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Our house is a hot mess when Prim and I come home from Gathering.
When I open the door to our small home a thick wall of heat hits me, and Prim and I both looked at each other in question- wondering what's happened- when I notice Mom and Edvyn in the kitchen. Ingredients are scattered this way and that across our old rickety kitchen table, making our house feel like one of those mad scientist labs I used to tell Prim for bedtime stories when she was little. The large mess could only mean one thing.
We have clients tonight.
"Afternoon," I greet, yanking my bonnet off and tossing it on the old wooden rocking chair Dad had made for my mother during her pregnancy with me. The two women mutter their greetings, still focused on the concoction bubbling over the old wrought iron stove that supplied the only source of heat in our home. In the winter time it didn't do much for warming us up, but today it felt like a sauna in here. "Jeez," I whistle, noticing how big of a batch they were making. "How many are we doing tonight?"
"Not many," Edvyn replies, stirring the pot. "We just need a bigger batch because of the timing."
I make a face of disgust and hope it's Madge's turn to help with all of that tonight. My stomach can't handle seeing all that blood.
"How come you're home so soon?" I ask Edvyn, inspecting a bowl of herbs my mother used for the concoction. "It's not even five o'clock yet." Usually Edvyn didn't finish with her afternoon customers until well past dinner.
"I'm just that good," Edvyn teases, telling my mother she has it from here. I sit down at the kitchen table and watch the two of them work together⎯ Edvyn singing her own rendition of Panem's national song in an obnoxiously high voice and Mom staring blankly out the kitchen window, scrubbing dirty dishes in the washing tub. The Cull couldn't have chosen two women any more different than my mother and Edvyn to marry my father.
My mother⎯ a tiny framed woman with deep blue eyes, ghost white skin from lack of sunlight and snow white hair⎯ is soft spoken, fragile in every sense of the word. She was raised in Town itself unlike many who live on the outskirts, and I blame her cushy lifestyle in the Apothecary for being so useless when it comes to protecting our family. Mom wasn't always so fragile, though. Unlike a lot of marriages in District 12, Mom and Dad grew into loving each other shortly after their marriage ceremony. Dad was never too hard on her like most husbands, and Mom never gave him reason to be mad. She prided herself as the first wife of my dad, Sage Everdeen, and no matter how many wives he took in after her, Mom would always be the keeper of his heart. She was the perfect wife⎯ sweet, a devout woman toward the Gods, patient with Prim and me, quiet, and knew the inner workings of running her home. Everyone always acclaimed what a wonderful wife and mother she was, and when I was little I used to pride myself that she was my mom. I wanted to be just like her when I grew older and had my own family to take care of.
It's embarrassing how naive I was back then. Things were so easy when I had faith in my mother, but she became an empty shell after Dad's death. Everything about her, every lie about her being perfect, was revealed when she refused to take care of Prim and me. We had begged and pulled for her to get out of bed, to try to somehow get money for rent and food, but she had shoved us away with such unexpected force that I still have the scar on my neck as a reminder of my mother's abandonment. Prim was crying⎯ as were the other children our household held⎯ and eleven year old me was so angry, so hurt that the only person I had left to protect me would abandon us when we needed her most, that I tore the room apart until Edvyn came in, telling me it was best to put my anger toward something more useful, like chopping wood.
"Imagine chopping off the Cull's head," she had joked, only laughing harder when my eyes bugged out of my head. I had never heard someone say such thing about the Cull before, but it was very tempting to take my anger out at someone.
Since I was too little to actually do any chopping, I ran around our property, breaking branches off the nearest trees, and pretending it was the bones of the Cull breaking in my hands. I felt powerful at such Evil thoughts, and I knew if Dad were still here and heard the words that were coming out of my mouth, he would have made me stand on the stool in the center of our kitchen and recite Scripture until bed time as punishment.
But Dad wasn't here⎯ he was dead now, and having Evil thoughts helped a little.
Edvyn⎯ Dad's fourth and final wife⎯ became the rock I needed after the mining accident. She started to represent everything I wanted to be as I grew older. I didn't like her a lot when Dad was still alive since it was weird having her be so close to my own age, but with Dad gone six months after their marriage ceremony, and Mom and the others refusing to get out of bed, I was grateful for her. There were days I thought of her as an older sibling⎯ which was plausible since we both had the same olive skin tone, black hair and grey eyes⎯ who was helping me get by each day.
