It really wasn’t a bad gig, at all.
Take drink and snack orders from the folks out on her assigned route of the course, occasionally fetch things like suntan lotion or caps from the ridiculously overpriced clubhouse boutique.
She could’ve done so much worse. Jo was spraying disinfecting spray into dozens of pairs of moldy shoes down at the bowling alley all summer. At least, here, she had fresh air, greenery… the outdoors. Her element.
Sure, there was the pesky matter of human interaction. She had to speak to those whose needs she catered to as part of the job description. And, yeah, she made a fraction of the tips made by those girls who laughably passed off the two-sizes-too-tight club polo shirts and nearly-nothing tennis skirts as uniforms. That was just fine by her. She was perfectly content in her confortable club issue tank top and khaki shorts as long as they came with her perpetuated dignity.
She was even fine with her shift boss, for all the ominous warnings Madge had given her about the man when she’d first lined up the job for her, thanks to her father’s influence as president of the club’s board. Her friend had made the man out to sound like an ornery, bitter, reclusive alcoholic. Which ninety percent of the time he absolutely was – she’d quickly learned in her short tenure there – but, he was the highest functioning drunk she’d ever met. He ran the staff like a well-oiled machine. He didn’t take bull from anyone and even the patrons seemed to walk on eggshells around him. He was her type of people. Even better still, from the first encounter she’d had with the man to the present day, he’d always been too blitzed when approaching her to manage little more than mumbling a few barely coherent commands while handing her a wooden clipboard with the holes allocated to her for her shift. To say that was a man of few words would’ve been the understatement of the century.
It was her idea of heaven.
She found talk useless. Action was more her style and, apparently, her boss was so likeminded on that front; he’d taken to requesting her as his personal valet for his weekly round since she’d begun working at the club. Four weekends in a row, since her junior year had ended in June, she’d joined Haymitch Abernathy at eleven o’clock in the morning for his Saturday tee off with his golf buddy- the jovial man who’d run the bakery in her town since before she could remember.
She liked the baker. He was always congenial and belly laughed at all her boss’s inane, drunken rambles. It was the kind of laugh that made a smile inadvertently spread across her own face whenever she left the pair to fetch their next order. It was an infectious bastard of a laugh. So annoying.
But, perhaps, the effect it had on her usually somber disposition wasn’t so much what bothered her about that laugh. Maybe… maybe it was the familiarity of it. She knew next to nothing about the broad shouldered man with the perfectly trimmed blonde goatee and clean shaven head before she’d begun catering his games with Haymitch at the club, but she knew of him. She correlated a memory of a bad time in her life to this man… or, more precisely, to this man’s son.
She doubted the jolly, burly man had any idea what his children were up to on a day to day basis, it was impossible for any parent to keep those kinds of tabs on their kids. So she tried her best to remain cool and detached while in his company, but always very, very serviceable. She owed this man that much- even if the gesture was poor collateral recompense.
How could she not? How could she ignore how much the man’s liquid blue eyes glinted like those that’d haunted her conscience for nearly seven years- like those that blinked away conspicuously every time she’d felt them on her in class for just as long? And, yes, she recognized the timber in that laugh. He had been laughing just like that with a group of friends a few yards from her locker that first time she’d found a white wax paper bag tied to the handle with yellow ribbon, containing three perfect cheese buns. When she’d lost her father and the insipid insurance company had taken nearly six months to determine if they should pay out on his policy before the mining company completed their investigation on whether the collapse that buried him and another seventeen miners was their own negligence.
Like it mattered. He’d been entombed and her despondent mother’s FMLA was almost up. Not that it was paid. They’d subsisted on a limited life benefit her father’s company had provided for ‘final expenses’. Since there’d been no body to bury, at eleven, she’d forced her mother out of bed and into that bank to deposit that ten thousand dollar check. She’d used the money to pay necessities like the mortgage, water, light, heat. She walked to the grocery store a few blocks over from her home and bought store brand bread, peanut butter, milk and cheese. She did her best to keep her baby sister fed and clean, keep family services from realizing her mother had totally checked out on them. By the time her father’d been dead almost five months, she’d had to stretch the money too far just to keep the mortgage paid. She’d stopped eating every day to make sure Prim did. She’d lost so much weight, she’d taken to wearing his hunting jacket even when the weather did not necessitate it to hide how her clothes hung off her slowly emaciating body.
Those cheese buns on that hollow April afternoon were such a godsend, she’d wolfed them down in the girls bathroom (she’d long since stopped frequenting the cafeteria) in less than five minutes- not giving much thought to who might have left them, until the hunger pains had abated. When she’d been satiated enough to think properly, she’d pulled out the paper bag, its bottom decorated with translucent circles, a brand left behind by the delicious bounty it’d held. Her eyes had narrowed when she’d read the grease lightened moniker of the local bakery on the bottom of the packaging.
