Disclaimer: All characters used within this story, along with several plot elements, are from The Hunger Games series, which is owned by Suzanne Collins. I'm just borrowing them for a while, and am making no monetary gain. :)
"Listen to the mustn'ts, child. Listen to the don'ts. Listen to the shouldn'ts, the impossibles, the won'ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me... Anything can happen, child. Anything can be."
― Shel Silverstein
I wake to the sound of screaming.
This is not a rare occurrence; in fact, it happens more often than not. It has for years. I remember wonderful days when I'd wake feeling as if life was full of endless possibility and hope, but they seem so faded now. I gave up dreaming of escape long ago. After so many attempts and being punished at every turn, you learn to cope. That's all you can do. You keep the pain inside, learn to ignore it, and you keep going.
This is just how life is.
I lie still on my cot, trying not to breathe too loudly or move too quickly. He sees no reason when he's angry. If you get in his way, if you make too much noise, it's your own fault and you deserve what you get - and what you get depends on how sadistic he's feeling that day. You can't predict his moods and you sure as hell can't prevent what comes with them. Deriving a sick pleasure from inflicting pain is like a cruel hobby of his. He only makes things worse if you cry or plead, and mercy is nonexistent to him.
Who is 'he'? He's a monster masquerading as my stepfather.
His real name is Coriolanus, but everyone calls him Snow. He has white blond hair, which he keeps shaved, and sickly pale skin. He's tall and lanky, but he's strong - a fact which he likes to prove any chance he can get. He was never particularly nice to begin with, but his fits of rage are becoming even more unpredictable and frequent lately. Then again, the drugs aren't helping, whether prescribed or illegal; he'll take whatever he can get his hands on.
He also sells drugs to make a little money from it, which he then uses to buy and trade for more potent stuff, leaving us with less than what we had to begin with. He'll never get punished for it, either. He was raised by the guy who runs our local, corrupt police department, a man who goes by the name of Coin. He's one of the biggest drug suppliers in the area, and Snow helps him with his 'business'.
I open my eyes and peek over at the cot beside me. I see my little sister, Prim, staring at the ceiling, not daring to move a muscle. I find it sad that this has become a morning ritual for us – being afraid to get up, be seen, or even breathe too loudly. She's only eleven years old, and I hate that she's spent most of her life in fear. She probably doesn't even remember what life was like before Snow, doesn't remember a time when it wasn't this dreadful. Despite all the hell we go through, however, Prim is one of the kindest, gentlest souls you'll ever encounter. So compassionate, she wouldn't even kill a cockroach without feeling sorry for it.
I, on the other hand, have no problem with killing things. I have no choice in the matter. It's either that or let us all die of starvation. Snow doesn't care; he rarely eats - and when he does, it's not at home. He doesn't let us sign up for food assistance because he'd then be forced to look for work and that's not something he's intent on doing. As far as Mom working, she hasn't been okay for years. She reached her breaking point long ago and the pieces never came back together. There's a light inside, reminding us that someone once lived there, but no one is home anymore. She's merely a shell of a person, just another punching bag I have to try to protect.
Just another reason why I could never leave this place if I tried.
Six months before she met and married Snow, my father had died. Dad was a good man, always had a smile on his face and treated me and Prim like princesses. He'd often take me into the woods, making trails along the way and singing songs with me. He taught me how to use a gun, set a trap, and how to fish. He also gave me knowledge about herbology – he taught me what was edible, what would make me sick, and what would kill me. I loved our nature walks; I always learned something new from them. I never fathomed that I'd actually end up using everything he taught me.
On most days, Snow locks the door and doesn't let me and Prim enter again until the sun sets. He says that if we have time to "sit around and be lazy" we can find work to do outside. I usually have Prim sit aside while I do everything. She'll sit, playing with the corn-husk dolls I made for her, while I chop blocks of wood into quarter pieces to rank. I know she feels bad for not helping, but also that she feels relieved. It's apparent that she's scared of the ax by the way she tries to prevent a flinch every time the metal makes contact with wood. It's fine, though, because I'd rather break my back in the heat rather than in the house being beat on and cussed at. But mostly because when we're outside, Prim isn't a target.
