I'm laying perfectly still and even with the fan I've rigged, my skin is laced in a slow seeping sweat. The humidity is unusually high today. Ninety-five degrees. That's what I saw at the hob this morning. It doesn't get this hot anymore. Not in a hundred years. Winters can be miserably cold and force people to take out tesserae, but rarely cold enough to bring frozen deaths. Today though, there's a heaviness in the air that surrounds you with every move.
I release a breath I don't realize I'm holding.
"Sorry, Pose," I place her next to me on the bed, "you're too hot."
She's playing with a doll that only has hair and button eyes. Lulu was a work in progress. The boys get along with things I make from the woods or rubbish I find at the hob. But Posy, she's almost three and a real beauty. I've seen the dolls in the market, nearly the size of a real baby, stuffed plump with flat faces. If I didn't want one so badly for Posy, I'd hate the thought of how many Madge Undersee must have.
The heat doesn't seem to bother my little sister. I have one leg extended, the other bent next to her. She's climbing over me and under me, all around content with her own words and Lulu. I'll get yarn for a smile next. Maybe it'll make the doll less creepy. Either way, Posy loves her and I'm grateful it brings her happiness.
"Gale, you wet." She's pokes the beads of sweat trickling down my forehead.
"I'm sweating," I gently correct. "It's awfully hot today, huh, Po?"
"I like it." Posy likes everything.
"I like you, Po." I say tickling her bare feet, much to her amusement. Clothing is optional today. My mother's out receiving gowns to wash, leaving me at home with explicit instructions to stay inside until mid-day passes.
"Maybe when mama comes home, we can fill up an extra tub and play in the water."
"Play in wata!" When she smiles, I smile bigger.
There's a knock at the door and like everything else this morning, Rory and Vick compete to open it. I grab Posy in my right arm and travel to meet our unexpected visitor.
"Hey Catnip." Katniss is standing outside the door waiting to be invited in.
"Hi Gale." I tug at my ears. My mother calls it endearing; I call it a 'tell'. But right now I can't tell why the sight of Katniss elicits this behavior. I saw her this morning. She's no longer in her hunting attire, but stripped to a pair of shorts and a long shirt to weather the heat.
"Guys, manners? You're letting the hot air in."
"Oh please come in Katniss," Vick squeals trying to sound like the fancy voices during Capitol announcements.
"Katniss, we're bored," prompts Rory. They aren't bored, they're in trouble. As much trouble as I can get dish out anyway.
"We were all just having a nap, a family time out because some Hawthorne's can't keep their hands to themselves." Rory meets my eye and stifles a menacing laugh.
"It's too hot to play outside. It's too boring to play inside. And there's too many of us in this teeny tiny room." None of which are my fault kid.
"Prim feels the same way, Rory. It's not just you." Katniss is assertive, looking at him. She watches over Prim as I watch over Rory, Vick, and Posy. We've spent so much time together, there's a familiarity between Katniss and my siblings for minor corrections and straight shooting. Her sister Prim is perfect though, and I don't ever have to help Katniss in that way. Even the way she talks to this kids is unlike other girls. It's different with Katniss, of course. And I don't mind. I sometimes joke about starting a babysitting business, but neither of us think we can handle a merchant's child.
"Want a glass of water?" I ask noticing her flushed cheeks.
"Yes please." I juggle Posy and pour a cup for Katniss.
"Thank you." She barely meets my eye, squatting quickly to the floor next to Vick.
"How can you be outside right now? I'm sweating just standing here." Katniss glances up at me for a moment, before turning her attention right back to Vick.
"My mom sent me to deliver medicine. I'd much rather be at the lake," she frowns. Me too. We had gone to the woods earlier this morning, only to be disappointed that the fence hummed with current. Katniss hates when I say it out loud, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Capitol controls the weather somehow. I don't know how but they control everything else.
"It's still on." She answers before I can ask.
"Down, down, down," points Posy.
"Hmph. What a miserable day," I lower down to the floor and lay on my side, tucking Posy safely at hip away from Vick's precious toy car. "This is the calmest they've been all day."
"The square is bustling. So many people spending their measly savings."
"Oh, but Katniss, ice cream sandwiches." We've never had one, but we talk about how delicious they must taste every time we walk by the shop. I've had ice cream exactly once in my life. The only one out of six kids. Pitiful... When my parents announced Rory was growing in my mother's belly, it was a hot summer day like this one. My father surprised me with a small dish of ice cream in celebration. They tried, waited, and prepared for another child nearly five years after my birth.
