Katniss sat at the worn wooden dining table, her head in her hands. Scattered in front of her lay piles of envelopes, all stamped with the words PAST DUE and URGENT in angry red letters. Sighing, she began to separate them into two separate stacks.
Paid. Not Paid.
As she finished, she groaned. The pile of unpaid bills that sat before her was larger than those that she had paid, and with a glance at her bank statement, it was clear they wouldn’t all be getting paid this month.
“Is everything okay, Katniss?” A blonde head poked out from the kitchen and into the dining area where she sat.
She struggled to smile. “Everything’s fine, Prim. Don’t worry.”
It wasn’t hard for Prim to know that her sister wasn’t telling her the truth. This happened every month and the older she got, the easier it was for her to see that they were struggling. “I told you, I’ll get a job after school. There’s no reason why I shouldn't be helping out. You're running yourself ragged, Katniss.”
Katniss steeled her gaze on her younger sister. “No; the answer will always be no. We’ve been through this, Prim. You’ve got six months till graduation, and if your grades slip at all…” She sighed, tired of this argument. “You’re going to get that scholarship, and you’re going to college. It’s the only way. I can’t risk you losing that opportunity just to work some crappy part time job.”
Prim opened her mouth to speak, but Katniss cut her off. “I said don’t worry, Prim. I’ll get it figured out, just like I always do. I’m sure I can find something to sell.” She mindlessly ran her fingers across the wooden surface of the table, wondering if it was worth selling to the local thrift store. If it could even pay one bill, it would be worth it.
Katniss would never admit that it wasn’t just the opportunity for Prim’s future that kept her dedicated to keeping her from working. With a full ride scholarship, Prim would have room and board paid for the majority of the school year. Extra, if she kept enrolled during the summer. Anything else she might need could easily be paid for with a part time job on campus. One less mouth to feed, a few less bills…
First and foremost, Prim would get a chance at a real life; a chance to pursue her dreams and not have to worry about the things Katniss had become burdened with. But Katniss couldn’t deny the allure of not needing to pay for an extra person in the house. For the first time in her life, she would only need to take care of herself. No more school supplies or lunch money; no more allotting money for Prim's bus fare each week; no more playing mom.
It was a strange, unsettling thought.
In the end, it was about survival. Prim would get a better life, and Katniss wouldn’t be drowning in bills each month. It was the best shot they had, and if that meant another six months of fighting to get there, Katniss would give it her all.
Prim rolled her eyes and threw up her hands in exasperation, knowing she couldn’t get through to her stubborn older sister. As she did so, they heard the click of the front door and the creak of the rusty hinges as it opened.
“How’re my favorite girls tonight?” A deep voice resonated through the space and Katniss didn’t need to turn around to know it was Gale. Even without his greeting, he was the only one who regularly strolled into their tiny apartment.
“Want some soup? I think we might have some left over…” Prim trailed off, attempting to offer him the last of their dinner for the night out of politeness. Unfortunately, canned soup was all they would have until Katniss could go to the grocery in a day or two.
Gale smiled. “Actually, I have something better.” From behind his back he pulled out a white square box with a simple green logo printed on the lid.
Katniss’ eyes widened and she stood to walk to where he was standing. “Is that Mellark’s?” Mellark’s Bakery was the most expensive in the city, selling overpriced pastries and cakes that were so delicious they almost warranted the cost. Almost.
Without a word, Gale popped the lid open, revealing a pile of cookies, small pastries, and other baked goods.
Prim practically squealed. “Is it for us?”
Gale couldn’t refrain from smiling. “Of course it is! I can’t eat all these by myself, could I?”
Actually, you probably could… Katniss thought with a wry smile, knowing that his tall and muscular frame was supported by a healthy intake of daily calories that was more than she could consume in two days. As Prim began to pick through the box of goodies, she stepped closer to Gale.
“I don’t even want to know how much this cost, and you know… You know I can’t accept this.” She spoke in a hushed tone, trying not to alert Prim who had moved the box to the table.
“Stop worrying, it’s a gift. It’s not like I can take it back now. Besides, it didn’t cost me much. I traded for it.” He assured her, holding her gaze until she looked away.