When Dad had died and we were forced into the Seam, instead of mourning over the loss of her husband and home, Edvyn started studying my mother's medical books on plants and medical procedures to get money. Women aren't allowed to hold legalized jobs in our District because it takes our attention away from the home, but it didn't mean we weren't allowed to find ways to make ends meet. Even with a living husband it was hard to feed all the hungry mouths. A lot of the women in our District took to selling vegetables from gardens or sewing clothes in return for goods or coins, but Edvyn wasn't like the women I was familiar with. She was different, and found her own way of helping keep our family alive. Instead of aiming at other women for sympathy, she directed her attention on the Keepers of our District⎯ the same Keepers who by law are required to remain chaste until the end of their ten year contract. The Keepers were rich and needy for attention, and⎯ unlike a lot of the women⎯ Edvyn wasn't afraid of giving them her attention in payment of gold coins.
Our money isn't clean, but it's money and that's all I care about.
"So how many clients do we have to get tonight?" I ask, going back to our family's second business of income.
"You and Peeta have two girls," Edvyn informs, closing my mother's old bounded book with a soft thud.
I frown at the news. I might prefer helping Edvyn over running the trails with Peeta instead. "Why do we always get paired up?"
"Katniss, a lady doesn't raise her tone like that," Mom placates. I roll my eyes at her attempt of parenting. She lost the right to chastise me long ago.
"I need Madge and Prim with me, and you know Gale holds the girls down for me."
My ears perk up at that. Prim? My little sister was coming with us tonight? "Prim's coming?" I try to keep the panic out of my voice. It was one thing doing this myself, but it was a whole other issue letting Prim in on this. "She's too young!"
"I'm old enough," a voice from behind defends. I turn around and see Prim is standing in the doorway to the kitchen, arms crossed over her yellow dress. "I'm old enough, Katniss," she says with more force. I open my mouth to dispute it because my little Prim couldn't go out into the woods with us. She was too little and I'd be damned if she got hurt in the night.
"You hate the woods," is all I argue, standing up to give myself a height advantage. I wasn't much taller than Prim⎯ she was getting so big I sadly realize⎯ but I still had a few inches on her. I'm still her older sister.
"That's why I'm staying in the Seam with Edvyn and Madge," Prim states in a manner as though I was the child. "It's for my training."
"What training?" I sneer, mimicking her by crossing my arms over my chest.
"Miss Prim," Edvyn interferes, walking over to my sister and wrapping an arm around her proudly, "is going to learn the ways of the business in case anything ever happens."
My mouth drops open in shock. "That's exactly why she shouldn't do it!" I shout. "It's too dangerous, and especially with the Keepers keeping a closer eye on the Seam lately!" I shake my head in disbelief. I cannot believe no one sees how wrong this all is. Didn't they realize what we were doing was punishable by law? "She's too little."
"I am not!" Prim cries, stomping her leather worn boot on the floor. "You were my age when you started helping Edvyn," she argues. I close my eyes and keep reminding myself that this was not up for argument. Prim was too little and didn't need to see that part of our family income. If it was up to me she wouldn't even know the extent of it.
"It's different," I sigh, opening my eyes but refusing to look at her. One look into those light blue eyes and I'd be a goner. "I didn't have a choice and you do."
"And I choose to help." I chance a look and regret it instantly. Her eyes are tearing up, and my sweet little sister is trying so hard to appear tough, ready to help with our family burden, and it is so like her to want to help.
"Prim..." My resolve starting to waver. "How can you handle the thought of knowing that we're killing according to the Gods? You can barely manage to see a hurt insect let alone help with this."
I can tell I hit a sore spot. Like my mother was, and to some extent still is, Prim is a healer. She doesn't like to see anything⎯ and I mean anything⎯in pain. She's the reason we tend to have more animals in our home compared to other households in the Seam, and every time she comes in with that innocent smile and calls out my name in her singsong voice, I would sigh and ask how long the thing would be staying with us, because besides the mangy cat, Buttercup, that all the children begged me to keep from drowning and Prim's goat, Lady, none of the other animals Prim rescues ever stay permanently. We just can't afford it.