Having one child in the Seam was hard, having two actually a little easier, three was uncommon, and four children bring ridicule. Some families have more though. I don't like to think about them. They usually don't enter this world out want, but necessity. Needed for tesserae. Needed for labor. Needed to replace a child lost.
And I'm not naïve. My parents loved wild and brave; they actually hoped for more children, but they aren't the norm. Not in the Seam, not anywhere.
"Do you think we could have one?" Rory butts in. Katniss scrunches her nose. She's a realist. A squirrel trades for one single roll and that's on a great day.
"Maybe Rory. We'd have to save our coins," Katniss suggests. We'll manage it before summer ends. It'll be hard, but it's a silent promise I make to Rory.
"We could find out if he has a special taste. Make a trade." A single scoop would be more manageable, though short and sweet with six mouths to share.
"Maybe," she hums.
"What time is it Katniss?" Vick asks. Katniss doesn't own a watch.
"Two-twenty-seven Vick." I answer for her.
"When can we go outside?"
"For the one hundredth time, when mom comes home stupid!" Rory snaps from across the room. I shoot him a glare. He doesn't seem to notice. A lot of that going on today.
"Don't call people stupid," I'm too drained to chastise him more. "He's just asking a question. It's too hot right now bub. But when mama comes home she'll need help with the wash and we will go outside then."
"What can we do?" Vick says trotting around us. This was not a game I wanted to play.
"If you bring the fan in here, we can make a fort."
"Magic," I lower my voice to a growl. Vick giggles. Katniss and Rory look skeptical.
"Nuh-uh, magic's not real," Rory always has to butt in.
"Okay, fine, but science is." I prop myself up on my knees and grab Vick as he passes. He's the most ticklish and laughs like he doesn't know despair. He does though. They all do- Rory, Vick, Prim, even Posy, with her rag doll and watered down milk.
"Go get it." I push him towards our bedroom. He's smaller than he should be. Smaller than me at age ten anyway. My father wasn't arrogant, life for any man in the Seam was hard. But he always was home to tuck us in at night and kiss my mother to sleep. Even with wages from the mine, he worked harder than he ever shared with me. Now I'm trying to just keep us afloat.
"You both are dull."
"Am not!" Katniss and Rory holler at the same time. Rory shrugs. We could go back and forth all day. Katniss leers at me though. She's not very good with jokes.
"I got the fan. Here's the fan." Vick says tiptoeing out the bedroom door.
"It's bigger than I thought!" I'm laughing louder now. "What, Gale?" Katniss points to the fan, "it is!"
"It is," I say between laughs, "The blades are bigger. We made them, believe it?" Katniss bites away a smile.
"Does it work better?" She's not easily impressed.
"It does at night when the temperature drops. We open all the windows and find the one with the best breeze. Now that we know it works, we can look for more magnets and build one for your room too."
"I helped build it." Rory is full of pride. He should be, he and Vick did most of the work.
"I made it too!" Vick says.
"Grab that blanket Vick. Rory, bring your chair over." They do-so with wide eyes and no complaints. This, I can tell impresses Katniss. I'm thankful Rory and Vick are close in age; we don't have much, but they usually play well together and are easily entertained. Still, how big could their imaginations become if they were free to play in the woods?
"Are you gonna tell me how you made them?" says Katniss. She's helping spread the blanket out with Rory.
"My ma remembered a recipe for paste. It works best with flour, but Posy was playing in some spilled ration grain and it did the same thing almost."
The fan hoists the middle of the blanket upward and we seal it around the base. It's doesn't make a very big fort. Even so the boys are intrigued and Posy wants to crawl underneath.
"It's called paper mache. You mix flour and water and bring it to a boil, when it cools, it's thick like glue. You can soak cloth or paper and wrap it into the shape you want. Then it dries overnight."
"Go in fot." Posy is tugging at the sheet.
"Okay, Pose, go under."
The living room rings with excitement. Anything Posy does is cute. I find my eyes wandering to Katniss, to catch her reaction. It's been two years since we've met and she's finally holding muscle. I can't imagine my life without her. Posy is underweight, but her eyes are bright and skin supple. I scavenge more with Katniss than I ever did alone.
