AN: Hello! This is an AU fanfic that takes place in the corrupt, industrialized city of Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century. Some details about the city will be false just because I didn't live then and I can't possibly research every fact in the time I have. Katniss is 16 when the story starts. Hopefully characters won't be too OOC though they might be at times despite my best efforts.
Disclaimer: I do not own The Hunger Games
Loud sirens go off outside the walls of the dingy schoolroom. I look out the window and nothing has visibly changed since a moment ago. The sky is still that same drab grey that it was this morning, threatening of snow. The few scraggly trees in the schoolyard are still bare and a cold wind makes its way through the cracks in the windowsill to wrap its icy fingers around us.
Our teacher looks up though and I see fear cross her face. Something bad has happened.
"What are those sirens, Sister Margaret?" Kathleen Cleary asks from the very front of the room. Her blonde hair is pulled back in a smart ponytail tied with a red ribbon that perfectly matches her new red velvet dress.
"It's the sirens for the mine out at the edge of the city." The youthful woman answers evenly, erasing any traces of fear from her face. Her nonchalance doesn't pass by all of us though. Several students start to whisper. I stay silent but my heart starts to thud twice as fast and as hard as it was only moments before.
"Now please open your readers to-"
"Aren't we going to do anything?" Gale Hawthorne demands, standing quickly from his seat two rows over from me. He's my best friend and two years older but we're in the same classroom. This room holds grades nine, ten, eleven, and twelve. There are forty-three of us in all but they don't have enough room or teachers to separate the grades.
"No, Mr. Hawthorne, we are not going to do anything. You are in school and we are going to continue with our work." Sister Margaret informs him sternly. I don't miss the pitying glance she sends him with her piercing blue eyes however.
"My father is out there!" Gale shouts, slamming his book shut.
"I'm sorry to hear that, dear. There are several of your classmates who are in the same situation as you however and you don't notice them disrupting class, do you?" She peers over her glasses.
"But nothing, Mr. Hawthorne. You will sit down immediately and you will be staying after class tomorrow to write out lines for me. Now everyone please turn to page fifty eight and who would like to start reading for us?" Sister Margaret states, firmly closing the topic. Gale slumps loudly into his seat and crosses his arms, not making any move to open his reader again. He looks a sight, tall with broad shoulders and pitch-black hair. He would remind me of the angry giants in fairytales if I weren't so tied up in my worrisome thoughts.
Kathleen Cleary's hand shoots up into the air the moment the question leaves Sister Margaret's mouth but the older woman gazes around the room a moment, looking for other, less willing, prey. I duck my head and hunch my back trying to make myself as insignificant as possible. It's not difficult. I'm seated behind Bobby Bokowski, a swarthy nineth year who dwarfs me even though I'm a year older. Half the time, I can't even see the board over his head but I don't mind much. School has never been one of my great interests.
"Peeta Mellark, why don't you read for us today?" Sister Margaret asks, though everyone knows it's really a demand.
I look to the curly blond haired boy who is seated on the far side of the room in the seat closest to the door. Unlike most of the boys in our class, he's dressed in a clean, perfectly pressed, three pieced, navy blue suit. His shirt is white as fresh snow and stiffly starched by one of his servants at home. He nods slightly and begins to read in a soft lilting voice that doesn't seem possible from a boy.
Like Kathleen Cleary, Peeta Mellark is one of the richest children in the classroom. His mother comes from a long line of money that hails from the textile industry and his father's money is all tied up in grain mills outside of the city. He's rich enough that his parents could afford to get him a personal tutor but for some reason they haven't, not for him or his two older brothers.
I can't listen to a word he reads however, instead tapping my fingers nervously on the desk as I wait for the minutes to tick by before the end of school. My father works in the mines alongside Gale's and I know enough about mines to know that a siren means men have died. Accidents that warrant the sirens never turn out well for the workers.
A bell rings from the hallway and I jump up from my seat, gathering my books in a hurry and snatching my cloak from the hook along the wall before dashing down the hall. Gale is right beside me, taking long, quick strides toward the front doors of the school building.
"You find Prim, Catnip, I'll wait for you by the gate." He says, his voice deep and brooding. I'm sure he's imagining everything that could have happened to our fathers. I watch his broad back retreat with wide eyes frozen for a moment, unable to search for my sister.
In contrast to Peeta's prim and proper outfit, Gale, like most of the Seam boys, wears yesterday's white cotton shirt, fraying ever so slightly at the cuffs. Most of the boys don't have suit jackets, flaunting their suspenders proudly, declaring they aren't one of the wealthy industrialists from the outer city limits. His pants are faded grey and probably an inch or two too short. As he walks out the door he slips his cap on over the unruly dark hair so commonly found in the Seam.
Finally I snap out of my paralyzing fear and start looking frantically for my little sister, Primrose Everdeen. The hallways are flooded now with students and I stand on my tiptoes searching for that tiny blonde head of hair. I catch a glimpse of the shiny golden locks before an eleventh grade boy steps in my way.
"Prim!" I shout over the general chatter of students after a long day of class.
"Katniss?" I hear her sweet voice answer and I push my way through the crowd towards her.
"Come on. Gale is waiting. There was an accident at the mine." I say grabbing her hand and hurrying out into the cold, winter air that's blowing through the schoolyard.
Gale isn't hard to spot fidgeting next to the front gate. He's tall, even though he's not quite eighteen yet. As I rush across the dead grass of the yard, I notice several girls from his grade giving him sideward glances as they whisper with friends. He must be attractive to those who are destined to live in the Seam. We already know our future is planned out for us. Gale's broad and strong, the silent, brooding, mysterious type. He'll be a good worker in the factories, which is no doubt where he'll end up, a dead end job for the dead end world we've been born into.
