Author's Note: Hi, I'm fairly new to the Hunger Games fandom. I just got into them after I'd finished the trilogy when the movie first came out. This is my first Hunger Games fan fic, so please bear with me! To all my Ugly Betty readers (if you've made it this far), I'll get back to that eventually. I just REALLY wanted to try out my current fandom obsession.
Chapter 1: Moving On
"Mom, I still don't see why Prim and I can't just stay here while you work in California for the summer. I'm perfectly capable of taking care of us both," I protested then added under my breath, "Been doing it for years."
My mother paused her packing and raised her eyebrows in response to my not so subtle remark. She eventually drops her glare in surrender knowing it's a lost cause seeing as though it was actually quite accurate.
My father passed away from lung cancer five years ago when I was just eleven and Prim, my younger sister, was seven. He wasn't a regular smoker. It was just an occupational hazard from working in the automobile factory for so many years and being exposed to the asbestos. After his death, our family received a small settlement from the company, but with his funeral costs and the lack of income, the money quickly depleted. It's not that my mother didn't have the qualifications to get a job. She was actually a traveling nurse prior to her assignment here in Michigan where she met my father and married shortly thereafter. After she had me, they both decided it was best for her to be a stay-at-home mom. She could have easily gotten a job at one of the local hospitals or, at the very least, asked for some financial help from our estranged grandparents who I know to be pretty well off, but my father's death was too much for her to bear. She had completely shut down.
At eleven years old, I wasn't equipped to understand or aid with my mother's grief. All I could do was watch her go about her days like a zombie. It was hardest on Prim. She was so young and helpless. She didn't even know how to prepare her own food or even bathe herself correctly. I took it upon myself to care for her, but even I knew that at some point, the canned ravioli and the sour milk would eventually run out and when it did, there would be little I could do to help Prim anymore.
One day, as I was changing Prim's soiled linens, I found a few hundred dollars my mother had kept under the mattress, left over from the settlement. I managed to ration it out for a couple months of food, riding my bike to the grocery store and back. I knew that the money wouldn't last much longer if my mother wasn't going to snap out of her haze anytime soon. Thankfully, the store clerk took notice of my bike and asked if I'd be interested in delivering newspapers. He even called his brother-in-law at the printing press for me to see if he could give me a paper route.
The next day, I got up at 4:30 in the morning to collect my supply of newspapers and my route assignment. That's where I met Gale. He was another paper boy who was trying to help out his family of five. His father had died of drug overdose earlier that year. Even though his mother was stronger than my own, they had a few more mouths to feed, so at thirteen, Gale took on several odd jobs to contribute. He was in charge of delivering papers to the houses across the street from those I was assigned to, so he'd keep pace with me, chatting away until sunrise, annoying the heck out of me. It wasn't until he missed his route one morning due to the flu, did I realize how much comfort I took in having his company and his stories to entertain me.
From then on, we teamed up for just about every job we tried to support our families – walking dogs, babysitting, mowing lawns, cleaning garages. The last of which was especially fruitful since we'd usually make out with some payment and a few unneeded items that we were able to pawn off for a little extra cash. The biggest treasure was a box of old baseball cards the owner outgrew. Little did he know he had a collection worth over $1200. Split up, it fed our families for over four months.
When our landlord started knocking on our door, demanding back rent she had kindly overlooked due to the circumstances she knew we were in, I knew that the meager earnings I was getting from these juvenile chores would not sustain us. I began taking some of our own belongings and pawning them off, starting with the frivolous possessions like the television and blender and eventually working my way through the sentimental items like my father's guitar and wedding ring. The latter seemed to have sent my mother deeper into her depression.