Although my mother's cleaning income helped, the months after my father died didn't care how fast I was growing. Fourteen and nearly six feet tall. The hunger led to migraines and the sleepless nights, a churning in my stomach that force me to the waste bin each morning.
"Mama!" Posy squeals, hearing the door open and crawling from underneath the blanket to my mother's feet. The boys continue playing, but we all greet her; Katniss too.
"Hey ma. They actually couldn't wait for you to come home. It's gross in here." The air is sticky and thick and I so badly want a whiff of something fresh.
She cocks her head to the side, looking at me from head to toe.
"Gale Hawthorne, find some pants, young man." I look down at my bare legs and scowl in confusion. I'm in my boxers, and the only one wearing a shirt is Rory. Even Posy has just an under gown on.
"Why? It's so hot."
"Now Gale." I didn't think my cheeks could burn hotter in this heat, but they do. I turn around on before I make another face.
"Boys, take these dresses around back and we'll have a little play in the water," I hear my mother say.
"Better?" I ask returning. We rarely wear shirts in the summer and it's almost a blessing the boys like to be shoeless. Less wear and tear.
"For doing as you're told? Yes." She looks me straight in the eye and suddenly I feel like a child. I tug on my right ear and lean against the front room door.
"I shouldn't have to ask twice," she scolds. It's true but I don't see why this is such a big deal. I expect Katniss to be looking away, but instead she scrunches her nose, holding back her enjoyment at my reprimanding.
"Why do I have to wear pants all of a sudden?" It's not that bad, my trousers are thin with use and a size too large.
"Honey," my mother's face softens, "you're not a little boy anymore. You can't stay in your boxers all day."
"What? They're just like shorts. Posy wouldn't lay down without me and I felt like I was baking in bed." I'm not exaggerating. The air is that bad. Breaths are heavy and short.
"You have more appropriate shorts, Gale."
"But they're the same length." It's not like anything pops out, I mean not unless I want it too.
"And Katniss is becoming a lady. If I had customers from town, would you visit with them in your undergarments?" She sets Posy down to play with Katniss, who has heard worse indiscretions of mine.
"No." I wouldn't walk around in front of the townsfolk in my undergarments. But Katniss ain't townsfolk, she's my best friend, she's a family friend, more than a friend?
"Do we have to do this in front of Katniss?" Whatever we are to one another, I still don't want Catnip to hear this dressing-down. Or up in this case. My mother looks at Katniss who offers a smile. I guess she doesn't mind seeing me in trouble.
"She's the one you've been walking half naked around." Ma stops her task at the counter and gives me another direct look. I narrow my eyes but won't interrupt her. This isn't all that serious.
"Wear your swim trunks or thins and you won't have to be reminded." Hmm. Thins are the drawstring pants I sleep in. They'd do alright.
"Can put my trunks on then?"
"No, you'll stay in those," she points to my trousers, "and if you're in the house, you'll put a shirt on when Katniss is here."
"Yes ma'am." A good man knows when he's defeated. My father used to tell me that. He was talking about husband and wife stuff, but my mother's never been one to cross. There was a certain formality that came with planning children, and with breaking the law by going beyond the fence. My father never beat us and my mother was always his equal. He would never deny us the joys of the woods, but we could never gloat. The less people know the better. He gave tough, but unwavering loving.
My mother must know though that Katniss and I see each other unclothed often. Katniss more than me. Catnip ain't a moralist, but I think it's one thing she doesn't have to share. I couldn't have that privacy if I wanted to. Sometimes I bathe with Posy. Ma will hand her to me to sneak in a few minutes of solitude. And Rory and Vick won't even leave the room when I get out of the tub.
"We can discuss this more later if you'd like." I'm relieved a pair of pants has subdued this battle. Everything I do lately has mama nitpicking.
"I really should be going," Katniss pipes.
My mother looks at me before turning to Katniss, "Katniss would you mind staying with Gale just long enough for the little ones to prepare the laundry basins? I need a short break to collect myself." I hope she sees the sincerity in my modest smile.
Katniss is quick to accommodate.
"Oh, Hazelle, of course. I would stay all day if I could!" She blurts out. This time I bite my tongue, digging my hands deep into my trouser pockets. "We'll go outside with Posy and watch the boys." She picks the baby up and motions with her head for me to follow.
