The Hunger Games
Birthdays and Bread
It's cold. That's all I can think as I watch the sun setting over the hill.
District 7 is always cold, even on days like this; the middle of July with the sun hanging high in the sky all day. Maybe it's just me, though. My older brother, Rule, always tells me that even if I stuck my hands in the fireplace, they would still be ice cold. I don't mind the cold. I like it. It reminds me of happy days. Some of the only happy days I've had.
My birthday is tomorrow. Every birthday Rule takes me out to the woods and puts an axe in my hands, teaches me a little more about where to swing, how hard to hit and how to hold your weight. I already know everything he could ever teach me, but it's the closest thing I have to a family day out.
I'm not allowed into the forests to work yet. I'm only 11. 12 tomorrow. When I'm 14 they'll officially set me up with hours and put me to work. Other districts have their people starting as young as 10 (places like District 11 or 4, where the work is easy and a lot of the time, better performed by children with small hands) which I find unfair. I wish I could work with Rule all the time.
Rule's fiancée, Johanna, lives with us in our small house. She lost her parents to a sickness before I was born, when she was a child. Her older sister, who'd raised her until now, was lost in the Hunger Games three years ago. Her and Rule had already become infatuated with each other by then, so we offered her our extra bed. We still kept it around, even after father died.
I feel much better now that it's filled.
Johanna taught me all the stars, naming them and showing me patterns and shapes-things she called constellations. I thought it was funny, since almost none of the shapes actually looked like what she said they did, but I never stopped smiling when we had those nights together.
I love Johanna. Her and Rule are the closest things to parents that I have. Rule raised me from the time I was a baby. He was only 8 when he started to look after me completely.
My mother died giving birth to me. My father never got over it. He hated me. It's an awful thing, being hated by one's father. He never wanted another child (one was enough trouble to look after and feed) and when he lost the love of his life because of this unwanted child; well, it's safe to say that he never paid me much mind other than to take a swing at me.
He killed himself when I was 7. I was glad he was gone, honestly, but the house felt so empty. I still wake up sometimes, cold sweat dripping down my neck, thinking that he's come back for me; cold hands wrapped around my neck, sucking the life out of my small body.
Most people don't know how he died. An accident, they say. It wasn't an accident. I know, because a couple hours before they found his body, he grabbed me by the arms and shook me, telling me that it was my fault-all of it; my mother's death, his death, the fact that he couldn't work so my brother had to pay for the three of us. I know it is. He doesn't have to keep reminding me.
I wrap my arms around myself as a small breath of air creeps up my neck, ruffling my hair. It's getting even colder. My birthday is tomorrow. I'll be 12 and my name will be entered into the pot. I almost want to be reaped. Maybe that way I can get out of my brother's way.
He would never say that he wanted me gone. He's probably the nicest person I've ever met, besides Johanna. I know I'm a burden though. Johanna's too skinny. She doesn't eat enough because she always makes sure I eat first and by the time me and Rule have eaten, there's only small portions. She only ever really eats at dinner, when Rule is home from work. She made me promise not to tell Rule she skips breakfast and lunch almost every day. I promised, but it doesn't make me feel any less horrible about it.
Johanna is 18. It's her last year for the Reaping. Rule is already 19, his slate is clean-free of the threat of the Hunger Games looming over him. I still have 6 years though, which I can see weighs heavily on his shoulders. I wish he wouldn't worry about me. Even if I was picked, I would be able to handle myself. I wouldn't be like some of those tributes who get picked off in the first 5 minutes. Idiots. They don't know what basic survival skills are.
Maybe it comes from hiding from my father's fists for 7 years, or maybe just because my reflexes are naturally strong, but I've never lost a fight.
I've been in a lot of fights. At school, mostly. Nobody there likes me. They call me ugly and short and twiggy. They nicknamed me Death, because it seems to follow me everywhere. I don't blame them, it's true. I'm sure that's what my father had in mind when he named me. Maybe that is what he named me and Rule just made him change it.
I turn when I hear Johanna's voice rise from the bottom of the hill. She's smiling and waving up at me.
"Dath, come down here!" she calls, starting the trek up the side of the hill, skirt lifted so it doesn't trail on the ground. "It's almost time for dinner!"
