Into the Woods

Chapter Sixteen

For two days we follow that stupid yellow line, and I think Gale even got tired of it telling us what to do after a while. As our third day of hiking began, it started telling us we were close. It looked like we were on top of our blinking target for hours, I was getting ready to give up and tell Gale we needed to stop, when we see a column of smoke rising ahead in the distance. We both agree that this could be from the chimney of the safe house, but we also agree that it could be something far more dangerous, so we approached carefully.

As we crept towards the smoke, a stone cabin came into view. It looked well maintained, with an open porch and small vegetable garden to one side. Gale looked down at his map, and the pulsing point grew larger and larger, blinking fast and faster with every step we took.

"I guess this is it," I tell him.

He nods. "I hope they know we're coming."

Crap. I didn't think of that.

We continue at our slow and steady pace, cautiously approaching when I hear a strange click behind me and stop. I'm about to turn around when a strange voice addresses me.

"Don't even think about it." I'm not entirely sure what I'm not supposed to be thinking about doing, but he then commands, "now, both of ya, turn around slowly." Gale and I exchange worried looks as we swivel around and face the man behind us. He's a thin man with patchy, short hair and yellowing teeth. He's pointing a large weapon at us. It's old, made from metal, and the word rifle jumps in my mind, though I've never seen one like this before. I wonder if it's some antique, some remnant from the Dark Days…a weapon from the first war. He clicks it again, and I realize I should be more concerned with how much damage it can do than where it came from. "Who the hell do you think you are?" he says roughly.

"We…we were told to come here…" Gale begins shakily. I wish I could help him, but I don't know anything better to say.

The man, who is rather skinny and wearing clothes that don't really fit him, pushes Gale with the butt of his gun. I start to worry things may get out of hand soon, when a slam from behind us catches all of our attention.

"Oh, get off it, Teek. You know it's them…" A gruff old man says as he comes hobbling out of the cabin. He had a full, gray beard that hangs down to his rather round belly. He is wearing overalls, and a red shirt beneath, but most noticeable of all, is his wooden, peg leg which is mostly responsible for the hobble. He limps down the porch and comes over to us.

"You can never be too careful, boss," the scrawny man asserts, keeping his weapon on us.

"Pshaw," he dismisses as he comes walking around and gets in between us and the gun. He's clearly not afraid. "You'd be the two runaways from District, Nine, was it?" He says, eyeing us, not suspiciously, but seriously.

"No," Gale says, "we're from Twelve." And I'm thankful I have Gale with me, because that was probably a test, and I would have failed it, agreeing to whatever the man thought to get him to take me in.

The younger man, whose name I think is Teek, backs up a few paces, but he's still got his gun on us though a bit shakily. I don't think he's got a very good aim with that thing, and I'm thinking I could probably take him out if I needed to…at least, I could distract him long enough to give Gale the advantage…

"From Twelve," he repeats, "that's right…well, they'd told us yous were comin'," and his voice isn't quite yet friendly, like he's still figuring things out.

"Didn't say they was sendin' a boy and a girl though…" Teek interrupts, as he looks me up and down with a strange expression on his face. "She your wife?"

"No," Gale responds in a defensive voice as he takes a step closer to me. Teek still looks strange.

"Didn't say they weren't," the old man takes command of the conversation again, dismissing his younger friend. "My name is Brillow, and this is my place." He extends his hand to Gale, who cautiously accepts it. "We're happy to open it to y'all for a few nights, and help ya however we can."

"Thank you," Gale says a bit tensely.

"And that there is Teek." Gale nods to acknowledge him. Teek has lowered his gun.

"I’m Gale," he says, "and this is Katniss."

"Gale?" Teek squeaks with a strange little laugh, "isn't that a girl's name?" Gale glowers at him, but he doesn't seem to notice.

"Are yous hungry?" Brillow asks, leading us up to his house, "we just about got supper ready."

And I decide any man willing to share his food with us can't be all bad.

"So what made y'all decide to run from the Capitol?" Brillow asks us once we're at the dinner table with full plates.

Gale still hasn't relaxed from the earlier exchange, I guess he doesn't like having a gun put on him, or having his name joked, so I decide to answer. "Well, they tried to kill us," I say, which isn't exactly the truth, but, for simplicity's sake, "and we figured it was easier just to let them believe we're dead."

Brillow laughs heartily. I'm not quite sure why he finds this funny, but I like the sound of his laugh. It's deep and rich. A lot better than Teek's. Brillow seems to be a decent man, and he's a pretty good cook…I think I could like him.