I make my way across the yard but before I make it to Gale, someone steps between us. I look up to brilliant, sky blue eyes. It's Peeta Mellark. I duck my head and move to walk around him but he takes a hold of my free hand. I look up at him when he squeezes it lightly and I yank it away from him with a frown. My mother is always reprimanding me about my frowns. They're not ladylike she says but I can't help it when people like Peeta Mellark clearly overstep their boundaries. Prim watches all of this with wide, silent eyes.
"I really hope your father is okay." Peeta says with a small, reassuring smile. He glances to Prim as well and nods. My frown deepens but he walks away before I can say anything to him. He's never spoken to me before and he picks today of all days? Prim tugs nervously at my hand and I hurriedly cross the rest of the grass to where Gale is standing.
"Let's go." Gale says, taking off the second we're within hearing distance. Prim practically has to jog to keep up with our longer gait but she doesn't complain, she just glances up at me with scared blue eyes every so often as if looking for answers I don't have.
It's almost an hour's journey to our home in the Seam. The Seam is a dirty, rundown, overpopulated area of the city. No Mellarks or Cleary would dare set foot on this side of town for fear that it might besmirch their family name. It's where most of the workers from the factories live, barely making ends meet.
Prim and I jump over a particularly large puddle filled with mud and some unidentifiable liquid. The streets here are paved, but just barely, only well enough to ensure the freight trucks can get through. It's only another block before we reach the high-rise we've lived in since I was born. Gale lives in the next building over so we part ways.
"I'll send word if I hear any news, Catnip." He says, never looking back as he walks up the front steps of his building.
"We'll do the same, Gale." I reply, dragging Prim by the hand as we head up the six flights of stairs to our apartment.
I open the door and Iris is there nursing her newborn, Stella. Our family shares the apartment with two other families so we can afford the rent. In all, there are ten of us that live in the three-bedroom apartment, each family getting one room to themselves and sharing all the other living space.
"Is my mom here Iris?" I ask the haggard looking young woman.
"She eis back in 'our 'oom." She replies with her heavy accent. She had immigrated here with her husband Daniel while she was still pregnant, hoping for a better life for their new family. I still don't think she's admitted to herself that they had the wool pulled over their eyes.
"Thanks." I say, wasting no time on pleasantries as I brush past her. Prim gives a polite wave, always the friendlier sister of us two.
"Mom?" I call as I push the door open. The room is tiny and the second the door is open I spot her sitting on the mattress in the corner, wringing her hands in her lap. "Is dad okay? Have you heard anything?"
She shakes her head silently, clearly too distraught to speak. Her eyes are distant, glazed over with the horrors of whatever might be happening to my father inside her mind. Prim hurries to her side and sits at her feet, resting her head on my mother's knee. There's nothing to do now but wait so I go to the kitchen area and start fixing something for us all to eat, making sure there's enough for my father once he arrives home.
Night falls on the city though and no one returns. I sit on the windowsill of the bedroom and watch the clouds break up, revealing a bright, nearly full, moon. Mother and Prim have fallen asleep in each other's arms and their heavy, even breathing is the only noise in the room.
I watch the moon set before there's a knock at the front door. I jump up immediately, heart pounding in my throat. Maybe dad lost his keys to the apartment in the accident and he's home but he needs me to open the door. I can hear Stella start to cry in the bedroom on the opposite side of the apartment.
I slide the chain and swing the door open with more force than necessary.
"Catnip." Gale says softly, his grey eyes never meeting my own. My heart plummets to my toes. I know what he's going to say before the words leave his mouth. "They didn't make it out."
"Are you sure, Gale? How do you know?" I whisper, eyes wide, clinging to hope for one last moment.
"Randal came by. He was down there with them. They didn't make it out." He looks at me now, eyes filled with tears and terror.
"Gale, not your dad too." I whisper, wrapping my trembling arms around myself.
He nods silently, his arms gathering me against him before I can collapse to the ground. We both sit in the doorway of the apartment for a long while as the sky lightens to a predawn, murky grey. Tears streak my face silently and Gale's shaky breaths tell me either he's crying too or he's struggling to hold it back.
"What are we going to do?" I whisper, breaking the silence.
I feel him shake his head, his chin brushing the top of my head.
"I'm not sure." He says, softly, sounding like a boy rather than the man he'll be expected to be now. "Get a job somewhere I guess."
"Not in the mines, Gale. Promise me you won't-"
"I won't Catnip. I can't." He cuts me short, "I'll find work somewhere else. Will you be able to make it with just your mother's pay?"
It's a valid question. Gale's future is now set. His family is too large with four children to feed for him to imagine anything else. He'll supplement his mother's income now by working in a factory somewhere in the city. I might still be able to stay in school though. My mother is a healer, self-trained, and she brings in a fair amount of money. It might be enough to feed our tiny family.
"I'm not sure. Perhaps." I reply.
Stella wails loudly from the bedroom, bringing us back to reality, a new harsher one than yesterday. The sky is washed out grey now and I can hear the building waking up through its thin walls and floors.
"I need to get back to my family." Gale says, removing his arms from around me and standing. Neither of us looks the other in the eye as we brush nonexistent dust from our clothing. We're both much to old to be embracing like that. My mother would be frantic if she'd seen us; that is if she were in her right mind.
"I need to tell them." I whisper and finally look up.
He gives me a sad look, "I'm sorry, Katniss."
"I'm sorry too, Gale." I say, reaching to squeeze his hand lightly before he walks out the door and heads down the stairs back to his own apartment building.
