Into the Woods

Chapter Seventeen


I nearly trip over myself trying to run from the room. I yank the door open, my socks sliding as I try to hold the ground. Part or my brain tells me to look back, see if he was really there, but a bigger part of me can't bear to do that. I don't look back. I wasn't dreaming. Wasn't imagining. He was really there. And I never want to see him again.

I fly down the hallway and into the living room, braking as I near the couch. I look down and see Gale, sound asleep, and suddenly hesitate waking him. What will I tell him? Do I tell him the truth and risk his anger? Gale will want to act, that is for sure. I'd want to as well if anyone hurt him. But I'm not sure we can risk that…We don't know enough about these men…or the entire safe house network. Is it possible they are all in contact? No, it is best not to upset things here. So do I lie and risk our friendship? We've both lied to each other before, but I still can't help but feel that it is wrong. I walk as quietly as possible and sit down by his face, trying my hardest not to wake him, and I work over my ruminations.

My heart is beating a hundred times a minute and I think for a moment my chest might explode. I try to take calm breaths and tell myself I'm not in any danger…he was just watching from outside a window…but I can't help but feel violated. I want to take a shower, scrape off my skin…I'm not sure how I'm going to get through tomorrow having to look at him. The tears are coming now, great. I'm about to try and get up, so that I don't wake Gale. As I rise to leave, Gale reaches out to me. I nearly scream he frightens me so much. I fall back to the ground.

"Christ, Gale!" I say harshly, but quietly, "you scared me half to death!"

But he sees the tears and doesn't bother with the apology. "Katniss, what's wrong?" I'm beginning to feel bad about how often I hear this.

I try not to cry, but I don't know what to say, and with nothing to say, the tears pour out of my eyes. I don't know what to tell him. Gale sits up on the couch and guides me next to him. I curl up in a little ball, tucking my knees under my chin, like I always do when I feel unsafe. He wraps his arms around me and I bury myself in his chest, trying to muffle the sound of my sobs. Gale holds me, for minutes, and I keep waiting for him to ask me what happened. And he doesn't. And then I realize that he's probably waiting for me to be ready to tell him. And I'm grateful. Maybe I have misjudged his anger. I take Gale's hand in my own and start to focus on it. I place mine up to his. My entire hand almost fits in his palm. When did his hands get so big? He has such capable, strong hands. Mine are nothing next to his. I look over all the little scars, I used to know every single one. The jagged white line down his index finger where he cut himself when I taught him how to make arrows. I remember him cursing and me laughing…The textured scar of the three puncture wounds down by the pinky side of his palm. He got those from a very unhappy raccoon caught in one of his snares after I suggested he design some that trapped the animal alive. I thought it was more civil to kill the animal quickly rather than let it suffer. They were designed to kill instantaneously, but this didn't always happen. So he designed his new cages, and trapped the raccoon, very alive and very angry, and when he tried to pull it out to wring its neck, the creature was ready for him. It snarled and took him by surprise and sank its teeth into his hand. And if that wasn't bad enough, my mother had to give him rabies shots after. Right in his stomach. Gale killed a lot of raccoons in the following weeks, I think hoping he'd hit the one that bit him. And he never designed another live snare again. He just improved upon the killing techniques of his old ones. It was better that way, he told me, I had to agree….There is the pink burn on the top of his three middle fingers from when he tried to do laundry for his mother when she was very ill. He had no idea what he was doing though, and seared the top of his hand on the boiling pot. Luckily, all the clothes turned out okay because, if they hadn't, there would have been no way Gale would have been able to pay…..

"How did you get this?" I ask, coming upon one I don't remember, a long, wide white patch on the top of his hand.

"Hmm?"

"This scar," I say, suddenly aware he doesn't know what I'm talking about, "how did you get it?"

"Ahh," he says with a hint of a laugh, "I got that one courtesy of Lady while you were in the Games. Prim came running to my house one morning, an inconsolable mess. Terrified me, I thought something had happened to you, but I eventually got it out of her that Lady the goat had run away. Prim was worried someone had stolen her to eat her…I felt bad because I couldn't assure her otherwise. But I took her hand and we went out looking. Turns out she just got loose and caught her foot in a bunch of barb wire scraps near Roy McGillert's place..." Kids jokingly called Roy McGillert the collector, his property was piled with all sorts of strange odds and ends that he pulled from people's trash. Some of it he was able to turn into useful things and sell, but most of it was just junk. One thing was for certain, though, all of it was his. So if he found Lady on his land…."Lady was panicked, trying to pull herself out and bloodying up her leg in the process. I tried to carefully free her, Prim was freaking out, crying that the goat was going to lose her leg, and the damn goat was squirming so much, knocking my hand into the barbs, it got all tangled, Lady was just about free when we heard Roy coming, and I knew we had to flee. I got Lady out, but there was no time to loosen my hand so I just yanked it, losing a good chunk of skin in the process. I picked up Lady and Prim and ran just as Roy came around the corner."