"Why'd they want you dead?" Teek almost barks at me. Now I'm not so sure about him. He's got a wild look in his eye, is very nervous, and I think he's not quite right.

"Well…" I take a drink to give myself a moment to think. I wonder if I should tell the truth, but, I don't know how much they know about us, and after the little test about where we came from, I figure it's better not to risk it. So I tell them our story, at least, most of the major details.

"We don't get many girls out here." I'm not sure how I'm supposed to respond to that.

Gale, however, seems quite upset. He stabs his meat with his fork quite angrily when Teek speaks, and I notice he's not eating much. I think he's being a little harsh, it's not like the man actually shot at us…and it's probably not his fault he's strange. Who knows what horrific story led him to live out here in the woods….what terrible thing the Capitol might have done to him. Teek's an odd one, but I've certainly met weirder.

Brillow safely changes the topic, sensing the tension in the room. "Well, we don't get many people out here in general."

"How many do you get?" I blurt out, honestly curious.

"Oh," he pauses to think, "only a few a year, I suppose. Sometimes they come in groups, other times it's one or two stragglers…Not many brave enough to flee though."

I nod in agreement. "Where do most of them come from?"

"Oh…we get quite a few from Eight…some from Ten…every once and a while someone from Twelve…." And I stop to think if anyone I've ever known could have run away. "And most the other districts every now and again."

"Are they all going to Thirteen?"

"Just about," he said between bites of potatoes. My imagination starts to spin about what possibilities could be waiting for us there.

"How long have you been doing this?" I ask, looking to see if Gale is as interested in the conversation as I am. But his eyes are hotly fixed on Teek, who smacks his lips as he licks his spoon. Goodness, I think, it's hardly the time to hold a grudge. Teek's eyes meet mine when he realizes I was watching him, and I quickly look away.

Brillow and I keep up the conversation through the rest of the meal. I ask him how long he's been doing this, how he came to be a part of this underground safe house network. Turns out he's one of the few free men born in this world. His parents were the ones who ran away. They built this place, and he was born out here. He's never known the tyranny of the Capitol. It amazes me.

"And you," Gale finally speaks. We're all surprised and turn to look at him. "What brings you out here?" He's addressing Teek.

He crooks his head and licks his lips, reminding me of some strange kind of lizard. But Brillow is the one to answer. "We found Teek out here."

"He’s a run away?" Gale asks.

Teek’s head wobbles as he nods.

"You're a criminal?" Gale's tone is accusatory.

"Most people out here are," Brillow explains. "Those Capitol people of yours seems to have a lot of funny ideas when it comes to the law." And I shoot Gale a reproachful look. These people have taken us in. Why does he have to be so difficult?

"Yeah," I say, trying to ease back the conversation, "I just being out here makes us all criminals."

Brillow grunts in agreement as he shoves another pile of food into his mouth.

Brillow tells Teek to go get the beds ready after dinner and I offer to help him with the dishes.

"I'm sorry about my friend," I tell him when we are out of ear shot from the others.

"Don't worry about it. I know he's just looking out for you." And I think that is rather generous of him. "If I had you, I would be too," he adds. I'm not really sure what he means, but since he doesn't seem offended, I don't press the matter.

"Well, good night," Brillow tells us when we're finished. "This one's my room over here," he points to the first door down the hall as he starts walking to it, "Just let me know if you need anything…"

"Thank you," Gale says normally, and Brillow shoots up his hand to show he heard as he walks away.

"About time you started being nice," I tersely toss at Gale.

"I'm sorry?" He questions me, but I don't catch his tone.

"You better be," I say in no cooler a voice.

"No. That wasn't an apology. I mean, excuse me?" And he exaggerates his voice so I understand this time. Since I'm already a bit upset with him, I find this insulting.

"These people are helping us, Gale…would it kill you to show a little gratitude?"

"I said thank you!" he defends.

"Yeah, only after spending most of dinner glaring at Teek!"

"I don't like him." He says as if that is a completely legitimate excuse.

"I don't like lots of people, Gale, that's not an excuse to be mean!"

"I don't like the way he looks at you."

Oh please, now he's just being ridiculous. "You don't like the way he looks at me?" I repeat, almost mocking him. "What…are you afraid he can turn me to stone of something," I jokingly dismissing his concern.

But Gale's look is so serious, it makes me uncomfortable. "Katniss, please, this is no time to be naïve!" There is an urgency to his voice that scares me.

