Prologue – Ellijay, Georgia 1984
Katniss clutched the baptismal dress in her hands as she walked into the Goodwill store. She looked around her. The thrift store was large, full of the cast-offs of an already down-trodden community, but she felt sure she could find something here to trade for Prim's birthday present. She made her way towards the children's section, rummaging through worn stuffed animals and tattered books of nursery rhymes. Most of the items seemed too young for her soon-to-be-nine-year-old sister. She was about to move on to the next aisle when she saw a large book beneath what looked like a collection of old McDonald's Happy Meal toys. She pulled it out and felt her heart begin to race as she saw the cover: it was an encyclopedia of animals with lots of photographs. Her heart leapt as she flipped through the pages. Perfect.
She turned the book over and saw the plain white sticker on the back cover where a wobbly hand had inscribed the price in pencil: $8. Katniss felt her nerves tangle inside her as she looked back at the dress in her hands. The fabric was only a plain and faded white cotton, but it was clean and free of stains. What set the small dress apart from any other baby's dress was the fine smocking stitched around the collar in small yellow flowers, a pattern repeated around each elastic cuff. Katniss had seen her mother smock only a few times in her life, so she knew how tedious and time-consuming it was. She also knew how valued it was because she had seen a smocked child's dress for sale in the Leevy's store a few months ago, and the dress had cost twenty-five dollars.
Surely the woman at the counter would recognize the value of the dress and agree to the trade.
Katniss made her way to the counter and stood waiting her turn, only half listening to the conversation in progress. A woman was arguing with the cashier about some items she was dropping off.
"I'm sorry, ma'am, but we only have certain days for large-item drop-off, and my manager isn't here right now."
"But when will she return? We're moving tomorrow, and I don't want to move these items." The woman's tone was brittle, and she sighed angrily as the cashier explained that the manager would return soon.
As her mind wandered, Katniss noticed a boy around the corner of the counter, standing quietly by the door. He was watching her. Katniss recognized the blonde hair framing the thin face and blue eyes. She stared back at him for a moment before looking away, connecting him with the woman standing in front of her now.
Suddenly an older woman's voice rang out from a side door that had just opened, and the cashier seemed relieved. "Mrs. Brand, a customer needs help with an immediate drop-off," she said. Mrs. Mellark moved away from the counter, beginning her assault on the manager before she had made it into the office.
The cashier looked wearily at Katniss, clearly relieved to be free of Mrs. Mellark. Katniss approached the counter and put down the book and the dress. The cashier checked the price on the book and punched in the numbers. Then she picked up the dress and began inspecting it closely. She looked up at Katniss and said, "Just a second," before taking the dress with her back to the office.
Katniss stood waiting until she heard a voice say quietly, "Hey, Katniss." The boy was at her elbow.
Katniss studied him a moment. He was wearing what looked like a brand-new Rugby shirt and Docksiders. "Hey, Peeta."
"What are you doing?"
"I'm trying to trade a dress for a book," she replied. "For my sister's birthday. What about you?"
"Mom's trying to sell some stuff."
Katniss suddenly realized what she had just heard his mother say. "You're moving? Where?"
"Back to Atlanta. Dad's bought a bakery in Decatur. Mom's never really liked it here."
Katniss nodded, not surprised. Peeta's family had moved to Ellijay when they were in kindergarten after Mr. Mellark's father had died, leaving him the family bakery off the main square on Church Street. In the intervening years, Mrs. Mellark had made few friends, in large part due to her vocal disdain for the small, North Georgia town.
Katniss felt a funny sinking in her stomach, but her attention was drawn to the cashier coming back to the counter. "Sorry that took so long," she said, "but I had to do a price check on the dress since it wasn't marked. Mrs. Brand says you can have it for ten-fifty."
"What?" Katniss croaked. "I'm not buying this dress. I'm here to trade it!" She could hear the tone of her voice rising.
"What's the problem?" Katniss looked to see Mrs. Brand and Mrs. Mellark returning from the side office.
"I brought this dress to trade," she said, trying to control her voice.
Mrs. Brand's eyes narrowed. "That's impossible. We got that dress in last week."
Mrs. Mellark crossed her arms over her chest, clearly interested in the drama unfolding in front of her.
Katniss felt her stomach plummet. "But it's mine!" she cried. "My mother made it for my baptism, and my sister wore it, too. I want to buy this book for my sister's birthday present."
Mrs. Mellark made a clucking noise in the back of her throat as Mrs. Brand straightened her shoulders and bore down on the small girl. "Quit that lyin', girl. Either buy the book or get out of my shop before I throw you out!"
Katniss flinched at the older woman's tone. She knew she was defeated, knew she couldn't fight the disdain of both of these women, but the fury that filled her small body radiated outward, anchored her in place a moment more as she shifted her gaze between the women.
When she felt her eyes begin to burn, she turned on her heel and ran. Peeta had returned to his place by the door, and he jumped to get out of her way.
Katniss made it onto her bike and out of the parking lot before the tears started to fall. She pushed her legs as hard as she could, her braid thumping against her back. She stayed on the shoulder of Route 52 for half a mile before turning left down a dirt road that wound its way into the woods. Here, she slowed, half-heartedly pumping, allowing her mind to process what had just happened. The wind had dried her tears, and now her anger seeped away, replaced instead by despondency. She hadn't actually wanted to trade away the dress. She knew her mother would not have approved, but she also knew that Prim's birthday would probably go unnoticed if she didn't do something herself, and it was the only thing she could think of.
