur of fair skin and a thin blonde braid and it topples through a window. Glass rains throughout the grocery store in shining clumps. Finally I reach her and I throw my body over hers to protect her from the falling shards.
"Prim!" I shout pleadingly. "What were you thinking?" I demand in a hushed whisper.
Her eyes are wide with terror as they search mine. It's then I see how hollow they are. Sunken into her beautiful face and forming purple rings beneath her eyes. Her cheekbone is too prominent for a girl of twelve years. They should still be full, chubby even, like that of a baby. She drops her gaze and silently allows for the few remaining pieces of stolen goods slip from her coat. I sweep them under the rubble of fallen shelves until they're lost in the wreckage.
I shake my head in disbelief, checking over my shoulder to ensure that the grocer hasn't caught sight of this. "Stay quiet," I instruct. I pause, waiting for her to nod in confirmation. "I'll take care of this."
"Katniss you can't," she says, her voice still trembling.
A Sheriff's Deputy appears in the front entrance and is met by the employee, who relays the events with wild gestures. The county Sheriff's office is notoriously corrupt. The Sheriff, Seneca Crane has been in the pocket of the Town Supervisor, Coriolanus Snow for years. And Snow has been sure to make the people of the Seam suffer at the benefit of the Caps.
"Who was it?" The Deputy questions.
Even if they dug up the security footage, there's no way the Deputy would peg Prim as the perpetrator. She's just a little girl and most importantly she looks like one of them. Prim move to speak but I deny her the chance.
Without a second thought I rise to my feet. "It was me," I say.
"Katniss," Prim says but I refuse to acknowledge her.
"Excuse me?" The grocer eyes me and then looks to Prim, his brow arched curiously.
"I was hungry," I explain. "I tried to steal this bread and I panicked. I'm sorry for the mess."
"But –." He begins but is cut off before he can continue.
"Let her take responsibility," Mr. Undersee and Gale have appeared now at the sound of the commotion. Gale eyes me carefully, his dark brows knitting together. "It's just a loaf of bread after all."
The Deputy looks me over with an incredulous smirk before turning back to Mr. Undersee. "But sir, your window. The shelves. You should charge her with vandalism or something." Or something, I wonder when they learned that crime in the academy.
"I can pay," I lie. Five minutes ago I was counting pennies for a jar of peanut butter. No way could I afford a pane of glass that size. Gale seems to be on the same wavelength because he drops his gaze with a shake of the head as if he's calculating the worth of our last material possessions and the tally doesn't even come close to covering the cost of this silly little window.
"Should we call her mother?" The Deputy asks.
"No, call Abernathy," Mr. Undersee says, a frown etching his lips. Mr. Undersee and I don't know each other well. His daughter, Madge works in produce here at the market and we're friends in a broad definition of the term. Madge is quiet and doesn't like to be bothered. I'm the same way. We have a mutual respect for that and so we keep quiet company. That way no one feels the need to approach us out of pity because we're never alone. We work well in this way.
But I don't speak often with Mr. Undersee. Gale handles most of the transactions because he never gets short changed in a trade. I'm too grateful for any scraps that I usually trade below its value. It helps in the Hob because there's a sense of loyalty so even if today's trade wasn't fair you'll get your money's worth tomorrow. In town though, they'll take advantage because they know you can't say no. Not that Mr. Undersee is unfair, but others are and I don't want to risk it. Mr. Undersee has always been kind to me and in this moment he frowns at me with a sense of disappointment. I'm not sure if he's disappointed with me or with my circumstance. It doesn't matter the reason. I feel shame either way.
"Who?" The Deputy wanders.
"Haymitch Abernathy," he says. "Her parole officer."
I bow my head because I figured at this point everyone has heard of Katniss Everdeen, the convict. My reputation must not have proceeded me to the degree I'd assumed because the Deputy merely scoffs, his cold blue eyes dancing in delight at the catch he's made. "Parole, eh?"
"She's almost through with it," Gale defends. "She's done her time."
I turn away to collect Prim in my arms, direct her to return home and not speak a word of today's events with our mother. Prim is reluctant, but eventually obliges.
While we wait for Haymitch, Gale helps me lift the fallen shelves back into place and we try our bests to restock the shelves with the scattered merchandise. Mr. Undersee insists that it isn't necessary, but we are loyal to our debt.
"What did you get yourself into this time, Sweetheart?" Haymitch asks dryly. Even his arrogance can't hide the trip in his swagger. Wonderful. My key to freedom is intoxicated.
"I broke a window," I say simply, barely looking away from the canned goods I'm organizing to acknowledge him.