"Mom says I can," Prim uses at last. It feels like the rug has been lifted from under me. I turn to my mother who has taken a real interest in wiping down the counters all of a sudden. I cannot believe her. Didn't she care at all about Prim?
"Mom, she's too little."
My mother looks up, the same blue eyes Prim has set on her face, and looks between me and Prim to Edvyn. She was searching for an answer, but I was determined to win this. For all the things my mother never did for me after Dad died, the least she could do was side with me this one. Time. She wrings the brown cloth through her hands over and over until I storm across the room and grab it from her.
"Tell her she's too little, Mom," I repeat, enunciating each word with as much emphasis as I possibly could.
"Prim will make a wonderful healer," is all she says, running her ghost white hand across my cheek. I swat her hand away, disgusted by them all.
Prim smiles in victory⎯ a rare feat getting past my decisions in this house⎯ and tells Edvyn she'll go read more on the procedure before dinner. I call her back into the kitchen, my hands on my hips, and ask if her homework's complete.
"You know how Sister Beth doesn't like sloppy work," I remind her.
"I finished my stitching," Prim informs me. "And I plan on doing my Reflections with Acacia and Ash after dinner and prayers tonight."
"You'll do no such thing," I instruct, straightening her white apron. "You'll get your work done and then study for tonight." She smiles, knowing my suggestion means I'm letting her come with. She gives me a hug and I pull her in as tight as I possibly can, resting my cheek against her white prayer cap that hides her bun.
"I love you, Katniss," Prim whispers into my neck. "I'll do our family proud by helping. The Gods will be happy I'm taking a responsibility."
I shoo her to the attic where all the other children play. I should tell them to go outside, go collect twigs from surrounding properties, do something useful, but it's going on five o'clock and Min, my dad's third wife, would have another panic attack if she knew they were outside. Where my mother became a shell of herself, Min became so paranoid she refused to let her two sons⎯ Reed and Kip⎯ out of her sight, declaring the outside world too dangerous. I find her outbursts ridiculous and annoying. It's not like her two annoying sons were going to be eaten by a bear. Prim always frets about her, about all four wives really, but Min could stay up in the attic forever for all I care. Her paranoia gets on my last nerves.
I feel a hand lightly touch my shoulder and I turn to see my mother giving me a tired yet discerning look. "Where is your prayer cap, Katniss? You and Prim shouldn't⎯"
I shrug her hand off my shoulder and take a step closer to the backdoor, itching to get out of this boiling room.
"I had to sell it for more Reflection notebooks," I spit, never forgetting to mention how my mother does next to nothing to support this family like she's supposed to as the first wife.
She winces at my accusation, muttering how she'll make me a new one. I don't bother telling her we can't waste material on silly things like prayer caps when we have growing children in the house. She'll figure it out.
"Well, I'm off," Edvyn announces, breaking the tension in the room.
My head snaps in her direction. "Where are you going?" I ask.
"Got a few things I need at the Hob," she answers, tying the strings to her bonnet, "but I'll be home before dark. Be ready." I nod my farewell and she slams the backdoor shut behind her.
"I should start dinner," I decide, going toward the cabinets to decide what we had enough of to feed us all. A salad seems the best meal on a hot day like today and I pull out some weeds I'd found on the road from my apron's pocket.
"Katniss," my mother asks, her voice soft, hesitant, like I'm going to scold her. "Can you follow me to the living room?"
I do, telling myself it is only because it's still too hot in here and my dress was beginning to itch from the heat. Mom pulls out the wooden step stool I used to stand on plenty of times as a child, and we stand in the middle of our living room, staring down at it.
At first I think she is going to discipline me for arguing with Prim and Edvyn, and I open my mouth to refute this childish punishment when she hands me a cream colored dress. My heart jumps into my throat as I remember how Mom wanted to fit me for her marriage ceremonies dress after Gathering today. All thoughts of Prim and tonight are gone in a flash as I stare at the dress with dread. All my fears resurface as the reality that my own marriage ceremony will be taken place soon hits.
I swallow the ball that seems to refuse to go down and hold up the simple creamy white dress to inspect. There's nothing special about it⎯ no beads, jewels, or embroidery were sewn on it⎯ meaning the dress must be very old. The Cull had lightened up over a decade and a half ago on what type of dresses were allowed to be worn during marriage ceremonies. He claimed happier marriages with healthier children were started with a happy and pretty bride. I didn't quite get how being happy or pretty meant healthier kids, but I was never taught anything science related outside of the Birds and the Bees in our lessons. So maybe he was right on that, though I doubt it.
