“You are damaged and broken and unhinged. But so are shooting stars and comets.”
― Nikita Gill
Chapter One: No One Saves Us But Ourselves
No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.
“Katniss, you don’t need to do this.”
I ignore Prim and continue pulling on the faded blue dress, an old remnant of my mother’s merchant days. It’s not heavy enough for the middle of winter, but it’s the nicest thing we have. Part of me doesn’t want to wear something this nice where I have to go, but I can’t take the chance I’ll be overlooked.
My sister doesn’t let up. “Please, Katniss. Listen to me! Don’t go.”
“I have to, Prim.”
I don’t bother turning around. I know what I’ll see. My little sister with the hollows of her cheeks becoming more and more pronounced. Nestled in her arms is my baby brother Aven. His once chubby baby fat has melted away in the last few months. I can hear the toddler sucking greedily on one of the bones from the scrawny rabbit I managed to trap a week ago.
I haven’t caught anything since, and I won’t get tesserae rations again for another week. That’s too long to wait. All we have in the house is a few mint leaves. If it were just me and Prim, we might have be able to manage. But with my mother still out of it after my father’s death two months ago, there hasn’t been any money to feed Aven. He’s too young to understand he needs to go without. Not to mention, he can’t.
I smooth the skirt down before turning to face them. “How do I look?” I ask.
“Like you’re about to go to the Reaping,” Prim tells me bluntly. “Please, Katniss, don’t do this. I’ll take out tesserae! My birthday’s in two weeks. I’ll be old enough then. We’ll make it! Maybe you’ll get another rabbit, or, or--”
I hold up a hand to stop her. “Or what? Someone will throw me a loaf of bread just because they’re feeling generous?” I shake my head at the absurdity of the idea. “Please, this is Panem. This is Twelve. No one’s got food to spare. And no one’s got money.” I pause, lowering my voice. “Other than the Peacekeepers.”
“Well maybe we can sell some of Mom’s old clothes! Or Dad’s. It’s not like he’s going to wear them! We can sell them.”
“It won’t be enough, Prim. It might get us through this month, but what about next? Or the month after that?”
“But that’s what the tesserae’s for!”
I slam my hands down onto the dresser. “I said no, Prim. I promised Dad I’d keep you and Aven safe, and I will.”
“But I’m sure Dad didn’t mean this. What would he say if he found out that you’re… that you’re about to…”
“Say it, Prim.”
“That you’re about to sell yourself to Cray.”
I sigh. “I don’t know what he’d say, but he’s not here. He’s dead and Mom’s heading there.” I take a deep, steadying, breath. “Look, I’ve got to go. Take care of Aven and… keep an eye on Mom. We don’t want to end up in the Community Home.”
“I don’t know,” Prim says, narrowing her eyes. “The Community Home would be better than this!”
I shake my head. “No. It wouldn’t. Everyone takes out tesserae in the Home.” My voice grows hard. “Everyone. It’s my choice to take them out for you, but if I can keep you and Aven from having to, I’m gonna.”
“It’s just… there’s gotta be something else we can do.” Prim’s eyes fill with tears.
“There isn’t. It’s too cold to hunt. We’ve got nothing to sell. We’ve got no money.”
“What about Mom’s family?” Prim asks hopefully.
“No,” I say, shaking my head. “We’re Everdeens. We don’t take charity.” I pause, thinking of my maternal grandparents. “Besides, it’s not like they’ve been there for us before. Why would they start now?”
“I know, Little Duck. I know.” I wrap my arms around my siblings, breathing in Aven’s little boy smell and stroking Prim’s hair. “But what else can we do?”
I walk toward town, my mother’s shawl draped over my head, another shawl wrapped around my shoulders. I don’t want anyone to recognize me, and my preferred winter coat, the hand-me-down hunting jacket from my father, is too recognizable.
I try to keep to the shadows, so even if someone does spot me, they won’t see my face. I can’t take the chance someone might see me and realize the reason for my desperation. It wouldn’t do to go this far and end up in the Community Home all the same.
