I have the crack in the ceiling above my head memorized. I still follow it with my eyes, staring up at the dirty concrete as I lie on my back, ignoring the itching of the lumpy straw mattress beneath me. It starts at the corner just above me, racing along the wall before separating into two. One crack turns slightly and meets the wall, the other strikes out into the center of the room. One small crack breaks out, and then three more. Fifteen total cracks, and only one reaches the opposite wall. I've stared at that crack hundreds of times. I like to imagine it's a river, a mighty river that flows far away from here. I've named it, and each crack is a tributary with a name and its own story. I imagine a boat, a white wooden boat shaped like a bird with sails of silk and oars tipped with silver like the ones in Da's stories. I could sail away, far away from District 8, to who knows where. I'm sure it would be better than here, but somehow my fantasy has never quite gotten to the end. Like the crack at the end of the wall, it stops abruptly.
And then I'm back in this little room, trying not to think about District 8, or Peacekeepers or that Spindella is waiting back home. Or about the naked, sweaty man who's moaning on top of me.
He's a repeat customer. This is the twenty-seventh time he's visited me, and even with my memory his visits seem to blur together into one. At least he's not difficult. He never lasts long. All I have to do is lay back and fall into the river in my mind as he ruts away and finishes in under fifteen minutes. If it weren't for the smell of white liquor on his breath, I could almost forget he's even here.
He gives a shout and falls against me, breathing heavily. I wait until he climbs off me and stumbles about, looking for his trousers. I pull the itchy blanket over my body the moment he's off. He looks at me as he pulls his pants on, his mouth slightly agape, his eyes red and unfocused.
"Was it good for you?" he asks, somehow managing to string four coherent words together.
Men ask the stupidest questions sometimes, and that's the one I hear the most often. I give him a smile, and he returns it, allowing me to see every gap where he's lost teeth to rot or brawling. He pulls on his shirt, reties the woven finger knot that passes for a wedding band in the district, and leaves after tossing the half-hour price on my tiny bedside table. Not before leering at me a final time.
I breathe a sigh of relief and shoot a look at the electronic clock above the door. If there's one thing I'm grateful to Mr. Twenty-Seven for, it's that he left me enough time to wash up before the next customer. I throw the blanket aside, get out of the cot and stride the few steps to the sink and mirror that complete the sparse furnishings of the cell I rent. I wash my face in the tepid water, scrubbing the stench of the man from my body. I wish I had time to wash my hair, but it wouldn't have time to dry and my soft hair is something that I'm complemented on most frequently. It's something that brings money, and therefore I settle for combing it through with a horse-hair brush I keep under the mattress.
I pull on the cotton nightgown I cast aside just minutes earlier. It seems pointless, but some men insist on doing the undressing themselves. I sit on my cot, my head resting against the wall, my eyes closed until I hear the knock on the door. I take a deep breath and put a smile on my face.
The door opens and Britannicus Romano walks in. I knew it was him the moment he knocked. He's the only one who does, everyone else just strides in. His strong jawline and dark eyes make him look older than his years. He's in his early twenties, only a few years older than me. His Peacekeeper uniform is immaculate, as always, but he's favoring his left leg. I can tell by the way he moves that it hurts him more than he's letting on. There are scabs on the knuckles of his right fist that weren't there the last time I saw him.
"Another scuffle, Tanni? You came out on top, I assume."
He grins at me, taking years off his face, pleased at compliment. "You hard about that, Celia?"
I smile at him. "Of course I did. Everyone was talking about it," I lie, knowing it's what he wants to hear.
His smile broadens and he holds out a bouquet of wildflowers, their vibrant yellow and purple blossoms even more pronounced against the colorless walls that surround us.
"They're lovely, thank you," I lie again as I take them and lay them down on the cot.
I pull off the night shirt and lay down. Tanni joins me after pulling off his shirt, laying his head down on me and telling me the latest from the Peacekeeper barracks, from the dregs of Fog Town, and from his home in District 2. I can't fall into my river with him, he looks up at my eyes every so often and I have to meet them, smiling and nodding like I give a damn as I caress his chest. I've seen Tanni around town, he never has a spare glance for me when we pass on the street. I'm sure he has some girl waiting for him back in the District, some lover even though Peacekeepers are forbidden to marry. The Peacekeepers are some of our most regular customers, but only Tanni has time for talk. I entertain his fantasy like I do the rest, acting the pretty girlfriend who's absolutely enthralled by her handsome man in uniform. I find it more uncomfortable and irritating than Mr. Twenty Seven or most of the others. I don't know if Tanni's too much of an idiot to realize how fixed my smile is, or if he's so caught up in his fantasy that he just doesn't care.
After fifteen minutes of his chatter and puppy eyes, I have to remind him that his half-hour is running out. He finally pulls his uniform trousers off, folds them neatly, and gently pushes me down on the bed. Again, no falling into the river, Tanni likes to look me in the eyes. He leans down to kiss me, but I turn my cheek slightly and his lips instead kiss my neck and my ears until he's done.
He pulls his uniform back on, redoing the brass buttons as he picks up his one-sided conversation exactly where he left off. He leaves ten sesterces on the pile of coins on my table. He opens the door, but pauses, meeting my eyes.
"I'll see you again really soon Celia. I promise."
I give him a smile and lower my eyes in blushing modesty. He gives me one last grin before leaving. I grimace and roll my eyes before the door even closes behind him.