When I return to the bedroom, my mother and Prim are still asleep. I consider waking them for a moment to tell them the news but I decide against it. Let them have a few more hours, minutes even, where they don't have to know; where they can still hold hope that my father is coming home. I wish I still had that time.
"No!" Prim cries out when I break the news. "No, Katniss, no!"
"I'm sorry, Prim." I murmur, pulling her into my arms and rocking her gently.
My mom hasn't said anything. She's just sitting there on the bed, motionless, like a statue in one of those fancy museums we hear about that the wealthy industrialists like to visit. Her eyes are distant again but they seem farther away this time and I wonder if she'll be able to find her way back to us. Her expression is blank, not sad, not angry, just completely void of anything.
We skip school. Prim still hasn't stopped crying and I can't force her to leave my mother's side, even if the latter isn't here with us anymore. Mom doesn't move all day. I ask her if she has anyone that she's supposed to see. I tell her I can send word that she's sick and won't be there today. But my mother doesn't answer; she doesn't even glance at me. It's as though I haven't even spoken.
The coroner comes by in the afternoon. He says my father's body couldn't be recovered. It's a blessing really. We couldn't afford to bury him anyway. The coroner reports that someone made an error in judgment that caused a piece of machinery to explode down in the mineshaft. The explosion triggered a cave in and the rest is what one would expect from such a story- over a dozen men killed.
My father had been working eighteen-hour shifts for the past two weeks. There has been a spike in demand for coal so the bosses compensated for it by making the men work double shifts rather than hiring more men. My father could have easily been the one who made a foolish mistake, common sense run down by lack of sleep.
That night Prim curls up next to my mother's frozen form again. I sleep with a blanket on the floor hoping that I can hold it together. Tears escape my eyes silently and I hold back sobs. I don't want Prim to hear me crying, it will only upset her. I don't know how much help my mother is going to be anymore I just hope she comes around enough to return to work soon.
Days pass in a blur. Prim and I return to school but mother doesn't leave the apartment. She is still far away from us, in another world and I'm afraid I might never be able to bring her back.
Days turn into months and nothing changes except for the cupboards. There's no food left in them anymore and the money envelope under the mattress in our bedroom only has a few coins left.
I've tried to stretch the food in hopes that mother will come back soon and earn money again. I make sure Prim gets as much as I can but it's still beginning to show on her face. Her cheeks are hollowing out each day and her skin is starting to take on a sickly color that so many Seam children bear. My own ribs have been showing for weeks now but there's nothing to be done about it. Prim has to come first and I'm even failing at taking care of her. She's still too young to suffer.
I sit at my desk one morning, my stomach gnawing at itself hungrily. It's been days since I ate anything. I don't remember how long exactly; I try not to think about it. I pick at my nails, not bothering to listen to Sister Margaret at the front of the room. She's teaching some sort of arithmetic but I'm beginning to realize that I will not need to know all of this stuff, especially if I end up in the factories, which looks to be where my future is headed.
I glance over to Gale's empty desk. He's found work in the meat-packing factory, slaughtering the cattle that come in. It's dirty, tiring work but he's making four dollars a week, more than most workers his age. I've hardly seen him at all since he began working there and I miss him more than I can put into words. He only gets Sunday off and he spends most of the day sleeping or spending time with the family he hardly ever gets to see anymore.
I'm going to start looking for work today. Mother still hasn't come out of her blues, or whatever it is, no matter how much I've begged her to. She's lost to us but I can't let my family starve to death while she's stuck in her mind.
"Miss Everdeen, come to the board and solve this equation for us." Sister Margaret calls out, bringing me back from my reveries. I look up in surprise. She's staring at me with a disapproving gaze and I know she only called on me because I haven't been attentive today.
I look at the problem on the board and I haven't the faintest idea how to go about solving it but I know that arguing with Sister will only lead to time after school, which I can't afford. I stand and walk slowly up to the board.
"Didn't she wear that dress three times already this week?" Fay Wright whispers under her breath. Sister doesn't hear it but several students do and I hear Kathleen snicker in her pretty pale green dress.
Fay is right of course. I sold all but two of my dresses to buy food. This one is one of my older ones, sky blue and a bit big for me since I've lost so much weight after my father died. I know the hem is fraying and permanently stained from mud splashing up on it as I walk home. It's also several inches too short, showing more of my ankle than is proper. It's all I have however and I try not to let her comments bother me. I know they shouldn't.
I pick up the chalk and stare at the problem, which might as well be written in a foreign language. I turn the white stick in my fingers and begin to write some form of work on the board.
It doesn't take long for Kathleen to pipe up in a whisper loud enough for the entire class to hear, "What is she stupid? Maybe they should put her in an institution with the other retards."
"That's enough!" Sister Margaret calls out sharply. "Sit down, Katniss, and might I suggest you pay closer attention from now on."
My cheeks flush bright red, aflame with anger and shame. I duck my head in hopes that no one will take notice as I walk quickly back to my seat.
"Eww." Fay squeals, "She smells like the pigs down at the packing factory."
"Silence!" Sister shouts, "The next student to speak out of turn will be writing lines after school."
The older woman then continues on with lecture, ignoring the quiet snickers of the students in the room. Stupid tears well up in my eyes and I blink quickly to hold them back. I shouldn't let snotty girls like Kathleen Cleary and Fay Wright who live on the wealthy outer limits of the city and don't have a lick of sense. But that's all easier said than done when they're sitting here next to me and nothing seems to have gone right in such a very long time.
Near lunchtime, everyone seems to have forgotten about me, the skinny Seam girl in the back corner. I glance up and see that everyone is working on an essay prompt that is written on the blackboard. I don't have any interest in starting the assignment now so I look around the room. Everyone is bowed over their work except for Peeta, who I catch staring at me. He ducks his head and begins writing as soon as our eyes meet.