I get to my feet, brushing off the seat of my pants, and start down the hill. Johanna stops climbing, waiting for me to reach her before she turns and starts back down with me beside her.
"What were you doing up there?" she asks, fingers tangled in a knot behind her back, the backs of her hands rested just at her waist. I love it when she does that, it's so cute and so undeniably Johanna.
I shrug and kick a rock. "I wanted to watch the sun set," I say, looking up at the sky as we walk out of the forest and into the sawdust covered roads.
If you just glanced at the ground, you'd think it was sand. Practically every inch of District 7 is covered in sawdust.
"Was it nice?" she asks, following my gaze.
Her voice has almost a musical twill to it. It's like a songbird, twittering away. It's one of my favourite things about her.
I smile a little and nod my head, shifting my gaze to look at her.
"Johanna?" I ask softly, waiting for her to look down and meet my eyes before I continue. "Have you thought about how you're going to tell Rule?"
Johanna smiles at me coyly and put a finger to her lips.
"Yes, but it's a secret," she says, putting her hand back behind her and twisting her fingers together again.
I make a scowling face at her until she laughs and her resistance breaks. It's so easy to crack her.
"Alright, alright," she says, waving me off. "I was going to tell him tonight, actually. After dinner, before we go to sleep. I know I have to tell him soon, so I might as well get it over with."
I nod again and stare down at the road as we reach the residential area, log cabins ranging from tiny shacks to huge mansions litter the streets. I can see the sparkling white of Victor's Village in the distance. I hate that place. It's so untouched by everything that represents District 7. No sawdust on the roads. The houses are made of planks instead of full logs like all the others. The brightness of it, against the dark, warm feeling of the town down here. I love this place, even though I hate it.
"I hope he doesn't freak out," I say softly.
I don't understand how Johanna can be so calm about this. It's heartbreaking to me. She's always been so good about keeping in her emotions, turning everything sad into something fun or funny, but I know she's hurting on the inside.
"He won't," she whispers, tucking a lock of bronze hair behind her ear-her freckles standing out against her pale cheeks.
Rule and Johanna have been talking about having a baby. I know how much Rule wants kids. He's always wanted to be a father. He did such a wonderful job raising me, I know that he's the best man for the job.
Johanna found out from the doctor yesterday that she can't have children. The sickness that killed her parents when she was young spread to her as well, but since she was so little, she fought it off easier. It wasn't a sickness usually prone to children, so it swept right through her. It hurt her, though. Even if she wasn't practically starving herself, she would always be skinny. It's so hard for her to put on weight. Her insides are all messed up. I was with her when the doctor told her, but Rule was at work. She still hasn't told him because she's scared what it will do to him. She loves him so much that she doesn't want to hurt him this way. I know how much it will hurt him and I wish I could pretend the way Johanna does.
We walk in silence the rest of the way, kicking up the dust with each step. I watch a flock of geese fly overhead. I wish I had wings like that. Then I could fly away and be free of everything that holds me here. All the peacekeepers that guard the only exit from the District, the Reaping, the Capitol, the crushing feeling that all I'm doing here is starving Johanna and burdening my brother.
I push open the door to our cabin, slipping inside and holding the door for Johanna. I close it once she's inside, pulling off my boots and tossing them into the corner. Rule's shoes are already there. He's home early. I hang my jacket up and sit down on my small bed on the right side of the room, watching as Johanna picks up an apron from the back of a chair and slips it on. Rule walks out of the kitchen and smiles at Johanna, kissing her cheek as she passes him to check on dinner. He leans against the kitchen doorway, watching me with that same smile as he sips at a steaming mug-probably full of coffee that's more like tasteless brown water than anything else. He pushes himself off the wall and moves over to sit beside me on the bed.
"Hey sport," he says, draping an arm around my shoulders and placing the mug on the bedside table. "Ready for tomorrow?"
I smile at him and nod; even with my mind full of darker things which I usually try to steer clear of, I can't help but feel a rush of excitement for tomorrow.
He laughs softly and ruffles my unruly hair. I make a face and glare at him as he walks back into the kitchen.
"Good," I hear him say from the other room. "I have something special for you. I hope you're ready for it."
"If it's another bark weaving lesson from Jacks, then no thank you."
Rule barks out a laugh from the other room and I hear Johanna's twittering giggle.