"I bet," he chuckles.
Haymitch is the town pariah who has more money than God. He's one of the few citizens of Panem to make the leap from the Seam to the Capitol and the Capitol District hates him for it. His hair may be dyed blond now, but there's no mistaking his gray Seam eyes.
He was involved in some freak accident in town when he was 16. Forty seven teens died, including a few acquaintances of my mother. Haymitch was the only survivor. The legal battles were epic and Haymitch came out of the settlement with millions.
The trauma of this event had its effects on Haymitch, although he would never admit to it, and after spending his youth under the influence of various forms of liquor, he was sentenced to help with the rehabilitation of Panem's juvenile delinquents. Most of his parolees ended up back in the slammer within weeks of their release. I had been his crowning victory to the program, up until this today.
He throws his arm around Mr. Undersee and guides him out of earshot. I try my best not to pay any attention to them, but I find myself throwing glances over my shoulder towards their direction. Gale grows impatient with me as he tries to clean up. Usually our teamwork is seamless. We can guide one another without a word. A nod of the head, a series of pointed fingers,we're a well oiled machine that fall into sync with ease. Today however, I'm too distracted to recognize his order.
"It'll be okay," he says after I miss another of his cues for stocking the shelf. He places a hand on my back and I try to find comfort but I'm too overwhelmed by the anxiety of my possible fate.
"I can't afford to go back there," I tell him tightly. He only nods and returns back to replacing the fallen cans.
I know he feels guilty. That I was punished while he stayed behind. I don't blame him though. I trusted him to care for Prim and my mother while I was away and he stuck true to his word. Gale and I are alike in many ways; headstrong, loyal, stubborn, he is the only person in this world that I trust completely.
We should be in the system, they say. Gale's nineteen now and I'll be eighteen soon, we don't have to worry about being thrown into foster care anymore just because our parents are incompetent. It's the kids that I worry about. Gale's got three younger siblings. The youngest, Posy is barely five years old.
"We could do it you know," Gale told me once as we nibbled on blackberries out in the meadow. "Pack up the kids and take to the woods. Wouldn't have all those stupid laws telling us how to spend our goods. We'd live completely off the grid."
It was tempting. There was nothing for me in Panem and running away to another town or state wouldn't change our circumstances. Gale had graduated high school at least, but he hadn't the means to attend college. He could be a brilliant engineer if someone had given him a chance. He can look at any contraption and pick apart all the minor components with ease. That's why his snares are so brilliant. He just scans the woods as if it were a series of puzzle pieces then folds them together into something deadly. These skills are useless on a resume if you don't have an expensive piece of paper to go along with it. We once spent an afternoon looking at Help Wanted ads at the local university. "Line server," I had read from the board. "Do you think you could get Good Will Hunting'd there?" We try not to waste our time dreaming, but sometimes it's all you can do to hold yourself together.
Gale's got potential. Me? I'm hopeless. I'll probably never finish school. I was expelled for a year. It was supposed to be indefinitely, whatever that means, but there wasn't another school district in the county and even Haymitch's millions couldn't buy me into a private school. Being poor in high school is difficult enough. Being a poor convict in high school? Unbearable. I'm not particularly smart in any of the academic courses anyway, not like Gale. My only skills are archery and climbing trees. "You could join the circus," Madge offered during one of our brief offhand conversations. It wasn't meant to be an insult. She just knew if she hadn't said it, another Cap would and the tone wouldn't be gentle or forgiving. We had just received the results from our career aptitude tests. Mine read: More Information Required. My "career adviser" suggested I join the Army. She had a point. I'm in good shape for someone who hasn't had much to eat her whole life and I'm a hell of a shot, with arrows anyway, but I hate the government, why would I risk my life to protect it?
The woods is the only place that accepts me. "Build our home in the trees, live off the land," I had picked anther blackberry from our favorite patch and placed it on my tongue. The fruit burst with tangy and sweet juices. I had never felt more content.
But reality quickly struck and the juices turned sour. "Prim would never come. She's afraid of the woods. Besides, she'd never leave our mother." I picked for another berry but plucked a blade of grass instead, rolling it between my fingers and flicking it off in the meadow. "They'd never survive without me."
Gale could only nod, his face bowing to hide his disappointment. "Yeah, I guess it's just a crazy thought, that's all." Gale had known he couldn't leave either. The kids were too young to understand leaving their mother, Hazelle, and we both knew that there was no way we could bring her along. My father blew to bits when I was young, mining accident, it was easier that way. He was gone from our lives and would never come back. We had closure. Gale's dad on the other hand is worse than dead. He's a deadbeat. He comes around every couple of years and Hazelle welcomes him back with open arms. Love is a silly thing. He's got kids all over the state. Gale's never met them, but people talk about these things. Whenever his father comes around the food disappears and the money is all spent. Gale and I have to work three times as hard to keep the shelves stocked and even then it doesn't seem to be enough. If Gale were to leave the kids with Hazelle they'd be as good as dead, or worse, the state would "take care of them."