Katniss had just turned twelve when her father had been hit by a drunk driver four months ago. Since then, her life had changed drastically. The family's meager savings had dwindled under the strain of hospital bills and then funeral costs. They had sold her father's car and then the television. Her mother began to work longer hours as an in-home hospice care-taker in order to make ends meet. She managed to cover their essential bills, but she was rarely at home. Katniss had begun to wonder if her mother's absences might be due to more than just financial reasons. When Mari Everdeen was at home, she was silent, disinterested in her girls, a physical presence only.
This change had been hardest on Primrose. At eight, the girl had lost her father to death and her mother to grief, and Katniss hadn't known what to do about it. She had tried filling in the gaps as much as possible, making sure her sister was fed and clothed, leaving the bills on her mother's pillow where she knew she would see them, hoping her mother would remember to pay them. Recently, Mari had begun staying away for days on end, and Katniss and Prim would come home to find groceries in the refrigerator but no other sign of her. She began leaving her mother notes: Prim needs new shoes. Or Please leave money for school supplies. Usually her mother would show back up a few days later.
Last week she had left a note about Prim's birthday. It had disappeared, so she knew her mother had found it, but her mother hadn't shown up or left any money.
Katniss did not know what to do. Resting where her bike had come to a stop, she leaned her head down on her handlebars, her heart racing and her stomach churning. She took gulping breaths but couldn't breathe. Her skin had a tingling feeling, and she was beginning to sweat. She still couldn't get a full breath of air. Dropping her bike, she lurched towards a nearby tree and leaned against it as her legs collapsed underneath her. She had begun to shake, and panic rolled through her in waves.
She sat, hunched and rocking, trying to catch her breath. She began to count backwards, trying to focus her mind on something benign. The tightness in her chest lessened a bit. She took a long, slow breath, trying to order her body and mind and regain control.
At last the world stilled around her. Her mind began to clear, and she slowly relaxed. The sun filtered through the trees. She became aware of the sounds in the in the branches around her, picking out the trill of the winter wren. She breathed. In the cool November air she could smell the sweet, loamy dirt beneath her. She breathed. She felt the chaos seep away like water into the ground. She turned slightly to run her hand on the bark of the pine tree at her back. She took another breath and closed her eyes.
Katniss woke to the sound of a squirrel barking close above her head. She sat up with a jerk, her neck aching from the uncomfortable position she'd slept in propped against the tree. The light of the woods had softened and the air was colder. It had gotten late. She hastened over to her bike, steering it back onto the path and heading for home. Prim was spending the day with their neighbors, the Hawthornes, and they expected her to join them for dinner.
When she turned onto her street, Katniss saw a bike lying in her front yard. She slowed down, hopping off her own in front of it and looking around. She didn't recognize it and didn't see anyone around. She cautiously walked her bike up the driveway and propped it up against the carport wall. Then she saw him sitting on the step to the kitchen door.
Peeta stood up as he saw her. He smiled a small smile and walked towards her. He was carrying a large, brown paper bag.
"Hey," he said.
She looked at him a moment before speaking. "What are you doing here?"
He blushed. "I brought you this."
She found herself holding the bag. Her nerves reignited as she looked down into it and saw the animal encyclopedia in the bottom of the bag. She looked up at him, wide-eyed, stunned into silence.
"I...I just...felt bad. About what happened. I wished I could have helped somehow."
Katniss swallowed. "How did you get this?"
"I rode my bike back down to the thrift store after I got home. Then I came here."
In the back of her mind, Katniss processed the distance between her house and his on the town square. She didn't know how many miles.
"I can't," she said, closing the bag and pushing it back toward him.
He stepped back, raising his hands and refusing to take the bag from her. "I can't take this!" she insisted. "I can't pay you for it!"
"Katniss, please! I don't want you to pay me! It was unfair what that woman did to you. I just wanted to help!"
Katniss' nerves were humming through her body, her stomach churning again. She didn't know what to do.
Her eyes began to fill, and she felt like she was about to break apart. He was watching her with a worried expression. "Hey," he said, stepping forward. Awkwardly, he put his arms around her. "It's OK. Really." She froze, holding her breath and trying keep herself together. His arms were stiff around her, but she thought if she could just hold on a minute more, she'd be all right. He was rambling, so she focused on his voice. "I swiped the money from my dad's wallet, but he won't notice. And if he does, he owes me for, like, three weeks' worth of allowance, so it won't matter." She remained silent, but she slowly exhaled. He stepped back, running his hands down her arms. "Think of it as a going away present."
She looked at him, seeing his lop-sided smile as he said this last bit. "But you're the one going away."
"Yeah," he said, suddenly serious. His blue eyes held hers before he looked away. "I'd better get going." He began backing up.
Katniss followed him slowly as he made his way back down the driveway towards his bike. She watched him pick up his bike and throw his leg over the bar. He stared at her.
"I don't know what to say," she whispered. "Thank you."
He reached out and briefly touched her face. His eyes darkened, and she couldn't read the expression on his face.
"I'll see you again," he said. And with that, he stood up on his pedal and rode away.
Katniss watched him go before reaching down into the bag to retrieve the book. She felt her hands brush something soft, and it was only then that she realized that he had not only brought her the book. Her smocked dress was folded carefully at the bottom of the bag.
A/N Thanks so much to LollerCakes and ZenLeigh (BohemianRider) who helped beta! I appreciate your feedback and support!