This desperate routine carried on for just over a year, surprisingly. There were times I was sure we were going to go without any food or a roof over our heads had it not been for some outside intervention. It wasn't until our next door neighbor came to our door screaming and crying for help for her elderly father who was having a heart attack did my mother finally shows some sign of cognizance. It was like she was suddenly broken from her hypnotic trance. I hadn't seen her move so quickly in months. Prim and I followed behind her as she rushed down the hall of our apartment building to aid the gentleman who was now lying unconscious on the floor. The woman who had called us for help was now keeled over on the floor beside him, crying hysterically. My mother shouted for me to call 911, but I was frozen in the doorway in shock of both the life that had drained from this man and the life that had suddenly filled the woman I had been living with. I barely felt Prim push me aside and run to the phone hanging on the wall. I wasn't even sure of what she was saying to whoever responded on the other end of the line. I simply stood by and watched as my mother took turns breathing into his mouth and pressing his chest until paramedics arrived.
I would never wish for such an ordeal to happen to anyone. Thanks to my mother, the man did survive. But more importantly to me, we survived as a result of what transpired, so I can't help but be grateful that he needed her help that day. Shortly thereafter, my mother decided to try nursing again to get us back on our feet. It took some time for her to get regular assignments, so I continued to do the odd jobs with Gale. Besides, I was still skeptical of how long my mother's motivation would last. I didn't trust her to take care of Prim and me anymore.
Our relationship was never the same after that first year following my father's death. I had to toughen up and grow up faster than I was ready to. The mother I had to nurture me no longer existed. I was angry at her. Not just for failing to take care of us, but for not allowing Prim or me the opportunity to grieve our father's passing. We didn't have time or energy to think about him or mourn him. We simply channeled all that we had into just surviving. My mother had taken it all for herself. For that, I wasn't sure I'd ever forgive her.
"Sweetie, we've already talked about this. I've already explained to you that this nursing assignment will be different from the others. California is the furthest away, for one thing, and it's three months not just three weeks. I can't leave you and Prim here alone for that long," she reiterated.
"Well, you've – " I began before she held her hand up to silence my exhausted argument.
"I know, Katniss. You can't use that against me forever. I've been doing my best to support this family for the past four years," her tone was stern and I could tell she was trying to hold back her frustration with me. She softened her gaze and her volume. "I can't ask you to forgive me for what I did after your father died, but all I can ask is that you please let me do my job now."
There was nothing more I could say to sway her, so I simply sat there on our dining room chair sulking in the thick tension that filled the air. Just then Prim, with her impeccable timing, pirouetted into the room clad in her new red polka dotted bathing suit and a duck float adorning her waist.
"Ta-daaa! What do you think?" Prim fluttered her long, blonde eyelashes at us.
"Adorable as always, Little Duck!" I admired the innocent twinkle in her eyes. When I was her age, I was carrying the weight of the world – at the very least, the weight of our family's survival. It was my life's purpose to ensure that Prim would never have to bear that same burden, so it brought me a sense of pride to see her indulging in what little childhood she had left.
"This is going to be the best summer ever! I can't wait to go to California! I'm gonna go swimming every day, build sandcastles, learn how to surf…"
"Whoa, Prim! Who said you're allowed to go surfing? I don't recall giving you permission to surf!" Mother interjected.
Prim looked at me for back up.
"Don't worry. I'm sure we'll do plenty of channel surfing every day. It'll be a blast!" I said sarcastically. "I'm going to Gale's. I'll be back before dinner."
"Katniss, would you mind stopping by the store and getting some spaghetti noodles?" I heard my mother call out to me as I grabbed my house keys off the wall.
"Mm-hmm!" I replied dismissively then disappeared out the door.
"It just sucks that it's our last summer before you go off to college and we won't even get to spend it together," I whined as I handed Gale the screwdriver.
He slid out from under the old, beat up truck that was constantly in need of repair. "Hey, who said I was going to college? I don't know if Mom's going to get by without me around." Gale grabbed a rag to wipe the grease from his hands. "Besides, I haven't heard back from any of them yet."
"Gale, you're gonna hear from them. And I'm certain one of the schools will even give you a football scholarship. You had enough scouts come out to watch you, you could've started selling cookies," I reassured him.
He shrugged indifferently knowing that, around here, kids rarely went off to college. Gale, however, had the extra burden of taking care of his family and leaving to go to college would definitely put extra pressure on his mother to provide for the other three kids.