Lovely. So not everyone has forgotten about the brainless girl in the back of the room. The strange, rich boy is still watching.
When the lunch bell rings, I wait until the classroom empties before I make my way to the stark, white lunchroom. There are small, round tables situated everywhere throughout the room and benches along the wall. I glance to the back wall where Gale and I would sit next to one another with our sandwiches.
After Gale left school to work in the factory, Madge Undersee started to sit next to me occasionally. We never really speak but I guess she just pities me, or something. Her father is the mayor of the city so I have no idea why she would have any real interest in a girl from the Seam. He has certainly never taken a moment to glance our way. She could easily be one of the most popular girls at school if she wanted. She's beautiful with full, blonde curls and crisp pretty dresses but for some reason she chooses to sit next to me. She's nice enough I suppose, never laughing at my expense, so I don't mind sitting next to her on most days.
I make my way back to my wall now. Madge hasn't been in class today so figure I'll be sitting alone today. I pull my knees to my chest as I sit and wrap my arms around them in hopes that this will help with the pain in my stomach. Mother would be appalled by my manners but I'm so hungry and she isn't around to help us. I don't have anything to eat today. I used the last of the dry, stale bread to make Prim half of a sandwich for lunch. That's the last of the food, despite my going hungry to stretch our resources. I don't know what I'm going to do if I don't find work. My stomach growls angrily at me as I think this.
"Prim, you go straight home, dear." I say as we walk out of school together at the end of the day. She nods miserably. It's silly that I even tell her this. It's not as if she has any energy to go run around with her friends. "I'm going to find some work. I'll be home for supper." I don't mention that even if I do find work, we won't have anything to eat tonight. I won't be earning any money this afternoon with which to buy groceries.
She starts off in the direction of the Seam, her steps dragging as she does. I'm just about to head toward the industrial part of the city when I have a thought. I wait for the school to clear out and run around the back of the building. I glance over my shoulder as I lift the lid quietly off of one of the metal trashcans. It's mostly scraps of paper but I manage to find a slightly mangled half of a sandwich and an apple with only one bite taken out of it. They'll make a descent supper for Prim.
I squirrel these away into my bag and glance over my shoulder again. I get the feeling that someone is watching me. I squint at the shadows under the overhangs of the surrounding buildings and don't see anything so I shrug the feeling off. If it were Kathleen or Fay, they would already be out here pointing in my face and chanting humiliating rhymes at me.
I half run to the factory section of the city after that, in a hurry after being put behind schedule by my garbage search. I earn several strange looks, mixed with the occasional glare. A lady doesn't run, especially not through city streets.
I start at the hat-making factory, a long, narrow, dim building where working women sit, bent silently over the fancy hats that women who have never worked a day in their lives wear. The forewoman there looks me up and down from over the tip of her nose and tells me there's no work there.
Next I try the canning factory. It smells awful and it's hot even with the cool end-of-winter air outside. The foreman states he's just hired three kids today and doesn't need another one until one of them looses his hand. The meatpacking factory's foreman laughs when he sees me. He doesn't need a half-dead, emaciated girl to work on his line lifting one hundred pound cuts.
The sun sets behind the tall buildings and a cold wind picks up forcing me to pull my thin jacket tighter around me as I return home in shame. How will I tell Prim? How am I going to keep us alive?
Prim masks her disappointment well when I tell her I still haven't found work, happily eating her dinner. I tell her I already ate the other half of the sandwich and that I'm not in the mood for an apple today. Prim seems to take my explanation as the truth and doesn't try to share with me. I spoon feed my mother warm water. She doesn't need the food. She's already given up anyway.
"Katniss, you look so tired." Prim remarks as she finishes off the sandwich and licks her fingers.
I give my best attempt at a smile, "I'm okay, little duck." I say tugging at the end of her blouse that's managed to escape her skirt. "Let's get you a bath."
I draw up water from the tap into the large tub that sits in the corner of the living room. We're lucky enough to have running water in the apartment but it's all cold and there's no bathroom. There's a communal toilet down the hall for us to share with the dozen other families on our floor but we have to make due with a scrub tub for our baths. I throw the tattered sheet over a string that's fixed from the two corners of the wall, effectively walling off the area and giving her privacy. She washes up and I brush her hair for her before braiding it down her back.
"There. All squeaky clean for school tomorrow." I murmur as I tie the braid off. I kiss the back of her damp head, "Now go get some rest. I'll be in as soon as I'm done."
"Okay. Goodnight, Katniss." Prim responds sleepily as she stands and crosses the room, "Katniss?" She asks, turning as she reaches the doorway of our bedroom to look at me again.
"Yeah, Prim?" I question tiredly.
"I love you." She says in her sweet, innocent voice.
I smile, "I love you too, Little Duck."
She smiles before going into the room and shutting the door after her. I strip down and scrub my skin clean of the grime that it seems to attract here in the Seam. I scrub until the skin is sore and pink before I towel off and slip into my father's old shirt which now functions as my nightgown.
I pull the sheet down and empty the tub out the window and into the alley before sitting on the couch to brush out my hair. The front door opens and Daniel walks in, looking exhausted and entirely drunk. He gives a haphazard grin.
"Katnissss." He slurs and touches his fingers to his forehead as though he forgets he's not wearing a hat.
"Daniel." I reply, hoping he'll leave our encounter at that. I begin quickly braiding my hair as he collapses on the couch next to me though and dashes my hope.
"'ow you do, pretty girl like you? You have courting yet?" His accent isn't as thick as Iris's but his words are so heavy with liquor it's still hard to understand him.