Peeta or Gale would probably know, though. Boys and girls were split up by the age of eight to focus on their gender trainings to becoming useful members of the Gods' society. So while the boys were being taught interesting things like economics and conflicts affecting our country us girls were being taught how to take care of a home, husband, children.
I hate school. Before his Service, Peeta would show me all the interesting things they would get to do in their Educational lesson, and I would just grimace at the stupid sample I'd have to sew for my Home Econ, or the sack of flower we had to take home and pretend it was a child. Peeta and Gale had a hoot with that assignment.
Girls haven't been given permission by the Gods to continue on with our education because look at what happened with Lucille Fawst.
Everything always came back to Lucille Fawst and the dishonor she brought to our country.
The only reason my mother knew anything medical-wise⎯ which then gave Edvyn the necessary tools on learning how to perform the procedure⎯ was because her father and his father before him was the District 12 doctor. Medicine ran on her side of the family, and Mom knew a lot of home remedies for families who couldn't afford the District doctor. She had the magic touch, and when I was still young, I used to think if she were a man, Mom would surely have taken her father's position as District doctor.
The medical gene had obviously skipped me, though, and went straight to Prim. I vomit at the sight of human blood, or blank on understanding a lot of the remedies needed to cure the sick, but Prim had a knack for the subject. Even when she was little she understood how to set a broken bone better than I could.
People would rather have sweet Prim taking care of them, anyway.
"It was my great-great-grandmother's," my mother says with the corners of her mouth lifting to a smile. To let her know I'm listening, I nod, looking at the gown again. It was pretty, I admitted. Despite the event it's made for. "Every first born daughter wears it on her marriage ceremony."
I sigh, looking down at my own frayed dress. I don't want to take off my red shift for this to replace it. It made the upcoming marriage ceremonies real. I don't want it to be real. I'm perfectly content pretending it doesn't exist⎯ just for one more week at least.
I feel her nimble fingers unbuttoning my dress in the back as I bite my lip to prevent any emotion from showing.
"I remember being so nervous," she tells me, pushing the stiff red material down my arms until I stand in nothing but my white bloomers, crossing my arms over my small breasts. "Lift your arms, Katniss," my mom instructs. I do as told, feeling like a little girl again, and I feel the soft material pull over my head. The material feels light, airy even, on my skin and I rub my thumb and index on the cuff of the sleeve to marvel at its softness.
I'm still in shock at the thought of having to wear this dress and walking toward the Cull in the Sanctuary where my destined husband will be waiting for me in three short weeks.
To think I used to think of that day fondly.
I close my eyes and pretend I'm still that little girl, having Mom dress me for Prayer lessons where we would meet with Peeta and Madge, sometimes Gale too, if he decided to go that Sunday. We would always sing the hymns we had learned afterward, and sometimes, if we were good, Mr. Mellark would treat us to a piece of yummy bread with pieces of fruit hidden inside. I remember always pressing Peeta on knowing our prayers in hope of getting such delicious bread.
That time was easy, peaceful. I wish I could go back to the age where I believed in everything I was told. It was easier to bear going to Gathering each day, writing my Reflections, praying... Everything was easier before the mining accident. Before that fateful day that altered so many families' lives.
"Katniss," my mother says, breaking me from my thoughts. "Step on the stool, please." I step up on the round wooden step stool and face the front window looking out into our meager front yard. We need more rain, I think as I feel the tugs and pulls from my mother below me. The grass is so dry for it only being March, and the vegetable plants probably won't do so well this season if we try to plant them now. At least the large oak tree that looks to be hundreds of years old seems to be doing well. We should plant there this year for better vegetables this season.
It's still too hot in the house, and I wish Mom would open the window, to let some of the stagnant air out to cool down the house. I fidget and hiss when I feel a pin stab my ankle.
"Stay still," my mother commands, her voice muffled by the pin in her mouth. "Don't move."