"I want to. Catnip, I want to go so bad," he said quietly. My endearing nickname came out like a desperate plea. I knew that it made him feel guilty to want to leave his family behind, but even his mother wanted him to have the rare opportunity. "I just can't."
It took every ounce of faux perkiness I could muster to give him the encouragement I knew he so badly needed to hear.
"Gale, you can. And you will. You'll get a full ride somewhere, get a degree in Business or something, get drafted by the Lions, and buy your mom a freakin' mansion somewhere!" I looked boldly into his grey eyes, holding on tightly to his arms and countering the tension of his biceps with the grip of my fingers.
"And what will my family do for four years in the mean time?" He stared back down at me and I could see the years of worry he has put on. Gale just recently turned eighteen, but one would think by his troubled expressions, he was in his twenties.
His brother, Rory, rode up on his bike, dropping it unceremoniously on the front step of the house. He nodded a curt 'what's up' to me before tossing a baseball to his older brother and heading into the house with nonchalance. Rory was just a year behind me in school, but like Prim, he was able to hold on to his childhood innocence a little longer thanks to his older sibling.
"Rory's fifteen. Old enough to get a job – a real job. He's old enough to step up and take on some of the responsibility." We both laughed at the vision of his brother, the poster boy for teen stereotypes, wearing a uniform and keeping an actual job.
Gale ran his calloused fingers through his dark, shaggy hair. "So what are you gonna do all summer? Lay around in a bikini, drinking virgin piña coladas, and reading Danielle Steele novels?"
I winced at the image he created. "Nice segue, Hawthorne." He flashed one of his half-smiles. "Well, on that note, I'd better get going. I have to stop by the store for my mom and I haven't even finished packing my things."
"Will you guys be needing a ride to the airport in the morning?" Gale offered hopefully.
"I think my mom was planning on getting a cab to take us, but I'm sure she wouldn't mind you taking us instead. I know I'd prefer it." I untied my jacket from my waist and slipped it on to shield myself from the brisk air that was settling in as the sun began to set.
"Then I will be at your doorstep, bright and early." My body froze as Gale's expression became one I had never seen in the course of our five year friendship. His hands reached back behind my neck as he gently freed my braid from the collar of my jacket. I swallowed hard in anticipation of what he might do or say next. And even then, nothing could prepare me for it.
"Gale, thank you so much for the ride. It was very generous of you." My mother gave his shoulders a gentle squeeze after he'd unloaded our luggage from the back of the truck. "Please give your mother my regards. I wish I had a chance to at least have a cup of coffee with her before we left, but she's been so busy."
"Yeah, peak season for the hotel. Lots of beds to make!" Gale replied.
My mother took Prim and their suitcases to go check into our flight. Gale and I stood awkwardly in front of each other.
"So…" I repeated.
"I'm really sorry about last night," he began. "I shouldn't ha –"
I shook my head to interrupt him. "Don't worry about it. It was nothing." I could tell by the crestfallen look on his face that it was, in fact, something to him. I felt compelled to say something to make things right between us before I left. "Gale, I'd be lying if I said I never wondered what it would be like… me and you. But now is definitely not the time to figure that out."
He nodded reluctantly. I pulled him into a tight and lingering embrace.
"Take care, Catnip. Don't be a stranger, alright?"
I could hear Prim calling for me to hurry.
"I'll call you!" I backed away from Gale, waving my hand one last time before I turned to move on to my next adventure.
A/N: I'll be honest. I don't really know where I'm taking this story. All I knew was that I wanted to write something in the modern day setting. I just kept overthinking it and every idea I came up with, I'd try to search and sure enough, it'd been done. So finally, I gave up planning and just wrote whatever came out. I really, really hope I'm not ripping anyone off! So please review and give me your feeback! Not only does it encourage me to keep going, but it helps me sort my thoughts. I know there's probably not much to say about this introductory chapter, but any amount of cheerleading helps!