Snow knows that the best way to hurt me is by hurting her. That's the biggest reason why I could never leave. I have to protect her, and I do the best I can. I try, anyway. I'll take her brunt of the beatings every time I can. Some days it works, other days it makes it worse for her. Like I said before, you can't really predict Snow. I've stopped trying to figure him out or believe there's anything nice about him. There isn't and there never will be.
I jump as the front door slams, making the whole place shake. A moment later, I hear Snow's old beat up truck roar to life. He quickly peels out away from the house, and I let out a long sigh of relief as the sound moves farther away. The air seems lighter now; cleaner. It always does when he's gone.
"Katniss?" Prim sits up and looks over at me expectantly.
"School starts in a week," she states, worry evident in the tone of her voice.
"I know, Prim." I yawn and rub the middle of my eyes with my thumb and index finger. "Don't remind me."
"We don't have anything though."
She speaks the truth and I don't know what to say or do to calm her fears. Truth be told, I'm just as worried as she is. We don't even have a single piece of paper or a pencil to share. Prim needs new shoes. She's grown over the summer and the ones she has don't fit anymore. She's been going barefoot for weeks. Both of our bodies are growing and our clothes are starting to shred and stink. I just turned seventeen a few months back, so I'm nearing the end of my growth spurt, but Prim is only just beginning.
People at school have never been very nice to me, but I don't know how they treat her. I can't imagine any better. Prim is blonde, tiny, and timid. As for me, I'm not particularly shy, I just don't see the point of talking to others. It takes too much energy to care about others when they don't care about me. I have too many other things to worry about. Other people don't understand. They don't want to understand, either. They just see two dirty, bruised girls wearing rags. They don't stop to think of why.
I shrug at Prim's worries, not knowing how to respond, and finally get up. I walk into the living room, if you can call it that. We don't have a couch or any other furniture besides a rusty folding chair, and the windows have been boarded up with plywood. There are no pictures on the walls, only faded manufactured wood paneling that you see in most trailers. And that's what we live in – an old, destroyed two-bedroom trailer. Most of the roof is missing in big patches and half of the outside wall is torn out in the kitchen hallway. We don't have things that other people have, like a refrigerator, television, phone, cooking stove, toilet, bathtub, or washing machine. We eat things fresh, out of a can, or we cook it on the wood stove. This isn't an option during the summer because of the heat, obviously, so I also made a pit outside out of rocks and cross-wire.
We don't have electricity at all. We use candles and kerosene lanterns at night. It's been years since I've watched a television show or listened to the radio for fun. I like to read, though, and it's the one thing I can get away with when it comes to Snow. All I have to tell him is that it's for school and he'll allow me to. He can't read or write much at all, so he always feels intimidated, yelling and cursing at me the entire time. That being said, I rarely ever have time to read for fun.
We also don't have running water or plumbing. Luckily, there's an old well on the property. We also place buckets and anything else we can find outside to capture rain water. We use the bathroom by using a five-gallon bucket with a makeshift lid on it. To bathe, we use a small tin water tub. I also try to keep clean by swimming in the lake during the summer, but it's impossible to do during the fall and winter months as the water is too cold. As for laundry, we have to wash it by hand, but usually can't afford detergent. We have to hang it all to dry which makes it hard, dingy, and tear easily. I often have to sew and repair old clothes, taking them out and adding patches here and there as I grow. This is obviously not very popular at school. Even people who are decently friendly still don't want to be seen with me.
Gale is probably the only friend I do have. He lives about a mile or two from us, and his father died in the mines with my own. He's a little older than me, in his early twenties, and isn't in school anymore. I know he'd like to help us out of this hellhole, but he has his own problems to deal with and a huge family to help take care of. Even if Gale could help me get away - and we've talked many times about running off into the woods to live - I couldn't leave my mom behind. He couldn't leave his siblings, either. If something happened to any of them, I'd never forgive myself and neither would he.
