Cotton threads floated in the air; permeating the already musty and dry atmosphere and turning it from merely uncomfortable to unbearable to work in. The threads ranged from smaller than a millimetre, where they would stick to your dry throat and make you feel even more parched than before, to the larger ones, about an inch across, that when breathed in would cause you to cough violently. The whole system could make a worker's breathing degenerate in a matter of weeks- months could incapacitate you.
Jesse wore a scarf over his mouth after his first day.
A single Peacekeeper, armed with a standard-issue pulse gun and a standard-issue rifle, watched the cotton mills with an intensity that Jesse had never seen drop in all his time working here- and he had been here a long time. The Peacekeeper would change from day to day, but the look as they surveyed the factory floor from their balcony above never did. It made Jesse uneasy- it made everyone uneasy.
Not that Jesse was looking at the Peacekeeper now- he was far too preoccupied with work.
Jesse was somewhat of a perfectionist, if he was forced to be honest. He would learn a lot, fairly swiftly, by the completely ruthless tactic of striving for absolute perfection- and then, having achieved this skill, he wouldn't rest until whatever he was doing was like clockwork and perfect every time.
As Jesse had been working in the mills for about nine years, he was now one of the most skilled at creating cloth from thread; perhaps a useless skill, but, as Jesse would reflect, at least it was one. He could make cloth.
Jesse reckoned that, if given the opportunity to flaunt his skills, he could make it from practically anything-not that he had ever had reason to really try. He worked in the cotton mills. Nothing else was done. Nothing new had been done since when he had started.
Jesse was bored of his job, if he was honest. But it wasn't like he was some Capitolian who could do whatever they liked with a wave of their huge wigs. No, he worked here, in District 8, for minimal wages, with practically nothing else he could do; he couldn't just change his job because he was bored.
Personally, though, Jesse felt nine years was quite long enough to have mastered the art of cloth-making. He had no wish to carry this on his whole life.
Jesse was sixteen- seventeen in two weeks, but he preferred not to think about that. His birthday was Reaping day-it wasn't the most cheery day of the year to celebrate when you spend it waiting for your name to be called. And besides, it just highlighted the dismal conditions Jesse lived in. He lived with his father in a dismal apartment in one of the many Peacekeeper-run blocks, surrounded by disease and smog and cotton fibres. He had no reason to celebrate his birthday, especially when he had the added pressure of whether he would be reaped or not.
Jesse had lost count of the number of tesserae he had taken over the years- how many more slips with his name on it had been placed in the Reaping pool. He hadn't wanted to, but he really didn't have much choice- not if he wanted him and his father to live. His dad was so ill that he was bedridden-well, in what passed for a bed- for almost all the time. Jesse had to bring in food and water for both of them, which in District 8 was no small feat as it was.
A klaxon blared above the factory floor- a signal to leave. It wasn't pay night until tomorrow, so it was one of those days where Jesse would have to go hungry tonight. There was only enough food at home for a single person, and he had to prioritise his father.
But before he went home.
Jesse had his eye on one of the newer workers- a cleanly-dressed girl, his age. He had seen her around at school a few years ago- Flax, he vaguely remembered her name was. She looked new to the job, supported as she probably was by a large family. Jesse reckoned she had never taken tesserae more than once.
"Oh, hello there," He said with a beguiling smile, walking over to Flax as the workers left their posts and headed swiftly for the locker rooms. "It's wonderful seeing you, Flax. How long's it been?"
Flax giggled slightly, cheeks flushing. She untied her work apron and hung it on one of the rusted pegs. "Jesse Tanner, right? It's been a long time!" She answered, fiddling with a lock of her hair as she picked up her canvas satchel of belongings from one of the many dented, broken and rusted beyond repair lockers. Jesse mentally shook his head, hanging his apron on the peg opposite hers in the thin corridor. She really was new to the job if she thought valuables were safe in what was sparsely called a 'locker room'. It was little more than an unlocked storage space filled with scrap metal.
"Too long," He purred smoothly, nonchalantly brushing his dirty blond hair from his eyes in a way he knew drove all his female peers crazy. Flax was no exception- she giggled and brushed one hand against her work trousers as if to make herself more presentable. Bingo, Jesse thought to himself. Another day of this and she would be eating out of his hand.
A Peacekeeper poked his head and rifle into the locker rooms.