And I realize that I don't know what I don't know…and I suddenly feel insecure. I look up at Gale, my eyes full of uncertainty and fear, about to say something when Teek creeps in the room.

"Everything's ready for ya," he says, looking down and making circles on the floor with his foot. He keeps his eyes on the ground, "Just this way," and he points out the room. Gale takes the lead, and he stands very close to Teek as he walks by. Gale is a full head taller than him, and he probably weighs at least fifty pounds more...and most of that is pure muscle. I follow very closely to Gale, and Teek comes after us. I swear I can feel his breath on my neck. Can he be that close to me? Or am I going crazy. "We only have one spare room," he mumbles as we making it to the living room. His words sound almost wet. I no longer look at the man with pity, but disgust. "I thought we'd give it to the lady." Now, I feel kind of bad, because that was thoughtful of him. Has Gale just made me paranoid? "You can sleep on the couch," he says to Gale, eyes still glued to the floor. He's left a few blankets and a pillow on it. Gale grunts something affirmative. "Your room is this way." And his eyes look up to mine for the first time. I try to look at him kindly, and he does something between a cough and a smile.

Gale watches protectively as we head down the hallway. My room is the first door opposite Brillow's room. Teek leaves me at its entrance. "For you," he points inside.

"Thank you," I say. And without another word, he disappears down the hall.

I look back to Gale, perfectly visible, only a few yards away in the living room. I nod to him, telling him it's okay, and go in my room to shut the door. There's a small window in the corner with a bed under it. It's got a two pillows piled on the end and is made with several warm blankets. Next to the bed is a nightstand with a glass of water on it, and across from the bed, next to the door, is a dresser. It has a nightgown on top of it. It looks old fashioned, but I don't care. I pick it up and find a pair of thick socks below. I knew Teek was a nice guy, I think to myself, really weird, but nice…Gale's got me all worried for nothing. I change into the night clothes and crawl into bed. It's nice and warm, and I haven't felt anything thing this soft in days…I snuggle down into the bed and close my eyes trying to find sleep.

But it doesn't come. My brain is pouring over everything I learned today. The existence of entire families born outside of the Capitol's reach…a network or friendly people trying to help escapees get to Thirteen…And Thirteen! I wonder what awaits us there… My mind is spinning when I hear a strange creak. My eyes jump open. My door is still shut, I'm safe. And this is an old house, I tell myself, I'm sure tons of things creak. But I can't shake the fear that is now fluttering in my chest. I curse Gale for making me feel so uneasy…he's going to hear about this in the morning…

Then I hear the sound again. It's small, but it sounds so close. Or it's large and far away, I tell myself. Because that makes sense, right? I look out and scan my room. I can make out the closed door and dresser in the dim light. Everything looks normal, quiet, calm. I close my eyes again and try to think of Thirteen…but I can't shake this uneasy feeling I have…like someone is watching me. I shutter now when I recall how Teek looked at me earlier, up and down, chewing on his lips. So gross, I think…and I'm so mean! I press my hands to my face, trying to distract my brain, but the angry, fear mongering butterflies in my stomach won't go away. Katniss, you're being ridiculous, I tell myself. Look at that closed door, right there. You are safe. Everything is fine. And I can't ignore my own logic. I sit up in bed and take one final survey of the room to appease myself. See? Nobody else is in here…you're alone. Now go to bed! I take a deep breath and lay back down, closing my eyes again. I can't keep the idea from popping in my head. Damn it, I curse myself. There is one final place I have not looked: under my bed. And now that I've thought about the possibility of some monster being under there, I cannot ignore it until I know for sure. I feel like a stupid, little girl. I wish I could call my parents in to come check for me. I know I could call Gale, but I don't want to look that foolish. You can do this, Katniss, I tell myself, taking a deep breath as I rise. Or not, that's good too, as you know perfectly well there is nothing lurking under your bed. I throw my feel down on the floor, sink to my knees, and grab the covers… And now you'll know that for certain…I toss the covers aside…that nothing is under here…And nothing is under there, I see, as I look from one end to the other. I exhale a deep breath of relief and chuckle softly, thankful this room doesn't have a closet. I quickly double check to make sure. It doesn't. Okay, Katniss, I tell myself, time to push all this silliness aside and go to bed now…now that you know for certain that there is no one in this room watching you. I can't help but feel like such a silly fool as I push myself up off the floor, rising next to my bed.

And that's when I see him.

Face smashed against my window...nose pressed right into the glass…mouth sucking like a dying fish…and eyes…eyes staring directly at me.

I have to put my hand over myself to keep from screaming.

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