I pick up my fishing pole and a five-gallon bucket as I head outside, with Prim following silently. What do I want to do today? Chop wood for the upcoming winter months? No. It's over ninety degrees out, and I don't know if I feel strong enough for it today. I'll have to wake a little earlier to do that tomorrow. We don't have a thing to eat besides some apples, corn, and green beans, so fishing is definitely on the agenda. I'll also set some snares for possible squirrel or rabbit meat later.
I prefer fishing over anything else. It's less messy and it's easier to transport, clean, and cook. I also like digging in the dirt, under rocks, stumps, and other things to find plump earthworms and grub worms. If it's been really dry, like the drought we've been experiencing this summer, I'll catch horseflies and locusts. Fish aren't very picky eaters and tend to love the insects even more than the worms at times. I have to climb through a barbed-wire fence, down a hill, and through some patchy woods before I get to the lake. It's on our neighbor's private property, but no one ever checks up on it. I've been coming here for years and no one has ever caught me. I've never seen anyone out here either.
I made my own fishing pole. It's really just a thick stick with braided yarn, a weight, and a hook, but it gets the job done. I've even caught decent-sized catfish and trout with it. Dad taught me how to make them when I was a child, and I'd always refer to them as 'Laura Ingalls' poles. Sometimes I like to pretend that I'm not fishing for the sole purpose of keeping us alive, but that I'm a pioneer woman of days long ago, merely fishing for food as a normal pastime in order to cook a delicious meal for her family...that I'm doing this with pride instead of desperation. It makes it easier, to imagine myself as someone else, in a time where something such as this would be considered a normal thing, and not a last resort in a desolate situation.
After I catch a few fish, we move on to one of my favorite things to do: pick blackberries and dewberries. Luckily there are a ton of them growing wild where we live, which is basically in the middle of nowhere. We have to be careful not to step on any snakes, however, as they love to hang around the bushes. If either of us ever received a bite from a poisonous one, we'd simply be out of luck.
We like to eat the berries as we pick them, as some sort of delectable and forbidden candy, and then we travel on foot to neighboring houses to see if anyone will buy them. I don't charge much, because I know if I do no one will buy and my trip will be made pointless. If they're cheap, they might have pity on us and buy them anyway, so I usually charge around eight dollars for half of a five-gallon bucket. Thankfully, a lot of the older women around here like to purchase them because they like making jams, pies, and preserves.
It's a little out of the way, but I also like going to the Mellarks' place. While the wife is always disdainful towards me - treating me as if I am not fit to look at, let alone speak, to her - the husband is always very kind. Many times he pays me double or triple because, as he says, "These blackberries will be perfect for the tarts!" He owns a bakery in town, but I haven't been inside of it for years, since before my father died. I don't really go into town much anymore, except in passing while on the bus to school, or when Gale will take me. Mr. Mellark usually gives me some cheese buns or cinnamon rolls to eat, and he always insists on giving me a ride back home. I never let him go down the driveway to see where I live, though.
It's a little after noon when I drop my pole and Prim off at the house. In this heat, I don't want her taking the strenuous trip with me. I tell her to stay outside, out of view of Snow, until I get back.
I set off in an attempt to sell the berries and hopefully make a few dollars before school starts. All I can think of is how badly Prim needs shoes and school supplies. If I make enough today, I can easily go to school the first day and sneak off before first hour or at lunch to buy her shoes. She might have to miss the first day, but the school knows we're no strangers to truancy and they don't seem to care. They've always turned a blind eye.
I bite my lip, trying to get the worries out of my head. I venture on, feeling determined and hoping against all odds that people will be generous today. I can't afford for them not to be.
Thanks for giving my story a chance! :) HUGE thank you to my betas: deinde-prandium, jennagill, and sothereff. You ladies are awesome and I'm so thankful for your help! If you have any questions or comments, you can find me on tumblr: dandelion-sunset