Not knowing what to say, she changed the subject. “Does that mean you’re working tonight?” She referenced his comment about trading for the pastries.
He nodded. “I’ve got a big load to deliver tonight. Want to help me prep?” He glanced at the pile of bills sitting on the table. “Looks like you could use the cash.”
Reluctantly she nodded. “Not here, though. Prim.” She motioned with her head towards the kitchen where Prim had disappeared back into.
“My place?” He asked, knowing that Katniss wanted to keep his “job” a secret from her little sister, although with her perceptiveness it was more than likely she already knew.
“Sure.” She grabbed her jacket from the chair where she had sat earlier. “Prim! I’m heading down to Gale’s apartment! I’ll be back in a bit!” She called towards the kitchen.
“Okay!” Prim yelled back before Katniss and Gale slipped through the front door together.
Once in the hall, they began to walk towards the stairs that would take them down the two flights it was to get to Gale’s apartment. Identical to the one she shared with her sister, a dingy one bedroom apartment with a simple bathroom, kitchen, and living area, it was just enough for a relatively cheap price.
“You know, it’s lucky we live in the same building or else this wouldn’t be as easy.” She let out a sarcastic chuckle, but continued on, “What’ve you got tonight?”
“A little bit of everything. I can probably spare $30 for your help tonight, if that's enough.” He answered as he unlocked the door to his apartment and led them inside.
“It means I can buy groceries earlier than Friday, so yes, that's enough.”
Gale brought a cardboard box from the bedroom and opened it on the coffee table as Katniss took her usual seat on his couch. In front of her, the box was piled high with bags of pills of varying size and color, all sitting on top of a large cellophane wrapped block of marijuana.
As much as she disliked the job, she couldn’t deny the extra income every week or two from Gale. He’d get stocked up on orders to deal, and enlisted her help to sort and bag what needed to be sold. If it paid the bills or allowed her to buy food for Prim, she forced herself to suck it up and do what needed to be done.
As they fell into their familiar routine of weighing and bagging, Gale spoke up and broke the silence after a few moments.
“You could do this, you know. I saw that pile of bills…”
Katniss’ head snapped up and her eyes narrowed venomously on the man sitting before her. He quickly stopped what he was doing and leveled his gaze on her. Before she could spit out her obvious refusal, he spoke.
“I know what you’re thinking, but be logical, Katniss. You’re already working two jobs and it isn’t cutting it. A third isn’t going to get you out of water that deep, and all you're going to do is run yourself into the ground that much more than you already have. All I’m saying is that I can help you.”
Katniss wanted to flee, to slam the door behind her and forget about the offensive idea. Break the law to pay the bills? It was one thing to help Gale out for a few extra dollars each month, but taking it so much farther made her stomach clench. The only thought keeping her glued to the couch were the images of a refrigerator full of food and the bills all sitting in the “paid” pile for once.
It was survival, right?
No more bill collectors calling, no more hungry nights. Maybe even get a cheap cell phone for Prim and myself…
Gale saw her hesitation and knew the calculating look in her eyes meant she was considering his words, so he continued on. “I’m getting to the point where I have too many people to juggle. I could hand some of them off to you and we could work together. I’d show you the ropes; you wouldn’t have to get in too deep, I swear.”
She bit her lip and began picking at her nails. All you need is six months. You could do it for six months until Prim goes off to college, then get out. It would only be temporary.
“I’ll look out for you and Prim, okay? I promise.”
She locked eyes with him. If she was going to agree, it needed to be before she lost her nerve. “Alright. I’ll do-“
Her words were cut off with the buzz of his cell phone sitting on the table between them. He glanced at it before muttering an apology and picking it up. After reading through the text message that had arrived, a small smile crossed his face.
“Looks like I’ve got someone new interested.” He stood up and pulled his wallet from his back pocket. Pulling out some cash, he handed it to Katniss. “Here, for the help. I’ve got to go on a run but I’ll be back in a bit and we can finish talking, okay?”
She accepted the cash and nodded, following him out of his apartment after he sorted through the baggies of pills and weed to pick what he needed. After he locked the door behind them, he stopped Katniss before she could turn the opposite way to the stairs.
“Try not to talk yourself out of this, okay?”
“I’ll try.” She answered softly, turning out of his grip.