"I'm fine. And no, not yet. Stella is getting so big." I comment hoping to distract him and remind him why he shouldn't be out this late drinking. Heaven knows he can't afford it with the new baby.
His eyes go somewhat cross as he tries to remember who Stella is. He smiles when he does, "She a beautiful girl. You think?"
"She is lovely. I'm retiring for the night." I say standing and gathering the clothes I wore today and will wear again tomorrow. "Goodnight, Daniel."
"'night, Katnissss." He calls, waving a drunken hand from his slumped position on the couch.
"I don't have anything to send with you for lunch." I admit to Prim the next morning, "I'm sorry."
I hadn't thought so far in advance as to think about lunch for today. I should have saved the apple or kept digging for more food.
"It's okay, Katniss." She says with her bravest smile, placing a comforting hand on my cheek, "I'm not really even hungry anyway."
I kiss her forehead wordlessly and gently push her towards her classroom before I can start crying. She's little but she's so brave and kind. It breaks my heart to know that she's going hungry. No child should have to feel that. The bell rings for classes to start and I shakily make my way to the classroom.
The morning drags on and I once again can't focus on anything Sister Margaret is saying. Instead, I watch the rain tap away at the windows. Sister seems to have given up on forcing me to pay attention and leaves me to my own devices in the back of the room. Maybe she even feels a bit guilty about subjecting me to the sneers of my classmates yesterday.
When the bell rings for lunch, I slowly make my way down the hallway. I have no energy and I don't know how my feet are still moving. At the door to the cafeteria, I change my mind and turn around. Madge is sitting against the wall right near my spot. I don't want her to see I don't have anything to eat. I've already heard enough snarky comments from the other schoolgirls this week. Madge has never been the type to make fun but I really don't feel like taking the chance today. I don't have anything left in me.
Instead, I make my way outside into the rain and find an overhang to sit under. The rain still catches me a bit but what little shelter it gives is more than enough for me. I don't need to be comfortable. A moment later, I'm huddled into a tiny ball up against the wall, sobbing pitifully for the first time since my father died.
I've failed. My family is going to starve and I can't save them. My father had always worked himself to the bone to make sure we had what we needed; not always what we wanted but what we needed. Prim never knew real hunger until now. I miss him so much my chest aches when I try to breathe. The bell rings signaling that there are ten minutes left before class starts again but I don't make a move. I can't go back in there. I can't bring myself to move again.
I don't notice the footsteps squishing through the grass right away but when they're about three paces from me I do and I sit up, quickly wiping my tear-swollen eyes. When I glance up, it's the shock of damp, blonde hair, and blue eyes laced with concern that I see first then the tentative smile.
"Hi Katniss." Peeta says in that impossibly gentle voice he's known for.
I don't answer, instead pulling the sleeve of my dirty, threadbare dress across my nose in the most unladylike fashion.
He clears his throat and pulls a white paper bag out from behind his back and holds it out to me, "My mother said the foreman at the textile mill on Wilby is looking for workers."
I frown and sniffle as I hesitantly reach for the bag. It's heavy when I take it from him. He smiles contentedly as I open the crinkly paper bag. Inside is half a loaf of dark, heavy, baker's bread- a bit crumbly, but still perfectly edible. I look up with wide eyes.
He nods and continues to smile. Why is he doing this? Where did he get this bread? I look around his legs to see where my classmates must be hiding, laughing at the girl who would get excited over half a loaf of old bread. I can't see any of them though.
I don't like handouts. Handouts mean that I'm in debt to someone and my father always taught me that one never wants to be in debt. A person can be manipulated and buried in the ground financially if they start taking handouts and loans. But I think of Prim and how her stomach must be gnawing away inside of her just as mine is. I can't let my little sister starve, even if that means taking bread from a boy I hardly know. I wait a moment for Peeta to change his mind and snatch the bag back from me with a haughty laugh but he doesn't. Peeta isn't cruel like that. I make the split decision to take this bread no matter what it might mean I owe him. And I know that I'll owe him not only my own but my family's life as well. I fold the bag shut again and quickly stand before taking off for the school doors. Peeta doesn't call out after me and I don't chance a look back. Instead, I hurry into the cafeteria and find little Prim, watching her friends as they finish their lunches.
"Prim, come with me." I murmur in her ear, ignoring the strange looks I receive as though no one has ever seen a rain soaked, muddy girl before. I look down and admit I probably am a sight. My dress will need to be washed before tomorrow to get all the mud out of it but right now I don't care. We have food. My heart has wings.
"Katniss what are we doing?" My sweet little sister asks when I pull her into the gymnasium behind the set of wooden bleachers. This place doesn't get much use besides the basketball team that the boys have started but it makes for the perfect secret lunch.
"Here." I say pulling a chunk of bread from the bag.
She looks up at me in shock, "Where did you get it?" She asks as she takes the bread from my hands and starts devouring it.
"Found it sitting in the middle of the hallway." I lie, "Someone must have meant to throw it out and dropped it on the way to lunch."
She doesn't argue and I help myself to the delicious, grainy bread that is a little stiff but still melts in my mouth. Prim smiles delightedly through a mouthful and I laugh, not even bothering to put a hand over my mouth. We eat until we've finished half of the bread, which takes us way past the bell signaling the start of class.
"We're very late." Prim remarks as we crawl out from behind the bleachers.
"It's okay. Just tell your teacher you were sick." I say walking to the end of her hallway with her, "I'm going to see about a job now. You head straight home after the end of class. I'll see you there."
"You're skipping class?" She asks, brow furrowed in worry.
I smile, "It's alright, Little Duck. I probably won't be in school after today if I can help it."