It’d been months since she’d had the kind of funds to venture into that bakery, with its fancy breads and pastries, though it had once been a favorite stop of her and her father’s before heading out to the woods to hunt or camp. She’d never even spoken to any of the baker’s children, though she’d shared classes with one of his sons – the youngest, if she wasn’t mistaken – for most of her school career. Even now, they shared four classes.
That had taken her aback. Could the popular blonde boy, the one always surrounded by friends – by girls – have taken notice of her situation and left her that small, but oh-so-necessary meal? She’d immediately dismissed the idea as preposterous, chucking the bag into the trash bin on her way out of the bathroom to her next class. Rich, well-adjusted boys didn’t feed half-starved girls and that was the end of it. Or, it would’ve been- had she not found an identical bag hanging from her locker the next day, then the day after… and the day after that. Every day, it was a different treat, always savory, always delicious, always nutritious. Thick sliced banana nut bread, spinach and cheese brioche, croissants baked with ham and cheddar…
He was always just within peripheral eyesight when she found them, always corralled by a gaggle of students that’d make it psychologically impossible for her to thank or even question him about the gifts. But, as surely as she breathed, he’d kept her fed those last few weeks until the insurance check finally turned up in the mail.
After that, once she’d shoved that greenish piece of paper in her mother’s face, forced her into a shower and clothes to get her down to the bank to deposit it, the woman who’d given her life slowly came back to them. Or, more accurately, came back to her baby sister. She could never fully trust her mother not to abandon them again. She’d refused to. But, the woman went back to work… all the time she could possibly spend at work- often twelve hours a day. That and the money from her father’s life insurance, allowed her the ability to settle her life back into a semblance of normalcy and, within a few days of showing up with a bagged lunch in the cafeteria- her locker gifts stopped.
She’d been relieved at the time. After all, she’d been raised never to accept charity without offering an equitable service in return. Everdeens earned their keep. She’d never really known for sure who it was that left the pastry bags. All she had to go on was a bakery label and many, many stolen flitting glimpses into eyes of impossible blue. There was no reason to doubt, but not nearly enough reason to break her cocoon of reclusion to venture an actual confrontation. Even so, back then, if she’d been honest with herself, she would’ve admitted she’d missed the small gestures once they were gone.
She’d often wondered over the years if he’d stopped due to her lack of appreciation. Had he wanted her to thank him? He’d never outwardly shown any interest in recognition for his kindness if he did. He’d never even so much as acknowledged her existence prior to or post the event. She could’ve easily dismissed the entire thing were it not for that grating little voice in the back of her head that kept nagging at her to thank him. Every time she made an excuse to see one of his wrestling matches over the years, every time she deviated from her usual path home to hedge the bakery- just to see if he was working the counter that evening. Every time her chest tightened in anticipation when Prim asked to see the beautiful cakes that were staples at the display when they were shopping in the square. Something inside her kept churning, reminding her much was owed. She had to wipe that red.
Therefore, yes, she was always kind to the baker. Even on a day like today, when she was pointedly trying to ignore the fact he’d shown up to his and Haymitch’s tee time in a skirt.
A bloody skirt.
Though she did have to admit, the knee-high socks accentuated his calves wonderfully. The man had an amazing physique. Who cared if he was old enough to be her father? If he was going to cross dress, she was going to gape. He was a decided upgrade from staring at most of the other men who’d shown up in similar garb at the club that weekend. And definitely something acceptable to divert her eyes from Haymitch’s hairy chicken legs. Why wasn’t he wearing those odd socks?
There was some kind of costume golf tournament going on that day. Apparently, the club, course and adjacent park had all been reserved that weekend for some cultural thing. Gale had even been out the previous week to help unload a truckload of tree trunks from the mill a county over for the strange event in the park. He’d been working odd jobs to pick up spending cash in between classes. What required the use of two dozen tree trunks of varying sizes… she wasn’t sure she even wanted to know.
“Here you are, Mr. Mellark. Jack and coke on the rocks, two Heinekens right out of the freezer - just like you like - and a Dewar’s neat for him.” She gestured with her head a few yards to their left as she handed the older man his drink order, failing to hide her disgust at how her boss was hunched over his nine iron, squinting repeatedly at the ball on the green to line his shot. Yeah, perfect form. It was the second hole in the course, not even noon. The man was barely ambulatory.
“Hey, Haymitch! You want some coffee? I’ll brew you a pot myself- none of that cheap crap in the lounge. That prissy Moroccan stuff you keep hidden in your top drawer. Black with lots of sugar…”
The man made an uncoordinated one-handed waving motion in her general direction. “Mind your pretty little business, sweetheart. I’m just f-fine.”
He was something that started with 'f', all right. Fine just wasn’t anywhere near the hemisphere of it.