A couple years ago, Rule took me to see Jacks; a crazy old man who lives a couple cabins down. He's nice enough and has a lot of ridiculous stories which, even though no one believes them, always get a crowd to sit and listen. I like him, but he's boring enough to put the trees to sleep.
"No, no visits to Jacks. You'll like this one."
I humph softly and pull my legs up to my chest-my chin rested on my knees as I pick at my toe nails for something to do with my hands. I look up, but only my eyes, when Johanna walks out of the kitchen with a pot of something that smells amazing. Rule has his hands on her hips, face buried in her neck as he shadows her to the table where she places the pot down on a cloth so it doesn't singe the table. She swats him away, still twittering softly. I made a face. Gross.
Rule spots my face and sticks his tongue out at me. I blink at him and scoff, looking away with a roll of my eyes. "Child," I mutter under my breath before Johanna calls me to the table and I push myself to my feet.
The soup is as good as it smells, some kind of potato and spinach concoction that almost has me moaning with the first bite. Johanna's one of the best cooks in town. She works in the kitchens, feeding the workers when they take their lunch break. Rule always says the stuff she makes for just the three of us is the best, though. I believe him because I doubt that anything could taste better than this.
We eat without talking because the soup is so good, but I can feel the weight on Johanna's shoulders growing heavier as our bowls empty and Rule yawns. I meet her eyes and offer my most comforting, encouraging smile. I doubt it helps at all, but she returns it. "I'm going to go visit Jacks before bed," I say, pushing back my chair and grabbing my coat.
I hear Rule calling me back even as I slip out the door-one boot still in my hands.
"What's gotten into him?" I hear him ask through the door. "He just said he didn't want to go see Jacks."
"Doesn't want to get a boring lesson from Jacks," Johanna tutts as the sound of clicking dishes mingles with her birdsong. "That doesn't mean he doesn't want one of his stories."
Rule seems to give up at that, muttering about never being able to understand the minds of children. I rush off now that my second boot is on.
I'm not going to see Jacks. I just wanted to get out of the house so that they could be alone. The last thing Johanna needs is an awkward kid sitting in the corner pretending he's not there when she tells her boyfriend she can't give him his dream of being a father.
I walk through the streets slowly, kicking up dirt and listening to the night birds whistling their goodnights to each other. There's barely anyone out, everyone has gone inside to eat or sleep. I ignore the two peacekeepers who watches me walk past with curious but uninterested gazes. They're so used to seeing me out at night now.
"There goes Death," I hear one of them says to the other, a slight chuckle in his tone.
"Making his nightly rounds," the other adds, making the both of them laugh.
I ignore them even more now.
I make my way back through the forest to my hill. It's one of the only places in the forest that's not covered in trees. And they weren't cut down, it was naturally bare. I sit down on my rock and gaze out over the rest of the forest. Our district is one of the biggest because of all the trees we need. We go through so many a year that even though we always plant a new one for every one we cut down, we still have to expand far out into the forest.
I look up into one of the pine trees when I hear a soft hoot. An owl is perched on a low branch, scanning the ground for mice. I'm still, watching him closely. I'm good at being still, pretending I'm not there. I'm so good at it, that if I want, I can go completely unseen by most, even animals like this expert hunter. I'm sure he knows I'm there, just doesn't care-I'm no threat to him and he knows it.
He dives down and catches a small grey mouse in his claws, swooping back up to his branch and swallowing it hole. I watch him as he works it down his throat with morbid fascination. I've always loved the way animals work. It's so different from the way humans do.
The owl looks at me, his head turning around so it's almost 180 degrees around his body. He hoots at me so I hoot back. This seems to startle him a little, since his head snaps back to the front and he shoots from the branch, soaring off into the night.
"Goodbye, Mr. Owl," I say quietly, waving weakly. "I hope you liked your mouse."
It's colder now, but it bothers me even less now that I have so many things on my mind. I know I can't go home tonight. Johanna and Rule need the time alone. I'll sleep here, curled on my rock. It's about as wide as my arms spread out to the sides and a little bit taller than me. Flat and hard and cold.
I lay down on my side, my head cushioned on my arm. I watch the owl glide slowly through the sky, hooting at the moon. I hear the howl of a wolf answer it's call so I join in, howling away at the big round moon which stares down at me blankly as if it say "What do you expect me to do? I can't help you".