"Oh Gale!" I never heard this story, I looked down at his poor hand, softly touching the spot oh his injury as if maybe I could polish it away.

"Don't worry, Catnip, it doesn't hurt. The only scars that hurt are the ones you can't see."

Another one of his cryptic messages. I look up to his eyes, trying to find meaning in their depths, but he's not open to me. He never is. That wall is up again; that one I'm not allowed to cross – that one I don't think anyone is – but I can't help but wonder, what does that say about me as a best friend, if Gale won't even let me in?

"We used to tell each other about all our scars…" I say, "we used to tell each other everything…."

"We still don't?" Gale seems genuinely confused.

I swing myself around, folding myself on his lap so we're face to face, and stare directly into his eyes. "You don't," I tell him.

He doesn't seem to understand, and he crinkles his brow slightly that way he does when he's working something out. "Well, what do you want to know about, Catnip," he tries to make his voice sound playful, to cover up the distance.

"You don't talk to me anymore, Gale."

"Aren't we talking right now?"

"You know what I mean."

"No. Actually I don't." He's getting a bit defensive.

"It's a one way street. I talk to you. Tell you my problems, tell you my fears and worries and concerns…"

"Let me get this straight," he stops me, "your problem is that I don't tell you about my problems?" Well, it sounded ridiculous when he said it like that.

"Well…yeah…"

"Katniss – "

"Gale!"

"You want me to tell you my problems?"

"Yes!"

"Well, right now, it's that I don't have the slightest clue what you're talking about!"

I want to shake his head he's frustrating me so much. I roll my eyes and sigh in annoyance. Why is this so difficult? I try to think of a way to explain. "You don't let me in, Gale."

"In where?"

"In your life!"

"What? Katniss, right now, you are my life!"

"Sometime, I don't feel like we're very close," I try again.

"How are you not in my life? How are we not close? There aren't many ways you and I could be any closer than we are right now." He gestures to our physical proximity.

"I don't mean physically." I explain.

"What more do you want from me?" He's getting frustrated. "What more can I possibly do for you?"

"You could let me help!"

"Help with what?"

"That's just it! You don't need my help!" And I have to turn my head away as I start crying again. Gale doesn't need my help. He never has. He can do everything by himself. Hunt, work, support his family. I feel like I'm that same twelve year old girl trying to prove her worth…and always failing. I don't know why he let me hang around. Why he's tolerated me for so long. All I've ever done is caused him problems. "I know you don't need me…" I sob.

"Hey," he rocks me a little bit, "that's not what I meant."

"No. It's true. You don't need me, Gale, you never have. There is nothing I can offer you…"

"Katniss," he tries to comfort me, but I get up and push him away.

"No! It's not fair…not fair for me to keep – "

"God damn it," he interrupts. There's anger in his voice, real anger. Not the mild annoyance he shows sometimes with his siblings, but hot ire. "I left my family to come out here with you…"

"I know," I sob, "how can I repay you for that?" I feel guilty, like he's accusing me.

"You don't owe me Katniss! For Christsake! I'm not telling you that to make you feel bad, I'm telling you to show you how much I care!" He gets up and paces, straining to keep his voice low. "You don't owe me, you don't owe Peeta, you don't owe anyone in the world but yourself! When are you going to realize that?" I try to meet his eyes, but I'm not sure I can hold his stare. This doesn't entirely make sense to me.

"Don't be angry…" I start to plead. I'm not sure why, I just can't help feeling like this is all my fault.