As my boots crunch through the snow, I think about how I ended up in this situation. It’s not like I planned this. But it’s funny how life turned out.
We almost lost my father to an explosion when I was eleven. If it hadn’t been for my mother telling my father she was pregnant with my baby brother, we would have. He was late to work and while his boss was chewing him out, the rest of his crew died in a firedamp explosion. I owe my brother almost four more years of my father’s life. Without him, Dad would’ve died back then and, without tesserae, I don’t know how we would’ve made it. Prim and I probably would’ve ended up in the Community Home, and it’s possible, even likely, that my mother would’ve lost the baby.
Those years were everything to me. My father taught me how to hunt and trap animals in the woods and introduced me to several of the traders in the Hob. In the last year, he even started taking Prim out with us, and while she’s not as good of a hunter as me, she’s still pretty proficient with a bow. But her real gift is for tracking prey. I may be the best shot, but Prim’s the best tracker.
We were lucky. We were happy.
Both ran out the day my father was diagnosed with blacklung. I don’t know why it came as such a shock; it’s not like this is uncommon. Most miners end up dying of blacklung, if an explosion doesn’t kill them first.
This year has been hard on us. My father wasn’t able to go out hunting as often as we hoped. We pretty much used up all of our stores when my father was sick, and because he was fired from the mines for missing too many days of work, we didn’t even get death benefits when he finally succumbed to his illness. In fact, for the last month before my father died, we were surviving on what little my mother could bring in from healing.
I signed up for tesserae for the first time while my father was still alive. I hated seeing the sadness on his face when he found out, but he understood. He had to take out tesserae too, when he was a boy, and he wasn’t the only one. Pretty much every kid in the Seam takes out tesserae, and even a few merchants. But Twelve is a poor district and tesserae rations aren’t nearly enough to feed a family for a full month. So without another source of income, people turn to other means in order to not starve.
One of the most common is prostitution.
Prostitution is legal, unlike hunting or trapping, so many men and women turn to it in times of need. It’s well-known that, in addition to a love of turkey, the Head Peacekeeper, Cray, likes women. Especially young women. But he’s not as bad as some. He won’t sleep with a twelve year old even though it’s technically legal. You’re considered an adult when you reach Reaping age, even though the mines won’t hire anyone until they’ve survived their last Reaping. Cray won’t sleep with with girls that young, but he will buy older girls and women. So Seam girls, starving and desperate, often line up at his door, willing to sell their bodies for a few coins.
And now I’m about to become one of them.
As I walk, I glance around at the various shops and merchant homes in the fading light. If I had been able to get into the woods, I might have had a rabbit, or a turkey that I could trade for coin to buy more food than the animal itself would provide. I could even barter a squirrel for bread. My father showed me that the baker always paid well for his squirrels. He used to bring home a bag of day-old rolls and the occasional cheese bun for special occasions. My mouth waters just thinking about it.
I wish, when times were good, my parents would’ve bought a goat or some chickens, because then we might have something. But my father never really thought that far ahead, and my mother was even worse. I don’t know why she would leave a comfortable merchant life to come live in the Seam. Not even love is worth starvation. Not to me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch sight of the Apothecary. My grandparents are long dead, but my mother’s brother, my uncle I guess, still lives there. Prim’s words come back to me. Maybe they would help us. I don’t like asking for help. It’s not the Seam way. But for Prim and Aven, who both look so much like merchants themselves, I’m willing to give it a try.
Squaring my shoulders, I stomp the snow off my boots and walk into the shop, a little bell jingling when I open the door.
The woman my uncle married comes out and when she sees me, the smile drops from her lips. “What are you doing here?”
“Um, my mother - I’m Kat--”
“I know who you are,” she cuts me off, her voice unfriendly. “You’re that woman’s spawn.”
The woman’s eyes narrow. “Oh, you’re here to ask for money. Well, let me give you a word of advice, missy,” she hisses. “We don’t want anything to do with your kind. Your mother ran away from her duties, so we’ve got no obligation to help you.”
I don’t bother trying to beg anymore. It’s clear I won’t get anything here.