She smiles back easily, "Okay, Katniss. I'll see you at home."
She walks into her classroom and I hurry out of the school before one of the sisters can stop me and drag me back to class. I make my way to Wilby Street with little difficulty and a full stomach. The air is hazy and humid when I open the door to the textile factory.
"What's your business here girl?" The foreman asks when I find him, shouting over the loud whirring of the machines as he walks down the narrow path between them.
"I'm looking for work and I heard you might have some." I reply, trying my best to sound older than I am.
He looks me over skeptically, "You're kinda scraggly, kid."
"I'm a hard worker though. You wouldn't regret it." I say, straightening up and raising my chin, anything that might make me seem bigger.
"How old are you?" He asks, still not convinced.
"Sixteen." I reply easily.
"Well, I won't pay you as an adult." He says, rubbing a hand over his short, black beard. "You'll get two and a half dollars a day. Fourteen hour shifts. Four A.M. to 6 P.M."
"Deal." I say, not about to haggle a better deal as I stick a hand out to him and keep the smile from my face.
"I'm Claudius Templesmith, your new foreman. If you're late, you're fired." He says taking my hand and giving it a firm shake with a phony, toothy smile.
"Yes, sir." I reply as he turns and walks away from me. I suppose that's my cue to leave.
Once I'm out on the streets again, I let the smile spread across my face. It's raining harder now and I'm quickly soaked to the bone but it doesn't bother me one bit. Today I'm flying as I walk home, my feet barely touching the ground as I do.
I swing the door open to the apartment and Prim is there sitting with Iris and Jeanie, the wife of John and part of the other family living with us.
"Katniss! How did it go?" Prim asks excitedly, her smile mirroring my own.
"I got a job." I say shrugging as though it isn't the best news we've had in months. Prim squeals happily.
"That's so wonderful!" She hurries over to give me a hug, "Katniss, you're soaked through. We need to get this dress off you before you catch your death."
"Oh, Prim, I'll be fine." I brush off but allow her to lead me to our bedroom.
"Mom, Katniss got a job today." Prim announces to our mother who is huddled up in the blankets in bed. "Isn't that wonderful news?"
Our mother doesn't respond though. She merely continues to stare out the window at the grey sky. I don't know what I expected but I guess I hoped she might come back to us if I got a job. That doesn't appear to be the case however. At least now I'll be able to provide for Prim.
As I lay with my blanket trying to fall asleep, Peeta's blue eyes find their way to the forefront of my mind. I owe him everything now. Not only did he save our lives with the bread, he gave me that tip about the job. I can't get my mind around the gesture and I'm sure he'll want something in return for his help. I don't like being in debt but it's worth it if it saves Prim's life.
"You stand here and take care of this machine. You change the spools as they run out and clear any jams. Don't get your hands too close to these and make sure that pretty braid of yours doesn't get in the machine. I don't need to throw out an entire bolt of fabric because you bleed all over it." Mr. Templesmith shouts over the din of the factory at four thirty the next morning. "You understand, kid?"
"Yes sir." I reply and take up the station that he's indicated.
"Rue!" Mr. Templesmith calls out and I watch as a girl, not much older than Prim, crawls out from the underside of my machine. She straightens up and brushes copious amounts of dust from her skirts. Her skin is the color of coffee with cream and she has wide doe eyes.
"Yes, Mr. Templesmith." The little girl replies, standing straight and tall as she addresses him.
"You make sure Katniss here stays out of trouble, understand?" Rue looks over at me shyly and nods. Mr. Templesmith is pleased with her response and heads off to his office that overlooks the entire factory.
"Do you have any questions about your job, Miss Katniss?"
I smile down at the tiny girl. No one has ever called me Miss Katniss before. It's odd to hear the combination from a girl that I'm only four years older than.
"None that come to mind. Thank you. What is it you do, Rue?" I question.
"I un-jam the machines from underneath. A lot of things go wrong that you can only fix from underneath." She explains sweetly, hopping onto the tips of her toes as she does.
I look at the massive, churning machines before me and cringe. It must be a dangerous job to be under them, sticking one's hands into the gears and cylinders. They hire children like Rue because they're the only ones who can fit between all the machinery. They also pay them pennies on the dollar compared to what they pay an average worker.
"You just be careful too, Rue." I muse. She smiles and nods before scurrying back under the machines to one particular gear making a horrid screeching sound.
It's so loud here. I almost miss the silence of my old schoolroom during essay writing but then I remember that Prim will have food in her belly tonight. I managed to convince Templesmith to give me the day's pay at the end of my shift. It's an unusual allowance since normally workers are only paid on Friday however this grant will get my family through the rest of the week until I receive my first week's pay.
The day is long, the hours stretching on forever until a thirty-minute lunch break. Rue slides out from under a machine just down the row from me and smiles shyly in my direction. The factory bell rings moments later and everything whirs to a stop leaving only the chatter of the factory workers to fill the silence.
"We're going to eat at The Hob. It's the only place around that serves lunch." Rue explains when I walk up next to her as everyone files out of the factory. "Do you want to come with?"
I shake my head, "Maybe tomorrow." I say softly.
"Are you sure? You don't have a sack with you that you brought your lunch in." Rue points out, looking to my empty hands for good measure.
She narrows her dark, doe-eyes at me, "If you don't have the coin, I can loan it to you today. Sae has the cheapest prices in the district."
I shrug. As a working girl she probably understands my plight better than most but I don't like the idea of taking handouts even if they are small and I do intend to pay them back.
"Come on. You come with us, I insist. You can pay me back at the end of the week." Rue places a hand on my arm and then quickly retracts it as though she's been burnt. She looks up at me, her eyes wide with shock. She looks as though the wind might blow her over she's frozen so stiff with fear.