"Don't be angry?" he fumes, "Forgive me for getting upset when the person I care most about this world tries to tells me I don't need her!" His words make me uncomfortable, and I shift awkwardly on the couch. "When Prim came, running and crying to my house that morning," and he holds up the back of his hand, pointing to the scar, for emphasis, "I thought you were dead! I thought she was crying because you had died in the Games. And it was the worst feeling in the world…Because, Katniss, what you do for me, the reason I need you, is because you give me a reason to get up every morning…give me something to look forward to in this horrible, miserable world! So you don't get to pretend like you don't matter, like we don't matter…not after everything we've been through!" I look up at him, watching him pace, to see if he's finished, but I can tell he's still storming. "Katniss," he demands my attention, "if the only reason you're staying with me, if the only reason you've ever been with me, is because you need my skills or my help or my services, you let me know. And you let me know now."

I don't know how to respond to this. I'm not sure if I've ever even thought of it before.

"Gale," I plead, "you're my best friend."

"Why?"

And I suddenly can't help laugh. Gale glares at me, like I'm insulting him. "Are we really fighting about if and why we're best friends?" I say though my giggles. I don't know what's come over me. Maybe it's because I'm tired, and maybe it's because Teek freaked me out, or maybe it's because we're talking about this in strange man's living room, but the whole thing seems incredibly funny to me at this moment.

Gale tries to keep a serious face but only holds on to it for a moment. Soon, he's laughing along with me. "Yeah," he finally says as he sits down next to me. "I don't even remember why you came in here in the first place."

"Oh," I say, laughing even more because it seems so funny to me now, "I came to get you because I was frightened because I saw Teek starting at me from outside my window." I look at Gale, smile still on my face and watch his disappear.

"What?" And that anger is back again.

I convince Gale not to go after Teek that night, it took a good bit of talking, but he eventually listens to me.

"I don't like it," he says.

"I know," I tell him, stroking his head as he lies next to me. He only agreed not attack Teek if I stayed on the couch with him. Which is fine by me. I think I'm starting to like sleeping next to him, anyway.

We wake up with Brillow the next morning, and I offer to help him with breakfast. He's got a chicken coop somewhere on his farm, and we go out to collect eggs.

"Sleep well?" he asks, and I wonder if he heard Gale's and my fight.

"Yeah," I say, somewhat sheepishly, but he doesn't press the issue.

"Teek didn't bother ya, did he?" he asks off handedly, as he bends down to get the eggs from the lowest nests.

"Ohh…."

"He's a weird feller, but he's harmless."

"Yeah," I respond in something that's half a question, wondering if I should tell him how Teek appeared in my window last night. I have to keep myself from shuttering at the image.

"Yeah," Brillow started, rubbing his good knee as he got up from the reaching for the nests on the floor, "Ohh, about twenty years back now, a woman came through here, escaping from the Capitol who was torturing she and her husband. They done something mighty awful to piss them off. The man died protecting her, so she could get away, and my wife, rest her soul, found this woman wandering out her, half crazy and round with child…" I suddenly realized where this story was going. "Capitol was testing some new torture out on her, some sort of nerve gas that made her head all wrong. We tried to care for her as best we could, but she was a lost cause from the moment we found her. The baby came early – too early – I never thought he'd make it, the mother didn't, but he did, by some miracle." I realize that he is Teek. "Well, whatever gases they used on her musta seeped into him because he ain't never been right. But my wife loved him like a son, rest her soul…"

I nod at him with understanding and respect. He doesn't say anything else as we make our way back to the house.

Brillow insists on making the breakfast, so I set the table while Gale folds the blankets on the couch.

"Sure you guys won't be staying a few more days?" Brillow asks as he brings the food from the kitchen.

"No." Gale says authoritatively, "we're leaving today."

"We don't want to wear out our welcome," I say, trying to make it sound nicer.

"Well, it's no problem either way," Brillow clarifies, "we don't get many visitors." I look in the old man's eye and feel a twinge of sadness. Maybe we should stay a little longer.

"Yeah," Teek wheezes, "specially girls."

Nope. We're leaving today.

Brillow gives us another pack to carry and fills it plus our original with supplies. I think him kindly about a dozen times, and Gale respectfully shakes his hand. Teek is hanging around a porch banister, sucking on his lips as we start to walk away, reminding me even more of some sort of lizard. I find it in myself to wave good bye to him. He sticks his tongue out quickly and slurps it back in. I shudder and step closer to Gale. He takes out the map machine and hands it over to me.

"Here," he says, tossing it over to me. "You figure out where we're supposed to go next."

"Why me?" I ask him.

"You're the one who wants to help." He says, I know in a reference to last night.

Very funny, I think, as I start to play with the machine, he's going to make me regret saying that.


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