"No remaining stationary," He growled, jabbing his gun into the air slightly as he glared at the remaining workers in the room. Jesse dropped his head slightly, unwilling to risk his life for the sake of some flirtation, and glanced with a cheeky smile at Flax as they were half-herded to the exits. Flax returned a muted giggle, and then she disappeared into the crowds of workers. Jesse sighed slightly, and returned his gaze to in front of him, shuffling through the crowds of people walking to the sunlight streaming through the rickety exit doors. There was a thick scent of sweat and dirt in the air, mixed with the musty smell of cotton fibres; the smell of District 8, Jesse thought to himself cynically. People rarely washed themselves- water, especially in summer, was in short supply, and unless you were the mayor or you were in a gang, you didn't have any to waste on washing.
Jesse walked through the exit, and late afternoon sunlight spilled onto his face- he tipped back his head slightly, allowing himself to slow down and bask in the relaxing warmth for a few seconds. Then, steeling himself, he began his walk home.
District 8 was a fairly small place, but had a lot of residents pushed into a single area- and when District 8 couldn't build out, it built up. Huge, imposing concrete buildings, stark grey and crumbling, dominated the district's skyline; anyone who could afford housing would attempt to get rent for an apartment at one of the Peacekeeper-run buildings. Those who were mutilated by machinery, or unable to find work, would sit in the cold and rain, scavenging desperately for scraps of food. There was little to be found; District 8's citizens ate anything they could find, and were careful not to waste anything. The poor sat or lay against the buildings, crying out plaintively for food. They skittered away as Jesse and the workers approached; the more sadistic cotton mill workers would often kick out at the poor. Jesse just kept his head down and walked in the shadow of the concrete buildings.
Last year, one of the taller buildings had collapsed- Jesse reckoned from a mixture of poor quality building and neglect. But because it coincided with the Hunger Games, the Peacekeepers had taken a different view. All survivors of the collapse, former residents of the building, were rounded up and shot for terrorism against the Capitol. Jesse's friend had been in that building.
After half an hour of walking, most of the workers had dispersed to their buildings already, leaving Jesse to walk alone in the cool early evening air. Jesse picked up the pace a little- curfew was about to start, and he despised when he had to end up running for the entrance.
The sun was halfway set when Jesse dragged open the splintered plywood door and pulled himself into the hallway. A klaxon sounded behind him- the signal of curfew. Anyone found after-hours would be shot. Of course, many workers were still travelling when the klaxon sounded- it was a daily match with death for them. Jesse was on the fringe of that, every day. After a while, you got used to the threat of guns plaguing your journey home.
The hallway to the stairs was dark and depressing- only the odd gang member ever frequented the place, and only then to fight. Bloodstains covered the floor- some of them had been there a lifetime, some looked like they had been spilled this morning. Jesse's threadbare shoes stuck slightly against the floorboards as he walked to the staircase.
All of the buildings in District 8 were in various stages of disrepair, and Jesse's home was no exception. Half of the rickety wooden staircase to his apartment had collapsed a few years ago- woodworm, a few of the older residents had called it. Jesse stopped by the beginnings of the staircase. Beyond the first few steps, the stairs were caved in, little more than sawdust.
Jesse hopped up to the first step- it creaked slightly but took his weight. He stretched up, grabbing hold of a slight defect in the walls; an indent, barely there at all. His fingers found purchase on the slight depression, and, placing a foot onto the scuffed wall, he pulled himself up, resting his weight on his fingertips. The second he felt himself begin to slip, Jesse had already moved- hand to another indentation, foot kicked out into the wall for a temporary hold. By this point, he was positioned above the broken stairs, about four metres in the air. Jesse grinned to himself. He was getting good at this.
He continued swinging from hold to hold, wheeling his legs against the wall to push himself upwards and to the side. After a minute of this, he landed heavily against the floorboards of the first floor. He leant against a doorframe for a quick breath- climbing the sheer walls of the staircases was tiring. But he had four more floors to climb, so he dragged himself over to the broken and splintered staircase, and swung himself up onto a handhold. A girl from the first floor, a year younger than him if he remembered rightly, glanced out from her apartment and smiled sheepishly at him as he began his ascent- throwing climbing safety to the wind for a second, he removed one hand from a handhold to smile rakishly and wave at her. She giggled and waved back. Jesse wondered if a late-night call to her place would be a good idea tonight- she was pretty good looking, and he was pretty sure he could get a meal off her. Giving her a final wink, Jesse returned his attention to climbing.
He continued on, climbing up to the fourth floor before needing to stop for another breath. Immediately he regretted it- a gang was out on the corridors. Jesse ducked back, hiding by the lip of the broken staircase. He positioned one foot back on the wall, ready for a swift escape if necessary- then peeked around the corner.
The gang members were one of the less violent in Jesse's building, to his relief. On top of that, half of them were on whatever stash of morphling they had stolen this time. His hand fell away from the knife stashed in the lining of his shirt, and he instead began walking casually across the hallway, slowly to avoid notice from the gang- on morphling and less violent as they were, Jesse never let his guard down around gangs. His hand still brushed against his hidden knife every few seconds.