I frown and it takes me a minute to understand her fear. Then realization dawns on me. I could have her beaten for touching me like that and if I were someone like Kathleen Cleary I probably would. Those on the outskirts of the city, who have big houses, can also afford servants, which are almost always blacks. Those types of people think themselves above people with dark skin just because theirs is flawless and white. It's a bunch of bologna if you ask me. Rue has already proven herself just as capable as any white little girl at work today. She's sweet and hardworking and I'd be fooling myself if I said I was superior to her. If anything, she should be above me. Everyone knows I'm not sweet though I suppose I work just as hard as she does.
"It's okay." I say with a smile, "And okay, I'll come with you."
"I'm sorry." Rue whispers, ducking her head.
"I said it's okay." I assure her, placing a hand on her willowy shoulder. "I mean it. There's no sense in me pretending I'm any different or better than you. This isn't the south for heaven's sake."
Rue nods and swallows dryly as we walk into the dark, dusty building that they call The Hob. A crudely painted sign tells me that it's the name of this pub and it's open six days a week eleven to two. There's an odd smell in the air but the building is well kept by Seam standards. It's also packed with factory workers stuffing themselves with stale looking bread and a somewhat watery soup with unidentifiable ingredients.
Rue tells me to sit down at a table near the back as she goes to fetch two meals for us. It's best if she sits further back- people won't notice her then. There are several tables with black men seated at them but they all seem to have clustered along the back wall. It must be some unspoken rule. I make my way through the crowded dining room, past men who smell of sweat and hard work already and the day is only half over. There are plenty of women around the room as well though they are far outnumbered and tend to stick around the edges, chatting demurely while eyeing some of the more brawny boys.
Once I'm seated, I can take a better look around. Behind the bar is an ancient looking woman serving up the food for the day and a man in his mid-thirties. He's drinking some form of brown liquor even though it's still early in the day and watching the room with a bored look.
Rue returns to the table and we dig in. I still can't tell what's in the soup but it's warm and tastes good enough going down. My stomach gurgles happily after the first few bites and I slow down, noticing that Rue is watching me with a knowing look. My mother would be mortified by my eating habits of late. I dab my napkin across my lips like the lady my mother taught me to be. As I do, my attention is diverted for a moment by the man at the bar who is hollering at one of the patrons about something.
I turn back to Rue, "Who is that man?"
Rue gives a sad little smile, "That's the owner Haymitch Abernathy." She leans over the table and lowers her voice conspiratorially, "He's a drunk but everyone turns a blind eye to it since he has the lowest prices around. Come five o'clock this place will be packed again with factory workers. At nine o'clock he has girls that perform."
I blush as Rue divulges the nightlife of The Hob. Apparently, the place is packed nightly with run down, tired men who can't afford to be there but willingly throw their money at Haymitch and his girls anyway.
"I've never been here at night, but from what I hear it's actually rather tame compared to the mobster cabarets." Rue admits.
She's probably right. I've never heard whispers about the things that go on at The Hob but I have heard about the mobster cabarets where the women hardly wear a scrap of fabric and flaunt around stage seductively. They're one of reasons there are so many church reformers in the city now. The churches are trying to save the souls of all the damned heathens of the Seam who hang around in those sorts of establishments. The movement has been largely unsuccessful from what I understand however. They can't touch anyone the mob doesn't want them to.
I blush again and try for a change of subject, "And the woman there, who is she?"
"That's Sae. She's the cook- only works during lunch and supper. They nicknamed her Greasy Sae. She can make something edible out of anything." Rue smiles toothily, "She's the one who helped me get a job at the textile mill when I couldn't make enough money helping her cook here."
"You worked here?" I ask in surprise between mouthfuls of soup.
She nods her head vigorously, "Oh, yes. I would work here after school when we first moved to the city. Mr. Abernathy was very kind to me. Most of the other business owners wouldn't hire a black girl from the south to work for them."
"Where are you from, Rue? If you don't mind my prying, that is." I ask, nibbling much more slowly than before at the crusty bread. I could tell she was from the south by the slight accent she still has but I'm not familiar enough to place it.
She gives a toothy smile, "I don't mind at all Miss Katniss-"
"You don't need to call me that. Just call me Katniss. I'm from the Seam. I've never been a Miss anything." I say with a wave of my hand.
Rue chuckles at this before continuing, "Okay then, Katniss. I'm from Atlanta, Georgia. I was born and raised there until I was eight. My father wanted a better life for my siblings and I so we moved to the city but making ends meet was hard so I worked here. When I turned ten, I started working in the mill full time and I have been ever since."
"And how long ago was that- when you started working at the mill?" I ask out of curiosity.
"Two and a half years." Rue says easily, "The job at the mill has paid well enough that my younger brother still hasn't needed to find work."
The pride in her voice is clearly evident. It's something not many families can say. Too many children are forced to work in the factories as early as eight years old, especially from big families, which it sounds as though Rue's is.
"What about you, Katniss? Have you lived here your entire life?"
"All sixteen years of it." I say, soaking up the last of my soup with the dry bread. "My father died in the mine accident six months ago. There wasn't enough food to go around so I left school to start work." I admit. Something about Rue's sweet disposition reminds me so much of Prim that I can't help but open up to her.
She nods with an understanding look but doesn't seem to pity me. I'm thankful for that. Pity won't do me any good at this point. I need a friend, not someone who is going to feel badly for the girl with a dead father and mentally absent mother.