I don't even have time to get off the cot before the door bangs open again. A large man strides in and looks down at me. I meet his eyes only long enough to register that he's new before taking the rest of him in.
He's not from Fog Town. His clothes are too clean for that. They're also somewhat expensive. Cotton, but well stitched together. Store-bought. Auburn hair and dark skin, an unusual combination never seen in District 8. He's not from home. He walks in, and I see that his balance is ever so slightly off on the solid concrete. He moves as though he's used to a moving surface. Like a ship's deck. He's from District 4. There are only a few people in the country outside the Capitol than can move between districts. Government officials. And if he's a government official, that means he has connections with…higher powers.
I swallow, hoping my nervousness doesn't show. "Good evening, sir, What can I do for you this-"
"I'm not paying you to talk, girl," he says in a rough voice. I smile and lay back, looking up at the crack. Rough hands seize my hips and flip me over. My face is buried in the canvas of the mattress but I don't complain. At least now I don't have to smile.
Twenty minutes later I wash up for the final time. I throw my nightgown into my schoolbag and pull my brown cotton dress out from under the cot. I pull on my undergarments, breast band and the dress and tie my hair back before gathering up the sesterces in a purse. I technically still have two hours in my shift, but the past ten have been busier than usual, and I'm done. The girl who rents the room for the other twelve hours of the day obviously isn't here yet, but I don't want to leave the room a mess for her, so I flip the mattress over to the unsweaty side and gather up the scattered wildflowers before I stride out the door.
The hallway of the brothel is as dark and dimly lit as my cell. They say it was once a prison, ages and ages ago, before the Dark Days and maybe even before the Districts. Before Panem itself. Now it's half a ruin, and the other half is mostly uninhabitable, except for the wing that serves as District 8's one and only red-light house. Most of us just call it the Red. The doors along the wall are all closed, but I know that behind each is a woman and a couple men, most of us young, all of us desperate enough to spend hours here each day. Tesserae can only get you so far. I pass a few men and women in the hall. The men look away, hiding their faces like I'll run to their wives and report them. The women nod, a couple who know me by sight smile briefly as they pass. No one talks though. Talk is cheap, and no one comes to the Red to talk. Well, except for Tanni. Thinking of him, I toss the wildflowers into a bin before I reach the office.
I pause at the door, take a deep breath, and straighten my hair. I'm not nervous. Not really. Even so, I pause just a bit before knocking.
"Enter," says the woman inside.
Cora Shutter doesn't look up as I walk in. She leans over her desk, focused on the tiny personal computer in front of her. I wait, knowing better than to clear my throat or interrupt her. When she finally does look up, I feel as though my hands are as large as dinner plates and my body as delicate as an oak tree. I am assured that Cora Shutter has this effect on most people. Even though I've seen her hundreds of times, it's still impossible to not be struck by her ridiculous beauty. Her hair is still black and soft, her lips luscious and full, her body the exemplar of feminine standards. There are no wrinkles around her eyes or on her forehead. It's hard to believe that Cora is pushing fifty years old. I wonder, along with others, if Cora has used Capitol surgery to preserve her beauty beyond what would be considered 'natural.' If anyone had the money to do it, it would be her. Not that anyone would ever speculate within earshot of the Victor of the First Quarter Quell. She isn't just famous for her good looks.
"Miss Roos," she says in her deep, throaty voice as she taps at her keyboard.
"It's Rheys," I say. Cora makes no indication that she's heard.
"You still have a couple hours left of your shift," she says, looking up at me with a slight frown.
"It was a long day," I say. "I'm very tired."
"Well, it's never been said that I've forced a girl to work. That's your own choice, girl. Proceeds, please."
I empty the purse down on Cora's desk, the sesterces rolling about. She gathers them together and counts them with swift, perfectly manicured fingers.
"The rent for your room is due," she says as she pulls away a sizable amount of coins. "Plus utilities. Then my finder's fee for sending the clients your way. And there you are." She pushes a much smaller pile of coins back towards me.
I look down at it, trying to ignore the lump in my throat. It's not enough. Kerry needs new shoes and Da needs his coffee and we all need to eat.
Cora gives me one of her looks, the ones where I'm convinced she knows exactly what my thoughts are. "You still have two hours. I'm sure that's good for two or three if I recommend you."
I nod and give her a smile, the same one I give Tanni when he walks in. "Thank you, Miss Shutter."
"Make sure you stop back before you leave," she says, turning away in a clear dismissal.
I turn and walk out, closing the door behind me. I swallow the lump down, and instead of turning left towards the door back out into Fog Town, I head right back to my cell. Back to the river.
And so it begins again. Those of you who have read "The Lumberjack and the Tree-Elf" know of my love of the Victors, especially those who ended up in the Quarter Quell. It's certainly not necessary to read "Lumberjack" in order to appreciate this, even though I may sneak in a couple references to some of my old OP's. That doesn't mean you shouldn't read it, however. That's a hint, it means you should go read it.
I will definitely be pushing the T rating on this one, but I think you'll forgive me as I explore the grittier side of survival in the Districts and the Hunger Games in general. It'll almost be similar to "Game of Thrones" in point of view. Half the chapters will be from Cecilia, the other half from various characters in different situations. So with that said, let's take off! And remember, reviews make me post faster, because I'm a bastard like that.