She turned her frown away from him when a snort escaped the man beside her. “Forget him, Katniss. And, for the love of all that’s holy, stop calling me Mr. Mellark. Do you have any idea how old that makes me feel? I’m not even forty.”
“Are you flirting with my ball girl, over there, Mellark. You filthy bastard. That’s not what the title implies.”
They both ignored Haymitch’s ranting, the older of the two with a pointed roll of his eyes, “You should probably bring out a pot of whatever that is he’s got in his top drawer with the next round, Katniss. And, really, the name’s Dannel. Call me Dan, Danny, Nel… pretty much anything but Mr. Mellark. You’re killing me here. Here’s something for the extra trouble…”
He handed her a bill, which she usually wouldn’t look at (she’d learned early on it was in poor taste to look at how much you’d been tipped in front of the tipper), but found her eye drawn to the currency due to the unusual number of zeroes she’d glimpsed in passing. Immediately, her eyes snapped up at the man, brows furrowing. “This is too much, Mister… Dan…” she sputtered, trying to find the right way to address the man as she fumbled the hundred-dollar bill back into his closed hand.
An amused golden eyebrow arched high on his boundless forehead. “Well, I’m not taking it back. You put up with that ill-tempered jerk week in and week out,” he gestured with his beer in Haymitch’s direction. “You deserve that and more.”
Suddenly, the topic of their discussion turned irate, bloodshot eyes in their direction, growling scathingly, “Least I’m not wearing that banshee’s colors. It ain’t even your people this proud tradition celebrates and you still manage to defile it by wearing that.”
Now, she was at a complete loss. Was her boss disparaging the baker’s skirt? Sure, the green clashed with his pale skin tone, eyes and probably hair color (if he’d had any hair to speak of), but the earthy tone was just about her favorite color. The interjecting black only heightened it. She could see herself wearing a skirt like that if she ever felt inclined to wear a skirt, at all.
“I’m supporting my boys, Abernathy. Regardless what she did or did not do for them, I didn’t bring them into this world on my own. They’re the product of two cultures. If they choose to embrace this part of hers, so be it. Mind your shot, old man. I’m wiping the floor with your sorry butt by five strokes.” The baker turned softer eyes back toward her after his rather heated and rather out of character barrage. “Anyway, Katniss, like I was saying before we were interrupted by this ass… I know you’re working the Games this weekend…”
It was true. It was the long Independence Day weekend this group had chosen for this… whatever this was, and Haymitch had roped her into working the event for him. She wasn’t sure what she’d be doing beyond her usual duties on the course. Haymitch had mentioned something about concession stands being set up in the park for competitors? Supposedly, she could make out very decently for her efforts. And, really, she had no other plans. She could use the money.
“So, here’s the thing: I want to hire you as a full time concierge for the next two days- as long as the Games are in force,” the man continued.
“No, Dannel. You ain’t taking one of my girls as your personal valet. I need her. Pretty sure the club won’t allow it, either,” the dark haired man forgot his shot and sauntered over to them, looking more sober than she’d ever seen him.
“I’m a third generation member, Mitch. I’m pretty sure the board will make a concession for me. And I’ll pay twice her wage,” the baker countered, leveling a glacial jeer at the other man that caused him to narrow his eyes in response. He didn’t offer further objections, however.
“So, Katniss, I want you to show up tomorrow at the northernmost edge of the park at nine o’clock. You see the pattern on this?” He lifted a piece of his… um… lower wear? In her direction. “There will be a tent set up there when you arrive. The canvas will have the same exact pattern. It’s my family’s tent- sort of our base of operations for the next two days. I want you to buy the biggest wheeled cooler you can find and fill it with ice, Gatorade, water, deli meats and cheeses for sandwiches. Don’t worry about the bread,” he let out a snort, “one of them will handle that. Maybe get some chips, too. Get enough stuff to feed maybe four people for four days. Oh, and get a two dozen bananas- ripe. They’re going to need that.”
Katniss’s mind reeled at the grocery list. “You’re hiring me to cater for a family of four?”
The man stared at her as if she’d grown a second head. “What? No. You’re feeding three teenage boys for eight hours and I’ll be shocked if a single cooler lasts the day. You’ll have to refill that sucker for Monday- maybe, even make some runs to the clubhouse for anything weird the boys might need that you can’t predict. But, under no circumstance, are you to get Rye booze. Believe me, he’ll ask, he’ll seduce, he’s likely to even beg. Don’t give that child any alcohol, Katniss. My oldest is twenty. None of them are legal. Liquor will only hinder their performance, anyway. And any kind of drinking is strictly forbidden outside of my home. Is that clear?”
Still profoundly confused, she shifted her eyes between the once blonde man and her boss, her mouth opening and closing a second before she ventured dumbly, “I lose my job if I don’t ID and serve spirits only to adults, Mr. Mellark…” She brought a hand up to rub the bridge of her nose as she continued, still frazzled. “And your kids are supposed to eat enough to feed a family for a week in a day?” She let her hand drop exasperated.