Haymitch chuckles loudly and I nearly jump. Across the aisle, he and Mr. Undersee shake hands and Haymitch pats him on the back a few times for good measure. The Deputy is reluctant, but eventually he leaves. Momentarily, I feel a sense of ease.
Haymitch is moving towards me now. His lips are pressed together tightly to force a smile. Pleasantries, they're all an act for him. "Six weeks, Sweetheart. That's all you had left of your sentence," he sneers in a hushed voice.
His breath is rancid from the liquor. I choke back bile but maintain my ground. Haymitch and I are stubborn, our entire relationship could be defined as a power play. "Cut to the chase," I say impatiently.
"Well you're not going back to the joint, if that's what you're worried about," he says. I sigh in relief, but Haymitch isn't here to make me feel better. "Not yet anyway," he adds coolly.
I narrow my eyes. "What does that mean?"
"Undersee isn't going to press any charges," he explains. "But there's still going to be a police report on file. The parole board is going to know about this."
"And what are they going to think of it? That I'm a danger to a glass museum?" I ask.
He's unamused by my humor. "Time will tell on that one. In the meantime, we're going to rehabilitate your image. You've done a pretty decent job flying under the radar thus far, hopefully this trip up won't hurt you."
"Fine," I say. "What do I have to do?"
"Since you can't pay for the window out of pocket, Undersee has agreed to let you work off your debt. An indentured servant, if you would. All that free time that you spend with your boyfriend over there," he points at Gale and I roll my eyes. I almost correct him but he talks over me before I speak. " – is done until that window display over there is sparkling and in one piece." Haymitch could easily pay for the damage without a dent on his liquor bill, but he knows I'm too proud for the charity.
"Let me too," Gale steps in. "We'll get it paid off twice as fast."
Gale knows it will take weeks to pay off this fee and weeks in the grocery store are weeks away from the woods and our livelihood. "It'll be okay," I assure him. "My SNAP card will be recharged next week and we'll spend more carefully this month. Your family needs you, Gale. You can't go about working for free."
Gale usually works in the mines, but in the winter time they often shut down or cut back the hours. They burn more coal trying to keep their workers from freezing to death than they harvest from the earth. Gale drew the short straw this winter. Some would call him lucky, but their pockets aren't empty like ours are.
"My haul is your haul," he reassures me. I feel comfort knowing they won't suffer in my absence. Food stamps keep you alive but they don't keep you from feeling hunger. Even if I could get out in the woods for a few hours at night it wouldn't be enough. We barely scrape by as it is.
Mr. Undersee brings me a red vest and I try it on to make sure if fits. Then he pins a brass name tag above the breast pocket. There must be a machine in back that prints these because it already has my name written across it. I inspect it. There's a bird on the Arena logo. I'd never noticed it before.
I won't start until tomorrow but there are papers for me to sign and he goes over a few basic rules. Don't eat the food. Don't drop the food on the floor. Don't take the food home with you. I'm almost insulted, but I'm reminded that these rules apply to everyone. Majority of Arena's employees are Seam though. Maybe I should be offended. It's not like Seam kids are running around with loaves of bread stuffed in their jackets.
"Got all that, Kiddo?" Haymitch asks. I despise how cocky he can be. The way he grins at me right now makes me want to slap him.
The store is closed until they can get the window boarded up. We're about to leave when Mr. Undersee calls for our attention. "You forgot this," he says, extending the loaf of bread that Prim had attempted to carry out of the store. "Mr. Hawtorne we had a deal, correct?"
Gale nods shortly and accepts the bread.
"Was there anything else?" Undersee asks. He really is too kind for a Cap.
I'm too ashamed to speak but I feel a grumble deep in my belly. "The peanut..." I try to say but my voice catches. Am I about to cry? "Peanut butter," I finally manage to say. I reach into my pocket and pull out the crumpled bills, flattening them with my fingers to count them out. "This should cover it,"I say, but Mr. Undersee shakes his head.
"The trade," he reminds me. "Peeta," he calls over his shoulder. "Could you bring me a jar of peanut butter for this customer?"
Peeta. I know that name. And when I see his bouncing curls round the aisle, catch sight of his clear blue eyes, I remember why. Peeta Mellark saved my life.