Jesse climbed the final floor, knife bumping against his hip where it was hidden. It was only a small switchblade, easily concealed, but Jesse knew how to use it- with the amount of gang members around, that was non-optional.
The fifth floor, where Jesse and his father lived, was one of the less eventful floors- there were only a few gang members, and only one who was from a powerful gang. Nevertheless, the walls were broken and in places covered in fresh bloodstains- Jesse never doubted that his home was dangerous.
Jesse pushed open the door to his apartment- there was a pile of rags jammed against the door to prevent it from opening, but the distinct lack of locks in the building meant that if somebody wanted to come into your apartment, they were in. Jesse relied on the fact that there was nothing really worth taking in the house.
"Who's there?" A hoarse voice called from Jesse's left. Jesse smiled at his father as he kicked the rag pile back against the door.
"Relax, dad, it's me."
A sallow face poked through a pile of threadbare and dirty blankets.
"Jesse. Weren't you paid?"
"Not till tomorrow, but relax- we have food in the kitchen."
"Eat on the way to work again?"
Jesse's excuse for not eating himself. It would never have fooled his father before, but these days almost anything could fool his sickly father.
"Yeah. I'll get you some food, 'kay?"
His father sank back into his blankets as Jesse headed to the only other room- a double kitchen and bedroom. A concrete slab had been dragged in place to allow Jesse to light fires on it without burning the building down- a small sack contained a few firelighters and a largely stale piece of flatbread. Jesse ignored the rumblings of his own stomach as he headed into his father's room and handed him the piece of flatbread- a few flax seeds fell from it as his father shakily took the bread and tentatively closed his mouth around it.
Jesse nodded, smiled, and walked back to his own room quietly. A bang resounded from downstairs- gang fights, Jesse reckoned to himself. The morphling-high gang were probably getting their comeuppance for stealing someone else's stash of the drug. Jesse pulled his knife from where it was hidden in his shirt lining; he quietly flicked the blade out and in. It was something he had stolen from a gang a year or two back- they hadn't noticed, they had stashed enough weapons over the years that one tiny switchblade could be easily stolen without notice when their backs were turned. Jesse had stolen it when his father had become ill- when his sole surviving parent couldn't care for him anymore, the only person Jesse could rely on was himself.
Although the women could generally be relied on to fall over themselves when Jesse was around.
Jesse turned the blade around in his hands- he looked at his own reflection in the shiny metal. Tanned skin, icy blue eyes and fairly long, blonde hair- Jesse wasn't rich, and he wasn't a Capitolian, but anyone could admit that he was damn good looking. He smiled and winked at himself in the blade- before flipping the knife hilt into his hand and flinging it at the opposite wall, a few metres in front of him. The blade slid into one of the prexisting gouges left by the knife- it shuddered as it stuck there.
Jesse leant over and pulled the knife from the wall- repeated the process. His smile was gone, replaced with neutral determination.
He liked to imagine the wall was a Peacekeeper. A Capitolian. President Snow.
Tonight, Jesse imagined he was throwing his knife at a tribute. That he won the Hunger Games. That he was in the Victor's Village.
In his heart, Jesse knew that the Hunger Games was horrific- that he would never win such a game, that entering the Games would spell death for his father, left alone. Jesse knew it would never happen.
But here,in the dark, hungry, with the company of a knife- Jesse liked to imagine.
It was almost too quiet today. The day high above them was warm and pleasant- not too cold, not too hot, with a cloudless sky above. It was one of those days that was actually nice to go to work in. On most warm, pleasant days like these, Avian would be in a good mood. She'd get up uncharacteristically early, even for her, and watch the sun rise. After that, Avian might allow herself to open one of the tiny, murky windows of her little ramshackle house(which was little more than a hut, really), and let the warm air flow into the musty, aged rooms, bringing with it the strains of hummed music, the chatter of a world awakening- District 9 at its best, she would think to herself, on days like these.
Today, however, it was silent. No music filled Avian's tiny home; no chatter, no noise. Perhaps it was her imagination, but it seemed like even the birds had fallen silent today.
Over the night, one of the few pregnant women in Avian's sector had gone into labour. The screams as she had attempted to give birth had been horrifying, guttural screeches of pain towards the early morning, and as the sun had broken out over the horizon she had died, her child with her. Ptica had returned an hour ago, his hands half-washed of the blood of the dead mother, and mournfully looked in Avian's direction before slumping under the threadbare blanket besides his brother, Krilo. Avian had been awake ever since, and had been contemplating the sun with a faintly weary expression for the past hour. It was approaching six now, and Avian knew she wouldn't be permitted rest for much longer before the Peacekeepers got to her sector. She dreaded having to wake Ptica, though- he had already had a horrific enough night.