I leave the store, trying to fight back the tears threatening to overwhelm me. They were my last hope.
Now I really have no other choice.
I take a deep breath and slide my hands across my eyes. It wouldn’t do to go to Cray looking even more desperate than I already am. I know from the gossip at the Hob that Cray will pay more if you’re a virgin, and still more if he doesn’t think you need the money. I have to do this right. For Prim. For Aven.
I make my way through the town to Cray’s home. I let out a relieved sigh. There’s no one here yet. I’m the first. I slip around back and knock, no need to advertise my visit at the front door. A drop of cold water from an icicle overhead hits the back of my neck and I shiver. I can do this. I have to.
The door opens a bit later and I see the old Peacekeeper looking down at me. “You got a turkey for me, girl?”
I shake my head.
His eyes narrow. “Then what are you doing here?”
I look up at him and force myself to smile. “I was wondering if I might interest you in some companionship for tonight.”
Cray’s whole posture changes. He leans forward and wraps his arm around my shoulders. “Well, well, well. So you finally got off that high horse of yours and came around to good sense.”
I struggle not to cringe when he touches the side of my face. I have no idea what he’s talking about, but I nod anyway.
“Are you a virgin, girl?”
I nod again.
“I think we can come to an arrangement.” He smiles at me with an expression that makes my stomach churn. “Why don’t you come in and close the door? We’ll talk price, get to know each other better, and ring in the new year.”
Taking one last glance at the setting sun, I take a deep breath and do as he asks, shutting the door on my past.
Pale streaks of orange stain the eastern sky when I leave Cray’s the following morning. I don’t know what I expected, but one thing I didn’t count on was him asking me to stay the night and offering to pay me extra to do so. Of course I said yes. Five extra coin will go a long way.
When he paid me this morning, slipping twenty five coins into my hand, he also pulled out a paper bag and slipped a few cans of food into it. “You’re looking a little scrawny, girl,” he told me, eyeing me with what I think was concern. “I like my girls to have a little more meat on ‘em.”
I wanted to tell him no, to keep his damned Capitol food, but I didn’t. For Prim and Aven’s sake, I decided it was just another part of the payment for services rendered.
I walk toward home. I’m tired. I didn’t sleep but a few winks last night. Cray wanted to hold me after, and as much as I wanted to leave, I couldn’t, not until I got paid. All I want now is a bath and my own bed.
But I need to stop someplace first.
The bakery isn’t open yet, but I can hear the sounds of the baker and his family moving around inside. The smell of freshly baked bread wafts through one of the slightly cracked windows, causing my stomach to growl. As much as I would love to buy a loaf of freshly baked bread, I know my coin will go further if I buy the day-old loaves. They’re always put out first thing in the morning and they go fast. I can’t afford to miss my chance.
One thing my father always taught me was, if possible, go around to the back door and deal with the baker himself rather than his wife. The wife mans the front counter during the day, while the baker stays in back. Mrs. Mellark hates anyone from the Seam, so she tends to raise prices in order to keep us away, while Mr. Mellark is more honest and often slips in broken cookies he saved or a few extra rolls when he thinks his wife won’t notice.
As much as I want to stand on the back porch, I know it’s not a good idea. Mrs. Mellark could see me, and that’d ruin my chances of getting a good deal. So I slip across the street and find a slightly cleared patch of dirty snow against a bare apple tree. I lean against the tree wearily.
I can’t believe I did this.
I had to.
It was awful and I never want to do it again. Ever.
I feel the wind whip at my cheeks and realize I’ve been crying. I scrub at my eyes with my hand, wishing I’d thought to bring a handkerchief.
I wonder how much longer until the bakery opens. It’s got to be soon.
Pulling out the money Cray gave me, I count it out. Twenty five coin. It’s more money than I’ve seen in a long time, about one week’s pay for work in the mines. But it’s not going to go very far. If I’m careful, I can maybe make it last two weeks, and while I’ll be able to get my tesserae rations in a week, that’s not enough to feed a family of four.