I know, I think back at it.
It's dawn when I wake. I roll over and groan softly, stretching out my stiff limbs. I slept like a rock, as stiff as the one I lay on.
Sitting up hurts a little because all my joints have locked but when I'm on my feet it only takes a couple steps for the stiffness to go away completely. I walk down the hill quietly, hands in my pockets. The workers are starting to filter into the woods. Some of them look at me strangely, as if wondering why I'm in the forest so early and why I seem to be heading home. Other's smile and wave, completely used to my all nighters in the woods. "Good morning, Dath," one of them says to me as I pass; a big woman with strong arms and a missing front tooth named Elda.
"Good morning, Elda," I say back, giving a small wave and a smile. She's nice. A little odd, but nice. Like Jacks, except she doesn't have as many stories and she doesn't know how to bore people to tears with her lessons. Her lessons are usually quite fun. She's the one who taught me how to throw.
I learned a lot of skills from the workers over the years. Without a proper father to teach us how to do things, the workers took over that role. They taught how to do things like chop wood and whittle and throw a knife at a target from 5 meters away, always hitting the bulls eye.
"Happy Birthday!" I hear Elda call as I reach the edge of the forest as if she's just remembered. "I'll teach you how to climb trees with only your hands later once Rule is done with you!" Odd, but nice. She's actually much more than nice. She's one of my closest friends. She's also the mother of the only boy my age who I like. Bailey is his name. He's cute and awkward and small, even though he's two years older than me. He gets picked on a lot so I stand up for him. Her husband, Jeb, is only a little bigger than she is, but he's like a giant stuffed bear. He's as silent as one too, talks very little.
I smile back at her and shout a thank you, promising that I'll meet up with her before dark. As strange as her newest lesson sounds, I'm excited for it.
I reach my cabin just as the door opens and Rule steps out. I freeze, unsure what to do. He looks like he hasn't slept all night. His eyes are bloodshot and he stares at the ground, not noticing me.
He starts to walk towards the woods. I wonder if I don't move or make a sound he'll walk right past me. He seems in another world almost. But I can't let him go to work like that without saying anything. I need to say something.
"Rule?" I whisper quietly, snapping his attention quickly to me. His eyes go a little wide and he suddenly has a hold on my shoulders, shaking me.
"Where were you?" he asks, a slight desperation in his voice. I blink at him, staring at him with concern until he lets me go and takes a step back.
"I'm sorry," he whispers, shaking his head. "I was just worried. You didn't come home last night and Jacks said you never came over when I went looking for you."
"I was on my hill," I say softly, feeling earth shatteringly guilty now.
He sighs and runs a hand through his hair, shaking his head and muttering to himself about how stupid it was that he didn't check there since that's always where I am.
"Did you sleep there?" he asks, looking back up and me and crossing his arms. "You know how much we hate it when you spend the night in the woods. There are wolves out there."
I can't help but roll my eyes. "Yeah, on the other side of an electric fence." He's still scowling. I sigh and cross my arms in a huff. "I'm sorry I stayed out all night, but what else was I supposed to do? Johanna needed to talk to you alone. I was just in the way."
Rule visibly deflates.
"You knew about that?" he asks softly, eyes wide and hurt, as if the idea that I knew something like that and didn't tell him immediately is one of the worst things a brother can do. Oh great, more guilt.
I nod slowly. "I couldn't tell you," I whisper. "It wasn't my secret to tell."
He seems to understand this because he stops looking so hurt and just pushes his black hair out of his face again. I wonder if they fought. He looks more drained than ever. I think about how happy they were last night, flirting and laughing. It's my birthday and my brother looks like he's lost all hope. I suddenly don't feel like family time any more.
"I'm going to go inside now," I say when he doesn't move. He looks up at me in surprise, realizing he's blocking my way to the door.
"Oh," he says, starting to move aside before he falters. "Are… are you coming to the woods?"
I chew my lip out of habit-a habit that Rule has been trying to wean me off of since I was 6.
"Yeah," I say with a forced smile. "I'll meet you there. "I just want to change and talk to Johanna first. Let her know I'm safe."
Rule nods and walks past me, heading towards the woods.
I rush to the door and push it open, needing to be inside as soon as possible.