Several whistles sound outside the Hob and, as if a power switch has been turned, all the patrons of the dark room stand and start shuffling out the room. Rue and I follow suit and are back at the factory in mere minutes. A second whistle blows and the machines grind and churn as the power is turned on. Rue disappears under her machine and I take up my station, attending to several low spools and running down to retrieve the heavy full ones from the other end of the factory.
By the time six o'clock comes around and the whistle blows signaling the end of the day, I'm exhausted and my feet are cramping painfully in my healed, worn leather shoes. I still have a half hour's walk before I'll be home but thankfully then I can get off my feet. I hurry to knock on Mr. Templesmith's office door as he instructed me to at the end of the day.
He opens the door looking bored as he pulls his overcoat over his shoulders, "You'll be wanting a day's pay, then?"
"Yes, sir." I say, holding hand out as he hands me the coins we agreed upon.
"Will you be back tomorrow or are you quitting already?" He asks slipping past me and shutting the door as he goes.
"I'll be here, sir. Thank you for doing this for me today. I am so very thankful."
"This is a one time deal, kid. I can't do this for every worker who comes to me." He tucks the key to his office in the pocket of his overcoat and fixes me with a stern look. "You just looked like a racehorse on its last leg. I can tell you have potential but I figured a good meal might make you work harder and earn me more money."
Mr. Templesmith doesn't wait for me to respond before he walks the short distance between where we are standing and the door to the factory. I look down at the small silver coins in my hands and let my fingers curl tightly around them. They're not much but to me they are everything. They are my family's lifeline. They are my hope.
I make a stop at the bakery on the way home and buy a loaf of day-old bread. Next door is the grocery where I buy canned ham. It's not Prim's favorite- we all prefer fresher meat- but between this and the bread we'll make it through the end of the week.
When I arrive home, Prim's face lights up once she notices my purchase. She chatters happily and insists I sit down on the worn out couch while she makes us each a sandwich, even, wordlessly, sparing a half of a sandwich for mother. I'll have to feed it to her later while Prim bathes. Prim settles down next to me with a happy grin as we dig into the evening's feast.
"The youngest Mellark boy, Peeta? He spoke to me at school today." Prim says.
I frown and turn to look at her. She has a tiny, secretive smile when she looks at me.
"Why would the Mellark boy talk to you?" I question suspiciously.
"He was asking about you. He noticed you weren't in class and he was wondering where you were. I told him you were working in the textile mill up on Wilby Street. He insisted on sharing half of his sandwich with me over lunch so he could sketch my portrait. He's very talented, Katniss." Prim prattles happily in between thoughtful bites of food.
"Prim, you shouldn't be talking with Peeta Mellark. He's not like us. Talking to boys like that only leads to trouble for girls from the Seam." I warn evenly though my blood is boiling.
What is he thinking approaching my little sister and drawing her portrait? What kind of game is he playing at? Is that why he helped me? So that he could get me out of the way and seduce my sister behind my back? I'll be damned if he'll ruin her reputation like his brothers have done to too many Seam girls.
"Oh Katniss, he's not at all like that. He's very kind and not at all like his brothers. He's a real gentleman." Prim brushes my concern away.
The two older Mellarks look just like Peeta although from a distance they seem to lack a certain softness that their youngest brother has. They've also been known to take girls down back alleys on the way home from school. The oldest, Glenn, is out of school now, but the middle Mellark, Axel, is in the same year as Gale. I hear plenty of girls giggling in the schoolyard as they whisper the boys' names. Many a Seam girl has spent weeks crying over one or the other Mellark boys, though I must admit I haven't heard anyone whisper Peeta's name between sniffles. That doesn't reassure me all that much however since I've never been one to follow the gossip at school all that closely. Peeta could just be showing a bit more discretion than his older brothers.
The entire situation rubs me the wrong way though because I also owe Peeta Mellark my life. Is this what he has in mind for repayment, my sister's reputation for our lives? It's a price I will refuse. I'll give him anything so long as no harm or suffering will come to Prim.
"Sometimes people can be misleading, Prim." I say softly, trying not to ruin her fun but worried about her all the same, "Just be careful and try to stay away from him, okay? I don't want you getting hurt."
"You know, Katniss, you talk about him like you know him. You shouldn't judge a book by its cover." Prim points out, staring at what's left of her sandwich.
I sigh. That's Prim for you, always looking for the good in people. She doesn't understand, or want to admit, that sometimes people act. Sometimes people just want to use you for a purpose and discard you once they're finished. It's something I've learned watching the girls two years ahead of me fall all over themselves to catch the eye of some wealthy industry heir in hopes that he will sweep them away from the gutters of the Seam into the comfort of riches. In the end, no matter how honest the boy seems to be, he drops the Seam girl back in the gutter for a pretty blonde haired heiress who has never had a blister on her perfectly sculpted hand.
"Just promise me you'll be careful, Prim." I beg and she turns her innocent blue eyes toward me.
Our gazes meet for a minute or so before she nods in reply and stands to wash our plates. She's quiet for the rest of the night and I know I've hurt her feelings. She had such a wonderful day and didn't have to go hungry at lunch and I had to darken it with cruel realities.
I feed mother dinner in silence while Prim cleans up after dinner. It's almost as though the woman who brought me into this world no longer exists. Her body is still here with us but she's no longer in it. All that's left is this shell that takes up food and space but doesn't live anymore. I try to be patient though as she chews slowly, staring off into whatever distant land she's stuck in.
I go to bed before Prim has even finished her bath. I have to be up at three in the morning to get ready for work. My body aches as I settle to the floor and I know tomorrow it will feel even worse. I try to see the positive of the pain- at least it's earning my family enough money for food. We're not going to starve after all. We'll make it somehow, just like we always did when father was still alive.
AN: Please Review and let me know what you think! Hopefully this will be updated every other week or so.