I come to a horrible conclusion. I’m going to have to do this again. Or else Prim’s got to take out tesserae.
I can’t let her do that. I promised my father I wouldn’t, and I need to keep that promise.
I put all but one coin back in my pocket. I don’t want to let anyone see how much money I have. I’m not afraid of being robbed, but I don’t want to be taken advantage of just because I have coin instead of something to trade. Also, everyone knows what this much coin means, and I can’t risk someone reporting me to the Capitol representative. She’d send someone out to investigate and they’d find my mother. We’d end up in the Community Home for sure.
The back door to the bakery opens, distracting me from my thoughts. I see the baker’s youngest son heading towards the pigs, an old flour sack filled with something in his hand and a few burnt loaves underneath his arm.
I don’t think I make any noise, but something makes him start. He whirls, his eyes meeting mine in shock.
We stand like that for several moments. He’s dressed in a tight white t-shirt and faded jeans, a dirty white apron wrapped around his waist. I never realized just how muscular he was. Yeah, I’ve seen him hoisting hundred pound bags of flour around like it was nothing, but now, with most of his arms bare, I can see the muscles straining under the thin fabric of his shirt. I don’t know why I’ve only just noticed this.
“Katniss?” he says, like he’s not sure it’s really me.
I brush away my tears and lift my chin defiantly. “Yeah.”
“What are you doing here?”
“What does it look like?”
He takes a few hesitant steps forward. “Are you okay?”
I refuse to answer that question. Instead I ask, “What time do you open?”
He pulls out a pocket watch and checks. “Fifteen minutes.”
I shiver. The snow’s starting to seep through the thin leather of my boots and my legs feel frozen underneath my dress. I wish I’d worn pants, but I wasn’t sure what Cray would like.
“Katniss…” He takes a few more steps. “You’re crying.”
“It’s none of your business.” Why doesn’t he go back inside? Why can’t he leave me alone? I’m just here for some bread. I don’t need pity or, worse, mockery.
“Did somebody hurt you?” I see his eyes narrow as he takes in my appearance.
My dress hangs loosely on my body and the thin fabric tore when Cray undressed me hurriedly. To his credit, the old Peacekeeper did his best not to hurt me, but my mother’s dress was old and worn and unfortunately couldn’t stand up to his attentions.
I can tell the baker’s son sees it, because his eyes widen. “No, please Katniss, no.”
“I said it’s none of your business.”
“Why? Why did you go to him?”
There’s only one reason girls go to Cray. He should know that. I’m not going to say it out loud. I can’t. Instead, the enormity of what’s happened crashes down on me and I’m unable to stop the tears from overflowing.
“I’m sorry, Katniss, I’m, I’m…” He thrusts the things in his arms at me. “You take this.”
“I’ve got money,” I whisper brokenly.
He shakes his head. “No, no these aren’t good enough to sell. I mean, I was gonna give them to the pigs anyway. I can’t take your money for pig slop.”
“I don’t need charity.”
“Please, Katniss. Let me help you.”
“Why are you doing this, Peeta?”
He freezes when I say his name. “I… I… I can’t tell you.”
“I should think it’s obvious!”
“Well it’s not!” I counter. “You don’t even know me, why are you trying to help me?”
“Because I want to. I need to. I need to do something. Please.” He pushes the bread at me. “Please let me.”
I take it, trying to give him the coin in my hands.
He pushes the money away. “I’m gonna fix this. You won’t have to go to him again,” he tells me earnestly, his eyes pleading with me. “I promise.”
“It’s none of your concern.”
“It is my concern. I need to do this, Katniss. Please. I’ll fix this. I’ll make it better.”
I give him a look. “How?”
“I don’t know. I’ll think of something. Just give me a little time. Please. Don’t go to Cray again.”
I shrug noncommittally, I don’t want to go to Cray again but I will if I have to.
Peeta takes my silence for acceptance. “Trust me. I’ll find something.” He shakes his head and laughs bitterly. “At least one good thing came of this.”
I narrow my eyes. “What?”
“I finally worked up the courage to talk to you.”