"Johanna?" I ask, not seeing her in the front room where our beds and table are. I hear her twill at me from the kitchen. I can smell the scent of pine bread. She's baking. That can only mean one thing; she's barely holding back tears.
I go into the kitchen and hug her from behind, stopping the frantic stirring of her spoon. We stand there for a moment or two in complete silence before I feel her shoulders start to shake and she twists in my hold, pulling me tight against her and buries her face in my thick black hair. I let her cry for a good 10 minutes before she pulls back, wiping her wet face. It's the most I've seen her cry since her sister died.
"I'm sorry," she blubbers softly, covering her face with her hands and shaking her head slowly. "I'm upsetting you, aren't I."
I shake my head even though she can't seem me through her long fingers. "I was already upset. I'm upset because you and Rule are. It's okay to cry when you're upset. That's what you always tell me."
She peeks at me through her fingers and a small smile plays at her lips. "It is, isn't it?" she says softly, the light humour coming back into her soft voice. "Now I'm being a hypocrite."
She puts her hands by her sides and lets out a long sigh. We stand there watching each other for a moment or two before she starts to bubble up with laughter, her hand pressed to her stomach and forehead as she tries to hold herself together. It's a slightly insane laughter, the kind that people only do when they're holding back a fit of tears. I'm happy she's laughing though, even if it's just this kind of laugh, because it means that she'll be okay in a day or two. She always is. She's so good at pulling herself back together that sometimes I wonder if she ever gets sad. It's times like this that I remember she can-she's just the toughest woman I've ever met, and I know people like Elda; who have arms that are bigger than my head.
"How did he take it?" I ask once we're sitting at the table with cups of hot pine tea. She shakes her head slowly and sighs. "It's hard," she whispers softly, "to tell you exactly because he was so many different things last night it's difficult to latch onto one emotion."
I give her a moment while she sips her tea and thinks.
"At first he was just silent," she says, staring down at the liquid in her cup. "Then he just said 'no' over and over again like he couldn't believe what I was telling him. I explained more thoroughly to him and he just started crying. He cried for so long that I was afraid he might drown. Then he stopped crying and just stared at the table for almost as long as he'd cried for. He apologized and said that it wasn't fair to me for him to be acting that way. He went all silent again and then he asked how long I'd known and I told him. Then he got angry, shouting that I should have told him the instant I found out, but I told him how hard it was for me to even accept it myself and I knew that a reaction like the one I just got would only make it harder.
"I'm certain that I was shouting at him too, but it's a little fuzzy. I was trying so hard not to cry that I'm sure I wasn't acting like myself." She takes a pause for another sip. "He calmed down at that and went silent again. Then he started to wonder where you'd went. I told him that you hadn't been gone for long but he insisted on going looking for you. I know he just wanted to get away to think by himself-probably to cry some more where I couldn't see. He hates it when I see him crying, almost as much as he does when you do."
I knew that well enough. I'd seen Rule cry a total of 3 times in my life. One time when my father beat me so hard that I nearly blacked out. It was the first time Rule had ever seen him hit me like that before. He'd seen the scars, the cuts and the bruises but he never saw it actually happening until then. The second when my father killed himself (I guess, even though he was the worse example of a father I'd ever met, he was still our father and he'd always been so much nicer to Rule than he had been to me) and the third when we watched Johanna's older sister get her throat cut on television.
Johanna's sister's name was Juniper. She was pretty and had long rust coloured hair, like her sister. She didn't have freckles, which was one of the only ways you could tell them apart besides the height difference. They were practically like twins in looks. Juniper took care of us as best she could, knowing what it was like to have no parents. She helped Rule care for me since he didn't know what he was doing half the time. I had called her Aunt June for as long as I could remember.
I take a sip of my tea when Johanna goes silent again. It's a long while before she says anything but I don't move, knowing she's not finished yet.
"When he came back he was frantic. I knew you had probably just gone to your hill, but he could barely hear me he was so far in his head. He lay down and stared at the wall all night. I slept in your bed since I couldn't bare to lay beside him while he was like that… so fragile. I felt I would break him if I touched him."
I reach my hand across the table and take Johanna's hand in mine, running my thumb across her knuckles to calm her-the way her sister had always done when she was alive.