Memories of my father fly through my mind at the comment, and I start to murmur Heb 10:26, the one verse from the old Prayer book that I had to repeat over and over until I was crying for how thirsty I was. "'For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries,'" I recite as I had all those years ago, not surprised I still remembered it. I got in trouble a lot as a little kid. I was too forward as a child and Dad didn't like seeing his daughter being frowned upon by Town patrons. So he would force me to recite and write Scripture until I was blue in the face and couldn't move my hand anymore as punishment.
It's comforting in a twisted way now, repeating the same words I did as a child. I almost expect my father to come through the door right now and say in his deep, stern voice, "Katniss, stop fidgeting with your hands and keep reciting the Old Scripture until I tell you to stop. Little girls need to learn to listen to those in charge."
I sigh again, reminiscing about him⎯ no matter the memory⎯ always made the small hole in my heart ache for him.
I bite my nail to preoccupy myself as Mom pins the dress in places it needs to be let in. Apparently I'm a lot smaller than my mother was when she was my age because she's pinning pins to the bottom of the skirt, to the sleeves, the waistline, and the back. I'm afraid to move now, not wanting to get pinned and all.
"There," my mother smiles, a small ghostly smile. She takes a step back and tells me to lift my arms straight out to my side. I do as she says and she circles around me, making sure the dress fits in all the right places. "You're going to be the purest bride in the Sanctuary," she prides herself, holding her red pin cushion to her heart.
I scowl, not liking the thought of the near future, and the fact that this is what she does to try and make up for the years of neglect. I was sad we lost Dad, too, I think sourly as I put my arms back down. No one saw me becoming brain dead. I took responsibility.
"Your husband is going to need to work on making sure you smile more," Mom instructs, helping me down from the stool. I don't feel like the little girl my parents used to scold about manners and what the Gods would think of my actions anymore. I'm now back to my sixteen year old self, scornful toward the Gods and my mother. "A woman should always keep a pleasant smile on to encourage her husband to do great deeds."
"I don't care what he's going to think," I snap, already squirming around to get out of the dress. A needle pricks me as I deftly search for the buttons and I pull my hand back to my mouth, sucking on the wound. "I don't even want to think about the marriage ceremonies."
She pulls my hair out of its bun and runs her fingers through the tangles. "You are so blessed," my mother admires, and I wince when her nail snags on a strand of hair. "And I know you don't want to think of the ceremonies, but you need to. It's important."
"What's important, Mom," I say in a condescending way, "is taking care of this family."
"You know we won't be allowed to help one another once you are wed." Sadly, I know that.
"Can I take the dress off?" I ask at last. I need to preoccupy my thoughts and it was getting close to the time the kids asked for dinner anyway.
Mom settles my hair so it's lying straight down my back and gives my shoulder a gentle squeeze. So I don't get pinned I carefully take the dress off, lay it on the rocking chair, change back into my dress though my sweaty body protests the thought of the hot material, and go start dinner.
It is later in the evening when we hear a sharp knock on the front door. My mother startles a bit in her seat, but Prim calms her down, tells her there's nothing to worry about. I set the quilt I was helping Prim and Acacia sew down on the floor and go to open the front door.
It's dark out, the only source of light coming from the gas lanterns we have around the living room, and I squint my eyes at the tall figure standing on our front stoop.
"I'm looking for a shirt to be sewn," the low voice teased, and the figure stepped into the light, revealing himself. "Do you know where I could find someone who's good at sewing?" I smile and let him in.
"I do," I recite in code, my voice teasing back. We both know how terrible I am at sewing.
He pulls off his black newsboy cap in respect of being in my house and smiles. "You ready to go, Catnip?"
So I am really sorry for how late this chapter is. This story is not pre-written, and I was having a hard time deciding what I wanted to do with this chapter because there was a second part to this chapter, but it was becoming too long and I decided to split it up.
The verse (Or part of it) that Katniss recites is from the Bible. So that's why it's italicized.
This chapter's mainly a filler chapter setting up for Ch. 3, but what can you do? These chapters are needed for future plot. Next chapter does involve Peeta, though, and I do have that partially written. So I hope to get that finished shortly, and update my two other stories! Busy busy busy!
I hope you enjoyed it, and reviews are always encouraging (And make me write faster)- especially for this story since I'm writing it as I post. So please review and tell me what you think!
Also, if any of you are Tumblr users, it'd be great to get to know you all! My URL is on my profile if you're interested.