Avian was the only sister of the three siblings, and as a result she had almost become their mother. She cared for her younger brother, Krilo, like he was her son and not her sibling, and with her older brother Ptica she supplied a kind of sarcastic, weary love that she imagined was sisterly, but was often scolded by Ptica as being motherly. Avian wouldn't know, really- parental figures were somewhat lacking in this family.
Ptica was the protector of the family, though, if Avian was to be honest. Her older brother, at 21, was more mature than his sister of 18 or his brother of 13, and was the strongest, naturally, of the three- Avian always felt safer knowing he was there. He had also become the unofficial medic of Sector 3, where Avian and her family lived- with a complete lack of medicinal training, Ptica had nevertheless found several plants that reduced pain or provided bandage material in the area, and had gone about trying to save the rest of Sector 3 from infection, pain and disease. Avian privately reckoned it was because of their mother that Ptica tried to save everyone, but she'd never mention it to her brother.
It was why Ptica had been out last night- he had been desperately called to help deliver the child. Ptica had no experience of such a thing, had never dealt with it before, and Avian knew that her brother would be silently, sullenly blaming himself for their deaths for at least two months before he could even begin to get over the incident. Avian had seen this happen before- every time that Ptica couldn't save someone, had no experience, had no knowledge to deal with it, he would feel that guilt for a long time before he would permit himself to let go. Avian couldn't help- frankly, nobody could. Ptica was the only thing close to a medic in District 9, and even he was near-useless. There was nothing to be done- in the closed-off area that was Avian's home, there was no authority that would help. Just the Peacekeepers existed as authority, and the only times Avian had ever seen them act they had either beaten or killed those in District 9. It felt wrong, but what could Avian do? What could any of them do but try to save themselves?
Shaking herself out of a reverie of ever more depressing thoughts, Avian stood from where she was somewhat slumped against the wall on a rickety chair, and walked through the doorway to rouse her brothers. It was probably her least favourite job in the household, especially after a night like Ptica had had.
"Hey, Ptica, Krilo- come on, wake up," Avian murmured half-forcefully, shaking the two that were still sleeping soundly underneath the threadbare blanket on the floor. They began to mumble sleepily and stir, although Ptica spent a few extra seconds in oblivion before he could be woken. Avian smiled at them as they began to open their eyes and focus on her, and she walked out of the room, busying herself in the tiny space that she'd designated as the kitchen. Some flatbread awaited the two brothers when they walked in- as ever, Avian ensured she gave them some sort of breakfast, despite the fact that they could barely get food some days. Avian never revealed how she got the grain- she felt it would probably frustrate and worry the two brothers to know.
"Mornin', Avian," Krilo mumbled, rubbing the heel of his palm against his eye as he walked into the room. Ptica came through the doorway afterwards, dark circles under his eyes and hair stuck up on one side. Avian decided not to say anything- Krilo had slept through everything last night and would just be distressed if he knew what had occurred last night. Besides, Ptica wouldn't want to talk about it. He never did.
"How long do we have before work?" Ptica eventually said, grabbing one of the flatbreads and tiredly chewing on it as he walked over to lean into the table in the centre of the room, then sitting down heavily on one of the chairs. Avian knew he never did that. She sighed into her own flatbread before looking up from it and speaking.
"Not long," Avian murmured, before looking out of the window, unwilling to catch Ptica's gaze. Then she noticed something.
There was an old man outside- being dragged out to a patch of ground by Peacekeepers. He yelped and wailed, his voice carrying through the walls and windows. Krilo leant in, his eyes widening slightly.
"Hey, that's Old Dagan!" He cried, before quietening at the next sight.
The Peacekeepers pulled out their pulse guns and fired.
Old Dagan was one of the loosely-termed medics in Sector 3- someone Ptica had learnt a lot from. He was one of those characters, who although he was fairly weak, would always be tottering around helping people with anything they needed. Sector 3 was one of the most policed sectors of District 9, and the three siblings had seen a lot of beatings in their time, but they could have never imagined that the Peacekeepers would target Old Dagan.
Unless they thought Dagan was the one who had been out after curfew, delivering the child.
The three watched in horrified silence as the pulse gun caused Dagan to convulse on the floor, eyes snapped open, mouth in a silent scream.
And then he went limp.
Krilo let out a soft whine. Ptica collapsed further into his chair, flatbread falling from his hands to smack against the ground.
And Avian listened to the deathly silence.