Johanna smiles sadly at me and brings both of our hands to her lips, kissing the back of mine and lowering them back to the table. We sit there, hands clasped, as the silence folds around us. We finish our tea without letting go of each other.
"You'd better go meet him before he comes looking for you," she says with a sigh, letting go of my hand reluctantly and taking my empty cup with her into the kitchen.
I nod and chew at my lip. "I'll see you later, okay Jo?"
She looks over her shoulder from her place at the sink, the old twinkle in her eye that I'd missed since this morning.
"You have fun out there, little lumberjack."
I grin widely and slip my boots back on, having forgotten to take my jacket off when I came in. I run out of the house and towards the woods, determined to have a good birthday and cheer Rule up.
I meet him by the big oak tree, hands in my pockets and a grin on my face. He looks down at me with a raised eyebrow, axe over his shoulder as he leans against the tree. "Took you long enough, what were you two doing? Baking bread?"
I laugh because, yes, Johanna was actually baking bread, but I don't say that.
I can tell that Rule is already feeling better. His eyes are still bloodshot from the crying and lack of sleep but he's smiling and that's enough for me to know that he'll be alright.
We spend most of the day just chopping away at trees. I shout "timber!" loudly as the first tree I cut down falls. I get a round of applause from the workers near by because it was a big tree and I cut it down so quickly.
Rule pulls me aside after a couple hours and tells me to close my eyes and hold out my hands. I do as I'm told, my mind reeling as I try and figure out what he's going to give me without cheating. I feel something soft and light placed in my hands. He tells me to open my eyes so I do. I look down at the cord necklace. On the end of it hangs a carved figure of a pinecone, one of my favourite things that comes out of the forest.
"You made this?" I ask, looking up at him, unable to contain my happiness. It's beautiful.
Rule smiles and nods. He's always been the best whittler I know.
I hug him and tell him how much I love it. He takes me to the top of my hill and we eat our lunch that Johanna made us, talking happily about this and that. My fingers never leave the pinecone that hangs around my neck.
I love it out here. It makes me feel alive. This is what I love about this district. The woods. These are my home. This is where I truly belong.
Ready to go?"
I look over my shoulder at Elda who's standing beside a huge tree with her gloves on and a look of over eagerness on her face. I smile and nod, as eager as she is. I rush over, Rule following closely behind.
I watch in fascination as Elda climbs to the top of the tree without putting her feet on it once, swinging her hands from branch to branch and using momentum to get her up. It looks stupidly hard and strange (because why would I climb a tree without my legs? It seems overly complex since I can easily just put my feet on the tree and get up it much faster) but I try it anyways. It is as hard and strange as I expected it to be and then some.
I have to keep reminding myself not to chew my lip as I concentrate because I'm going to bite a hole in it with the amount of concentration used for this task.
It takes a good solid hour and about 100 falls before I reach the top without my legs. I can hear the woops and cheers from the crowd that's assembled to watch me learn. The day of work is over by now but no one seems to want to head home just yet. I punch the air with my fists in victory from my spot perched on an upper branch. It's a bad idea though, because the second I let go of the tree, I slip and almost fall to my death. I manage to grab hold of a branch and pull myself up onto it.
I climb down normally and get a smack over the head from Rule for being reckless and then a hug because he's glad I didn't flatten myself on the ground. I laugh and punch his arm when he lets me go, walking back towards the village with the group as they talk about how good I did. No one mentions the fact that now that I'm 12 I'm entered into the pot and can be selected for this years reaping. No one seems to be thinking about it.
I'm happy because for once no one is feeling the shadow of sorrow and fear that the Hunger Games constantly has over us.
This story takes place during the 41st Hunger Games. Way before Katniss shows up. Just so people aren't wondering what is going on, keep in mind how long ago it was.
Hi, so, I finished Mockingjay and had to write this story. I still have a couple other chapters already written and I'll update soon. I just want to make sure that I have chapters to update with so I don't keep you all waiting.
I'm really horrible about dropping stories but I'll try really really hard not to drop this one. I like it a lot and I'm trying to write it organically so I'm challenging myself here.
Reviews will really help. Really. Or like, a message on tumblr or twitter (which are linked on my profile) cause I'm horrible with continuing stories but if I know people are waiting for a new chapter or that they like it then I'll work harder to get more chapters out.
Anyway, I hope you like it!