"Yeah ma, we'll take them outside." I heard once, it takes a village. Katniss, my mother and me, the boys, Posy and Prim, we're kind of like a village. As much as I do for the family, my mother does tenfold. I could be left at home with the children all day every day, or ma could run off like the Tumen's mother. Those two kids ended in the community home.
"Thank you Katniss." She catches me as Katniss exits for the backyard, "thank you niño, fifteen minutes." There's only one language in Panem now. Niño is foreign for boy, my mother knows many words like this.
"Take as long as you need." I kiss her cheek and trout out of the house. Katniss must hear me because she's waits for me to walk around back.
"I'm sorry Gale, I really can't stay long." She doesn't want to stay?
"Oh, you can go now. I mean, I'm fine. You could stay too though. Or go…" What am I doing? Why I talking so fast.
"I'll stay for fifteen minutes," she smiles. She walks to the bench my father made and I squeeze next to her, our bare shoulders sticking together in the heat.
"So, how much did you like that Catnip?" I ask nudging her.
"Kind of a lot, young man." Her lips are taut, but she doesn't quite have it down yet. I roll my eyes. "At least it's just me, and not the girls at school." Oh, brother, that would be embarrassing.
"Yeah, well, I'm sorry. I didn't realize it'd be rude in front of you. I can take her if you want or you can put her down."
"I didn't mind, Gale." When I look into her eyes, I could be looking into my own, yet somehow I trust hers more. "It's your mother who cares. I'd like to respect that." Her bite becomes bigger every day.
"Me too." The boys are splashing each other with smiles so big I hope they forget how hungry they are. "I'll try and keep my pants on around you." I wink and she blushes. We catch up on the bench while Posy plays at our feet. There's more silence than words, but it feels good to have Katniss there. Mama says the heat can brew up all kinds of feelings, and today I think she must be right.
"I've got to go back to Prim, now," Katniss says. She has a well-regulated internal clock. "Should I still if your mother's ready?"
"No, it's fine. She needs rest. The kids have been waiting all day to come outside, they'll be easy." We grab a basin that Rory and Vick have trouble moving and set it down in its proper spot. "I'm glad you stopped by."
"Me too." I believe her.
"See ya tomorrow?" It's meant to be hot again. The fence is rarely on for two days straight, we should be able to retreat into the woods.
"Mm, yeah. Bye Rory, bye Vick!" She detours to tickle Posy goodbye.
"Thanks Catnip!" She opens her mouth to say something, but instead only waves before crossing through to the neighbor's yard.
I pick up Posy and ask the boys what the odds are that she'll fit in the delicates bin. My mother eventually comes out and one brother is tasked with assisting her at a time. Not before long, I head in to begin dinner. My night to cook.
Sometimes when the moon rises, I'm filled with heartache, sometimes optimism, tonight I'm just happy for the cool relief. I'm changing for bed when ma brings a sleeping Posy into her room. Our room. It's one big room, separated by a sheet if my mother requires discretion. We never got around to making the front room up for her and Posy. It's probably my fault, too many nightmares have kept my mother close.
"I'll put on thins," I insist, throwing my trousers on the chair.
"Sweetheart, Katniss is growing up and so are you. You best be mindful of that." She doesn't now I've been to the slagheap already. I've only fooled around but I have seen girl's underwear before. Katniss' probably being the first.
"I just don't see how it matters at home." Ma narrows her eyes. She doesn't even like it when we sit at the table without a shirt on. And she'd rather the boys not walk around in underwear. That's how this whole mess came about.
"It's unkempt for a man." She swats my backside. Really ma? She must know irony.
"Alright, but it's still different with Katniss."
"True." Her hand is cool against my cheek. "Katniss may be your hunting partner, but she's also a woman. You'll treat her as such." I nod. Of course I will. She kisses my forehead and returns to the front room to wrangle the boys for bed. I'm exhausted. I gulp down a glass of water from the nightstand and set the fan to an open window facing east.
As I settle into bed, I leave the covers thrown at my bare feet. Boxers are the right choice even as the temperature settles with the moon. The day's events replay through my mind. I'm not sure what all the fuss is. I don't look at Katniss in that way, and she's made it clear that she doesn't care if I'm good-looking. I wonder if she notices I'm growing taller and with more definition, like I notice her growing up. Either way, Katniss blushed when I joked about wearing pants around her. Not such a miserable day after all.