The baker softened his features into a commiserative, analytical grin. “You’ve never fed growing boys in the middle of strenuous activity, have you, Katniss?”
Another out-of-left-field inquiry. “No, sir. I only have a younger sister. She eats like a normal person… activity level, notwithstanding.”
She flinched when both her boss and the baker let out simultaneous, uproarious guffaws at her response.
“Well, my boys do not eat like ‘normal people’, not even when they’re not straining through Games aimed at testing the bounds of their physical prowess. So, trust me, you’ll need to fill that cooler to overflowing,” the blonde gasped out between chuckles. Then, he dug a hand into the wallet he’d pulled out of the golf cart at his side and handed her a credit card. “That’s a prepaid Visa. It’s got a grand. It should be enough for both days’ worth of groceries and any gas you need for the errands. If you run out, tell Flax, my oldest, he’ll call in to have more funds transferred to the card for you. Whatever’s left after the two days is yours to keep for your trouble. Sound fair?”
Katniss looked down at the card in her hands, certain her eyes were wide to the point of hilarity. She was at a loss for speech. Was the man serious? Two weeks’ worth of groceries did not cost a thousand dollars. Still, she pocketed the card and focused determination brimming, quicksilver eyes on him. “I’ll be here at nine sharp tomorrow, Mister… um… Dan?... argh… I’m really not comfortable calling you anything other than Mr. Mellark, sir. But, I promise to take extra good care of your kids. Let me go get you the next round. I’ll meet you guys at the next hole over…”
With that, she turned and quickly paced away down the pebbled path leading to the clubhouse, her mind reeling from the conversation she’d just had, the potential use the money she’d earn in just those two days fogging her awareness in the most delightful way. College fund or car. College fund or car. For once, she had only good choices to wrangle with. The normalcy of it was jarringly nice. How screwed up was her life?
The men left behind watched her dark braid swing as she disappeared swiftly into the slopes of green.
“What’er ya doin’ Danny?”
The casual smirk that had graced the baker faded somewhat. He did not bother turning to address his friend as he spoke. “I’m making sure my boys are taken care of tomorrow in my absence like any good parent should. I can’t take three days off in a row on a holiday weekend…”
The man beside him let out a cynical scoff. “Okay. I’m calling your bull. You own the shop. You have employees. Worst-case scenario, you can close for a few days. What are you really doing, Mellark?”
The blue-eyed man lowered his head to the lawn at his feet, releasing an anguished breath as he answered, “She’s got nothing of her in her, does she, Mitch? She’s all her father.”
Haymitch ran a hand through his salt and pepper hair, inhaling sharply. “You can’t do this to yourself, Dannel. She was never your responsibility. She chose her own path long ago… and it was never beside you.”
The baker now lifted remorseful, haunted eyes to meet those of the man at his side. “So, that means I abandon her? I forget my best friend because she’s honest enough to admit she can’t be more to me when I ask her to be and let her waste away to nothing when she loses the man she loves. What kind of monster does that make me, Haymitch? I didn’t call her. I didn’t reach out to her in any way. I knew she had to be going through Hell. Some sick part of me wanted her to be- wanted to punish her for what she did to me… to us. For being happy with all her choices for so long when I was miserable with all the half-baked ones I made in failing attempts to forget her. How petty is that? I didn’t even realize how bad things had gotten for her until I caught the baby sneaking food to her little one months later. I couldn’t even bring myself to face her at that point, how ashamed I was, how much a coward I realized I was. I just helped him, encouraged him, helped him look out for signs that things worsened. I was willing to step in if they did. I swear I would have, Mitch. But, thankfully, they picked up after that. And I just never had the balls.”
Haymitch scratched at the heavy scruff on his face pensively. “So, this is some kind of comeuppance? Sorry to break this to you, but hiring the girl for a weekend hardly makes up for seven years of negligence.”
The baker smiled sadly, shaking his head. “Nope. There’s no making up for what I’ve done to her. This? This is for an entirely different purpose. I lost her because of all those things I allowed to go unsaid, because in twelve years I never made her feel as wanted as she felt with him after six months. I can’t allow the cycle to continue because of my mistakes. Mir screwed him up bad. She screwed them all up bad, but him in a way that could make him regret things left unsaid. That’s on me. I can’t allow that. I’m fixing this for him.”
A knowing, lopsided smirk edged Haymitch’s lip and he reclined back against the golf cart, looking off into the plains of green where the Everdeen girl had disappeared.
“So… the baby, huh? There’s somethin’ ‘bout the girls in that family and you Mellarks…”
A real smile split the baker’s features as he traced his baby blues in the same direction as his friend, imitating his posture against the cart.
“Oh, that’s a certainty.”