I am running.
My body flies through the trees and my breath enters my lungs in one smooth draw and exits in the same fashion. I can feel the wind against my skin and it seems like I am barely touching the ground as I move along. My whole being is focused on the path in front of me and each footfall lands with confidence. I am following something, someone, who passes between the trees and stays just out of reach. I can't quite make them out and I struggle to gain enough speed to catch up to them. My brain tells my legs to move faster but they won't cooperate. I am simply unable to overtake whoever I am tracking. The panic begins slowly in my chest and spreads into my arms and down my legs. My breathing starts to break and suddenly I feel like my lungs are empty of air. My limbs begin to tremble and I slow down trying to catch my breath but it doesn't come. The panic overtakes me and I collapse to the ground, trying to get a breath, trying to break free of the suffocating darkness that pulls itself around me, and then the sharp bangs draw my head up and I open my eyes.
I am lying in my bed, clutching a pillow in my arms and my body curled around it into a protective fetal position. I have a death grip on the pillow and my skin is covered in cold sweat. I’ve kicked off my blankets and they are in a pile at the end of the bed, crumpled and discarded. My heart is still pounding in my chest as if I had really been running and it takes me a few moments to fully come back from the dream I had been lost in.
Another round of bangs on the front door sink me back firmly into reality and I sit up, rubbing my arms to ward off the chill that is setting in from the cold air against my skin. The familiar feeling of annoyance begins to creep into the space left by my dream, I hesitate a few seconds before swinging my legs off the bed and landing stockinged feet on freezing floorboards. There's only one person who would be at our door this late at night seeking their fix to check out of this world.
While I'm grabbing a sweater off the chair next to my bed I see my grandmother begin to rise from the bed just across from mine, pushing herself up on her one arm and blinking the sleep from her eyes.
"It's alright," I whisper, "I'll see to him."
She smiles and murmurs a grateful reply as she lies back down, asleep again before her head hits the pillow. I pull the itchy sweater over myself and clamp my arms around my torso to head out into the main room, the bangs growing more persistent as I do. I groan quietly to myself as I cross the small living space and place my hand on the doorknob. He must hear the slight click when I do because the banging stops and I can hear his ragged breathing behind the wood panels. I open the door just a crack, peeking out at the crystalline grey eyes that are eager to be received.
"You can't keep doing this, Haymitch," I say to the eyes and they grin at me but I refuse to open the door any more at the moment. "You can't keep running out here in the middle of the night every time you run out."
"Come on, Nellis,” he says. “Cut me some slack. Anyways, I've brought presents." He holds up a small pouch that I know is brimming with coins and it erases any more reasons for me to deny him entry, other than my serious dislike of the situation.
"You don't get to call me that," I say through the crack in the door, making demands of my own so he knows where we stand.
"Fine," he relents. "All right, Miss Barton." He practically snears when he says it and even though he's used the wrong title, I decide to press the issue further. He is on edge enough as it is.
He isn’t slurring his words and his voice has an edge to it that tips me off as to how long it’s been since he last had a drink. I decide it's probably better to satisfy his craving rather than teach him a lesson.
"She keeps a regular stall in the The Hobb for a reason," I say, opening the door enough to let him in and I watch to make sure he closes it behind himself. "You should really learn to plan for moments like this."
"Whatever," he says and tosses the pouch of money onto our small table while he heads over to the hearth where the last of a few flickering coals linger into the night. I go to the corner and easily shift a large trunk to reveal a trapdoor in the floor. Opening the door I am met by the unrelenting mild chill of a deep hole that's been dug into the ground beneath our tiny house. It works perfectly to keep the neatly packed bottles of liquor a constant temperature, a trick that my grandmother picked up from her father, the original moonshiner of the family.
I lower myself into the pit and pull four bottles, Haymitch's usual haul, and line them up on the floor. It takes a quick jump up to be back in the house before I close the trapdoor and scoot the trunk back over it. I take the liquor over to the table where I set them in a neat row and empty the coins onto the table to make sure he brought enough. We both know it's more of a formality than anything as he's been buying the liquor for so long he must know how much it costs better than anyone else.
"Fine then," I say and put the coins back into the bag. He nods and scoops up a bottle to crack the seal and take a long pull before he leaves. He lets out a satisfied noise once he's had a good swig and smiles congenially at me. I just stare at him. He looks at me over the lip of the bottle for a good minute, like he's considering something about me, about the situation, but in the end decides better of himself and takes up the rest of the bottles to head towards the front door. I am relieved to have him on his way.
"Pleasure," he says, his words practically dripping with sarcasm as he pauses to wait for me to open the door for him. "It's always fine to do business with you."
"Go find someone else to annoy," I say under my breath and I let him out and shut the door quickly behind him. I can hear him laughing on the porch but I am already turned back towards the living room and crossing quickly to the linter room where we sleep. Before I know it I am back in my tiny bed, drawing the blankets back up over my already shivering body and closing my eyes trying desperately not to see the trees again, not to be running after someone I know I'll never catch.
When I wake up again it's to be greeted by the pale winter sun sifting through the thin cloth over the window pane. I slept all the way through the rest of the night, my dreams giving me a break for the moment. Most everyone in the Seam has nightmares of one form or another. To not have them is the true exception. We are all haunted in some way.The bed across from me is empty and I can smell breakfast on the morning air. My grandmother has been up for who knows how long and I am silently grateful that she let me sleep in.
What a brute, I think to myself at the memory of the night before. It was the third time this month that Haymitch had nearly beaten in our door. Another thing to be grateful for is that today he will be leaving on the Victory Tour and we will get a few weeks of peaceful nights. Though he is one of our best customers, I loathe having to deal with the man. He has respect for my grandmother but seems to withhold it from me. He must suspect that my interactions are laced by contempt.
But, as I am reminded, at the end of the day Haymitch's appearances whether in The Hobb or in the middle of the night will mean that we will be able to afford to feed ourselves another day. To survive another day.
I sit up, still wearing the sweater from the night before and take a moment of quiet and relative peace before I begin the process of my day. The sunlight shifts weakly in the room, fracturing on the warped glass and landing in strange patterns on the walls. I raise a hand and pass my fingers through the light, trying to imagine that some warmth is being pulled from it, something to bolster me to the task of getting up, but there is nothing to be gained from the weakly shimmering light on my skin.
I breathe in a deep sigh and decide I might as well get started with the day. My body protests far to much for someone who is only twenty-nine, making me wonder what it will be like in five, ten, even fifteen years. If I make it that long. But I can’t think about that now, all I can focus on is the present, easier said than done with a past that refuses to slip into more long-term memory, and a future that is always cast in doubt. Such is life in the Districts.