The night has brought with it not only more rain but also quite the chill. Gale and I have been huddled in our little tent for hours. I can feel the cool water running beneath us. We're both soaked through, and I'm trying hard not to shiver.
"You're cold." Gale sounds concerned.
"No," I retort, but he knows I'm lying.
"Katniss…" I can't see Gale's face in the dark very well, but I don't have to. I know him well enough to know the exact look he has on his face.
"I'm not cold," I insist.
"I'm just antsy. You know I don't do well all cooped up."
"Please," he scoffs. It's clear I haven't fooled him. He stretched out one of his long arms and pulls me close to him. "Here," he says, as he rubs his hands up and down my arms.
I try not to think about how close our bodies are. Or how little clothes we have on. Or how warm and nice and strong Gale feels. I try to shove all these thoughts out of my head and I tell myself I shouldn't think of my best friend this way.
"How do you think our families are doing?" I don't know where this thought came from.
"I think they are okay."
"Really?" I've tried my hardest not to think about them over the past few weeks.
"Don't worry," Gale says as he soothingly rubs my back. "Haymitch promised he'd look after them, and it'd be too suspicious if something happened. Haymitch's probably even told them the truth by now. I'm sure they're all fine."
"Even Peeta?" I can feel Gale's body tense as I ask this question. But his voice doesn't betray whatever feelings are at work inside him.
"Even Peeta," he reassures me with a soft smile. I lean into his body, seeking comfort and warmth, and before I realize, I've fallen asleep.
Gale was right about the food. It poured for two days straight. We woke up on the third morning, cold, hungry, damp, and grumpy, and it wasn't until we were half way through our little breakfast (one cracker, half a piece of dried jerky each, and an entire bottle of water) that we notice it isn't raining.
"Do you hear that?" I ask Gale.
"My point exactly." Gale meets my eyes and we understood each other perfectly. In one, fluid movement, he jumps over me and is outside the tent in a second.
"Thank God," he cries, just as jubilantly as he had when it started raining, "I'm so glad to be out of that damn tent!" And he runs around again, stretching and celebrating like a big kid.
We pull our clothes from the tree. They are still a bit damp, but we've no choice but to put them on. We drink as much water as we can hold before filling all of our bottles entirely the rest of the water Gale collected. I help him fold the blanket and pack up the camp, but everything is a mess. It's no use trying to wash off the mud, but we try for several minutes before giving up and bundling everything into Gale's pack and resume our hike. We've still got about three days until we're expected to hit the next safe house, and while I'm thankful to be well hydrated, I'm not looking forward to walking through all this mud. But we've no choice. We pull on our soggy shoes and squish forward, no longer tormented by our thirst, but instead the humidity, the heat, the increasing number of bugs, and above all, the mud.
For two more full days, we traipse through the wet earth. I am beginning to think on the third morning that I'd never know how it felt to be clean again, when the map machine tells us we are close to the next safe house.
"Thank god," Gale sighs, looking above my shoulder.
I nod in agreement and point the direction in which we must go as I swipe away both sweat and mosquitoes.
In the late afternoon, we see the small house in the distance. Stomachs growling from hunger, feet squishing in mud, we race like we did as children to the door.
"We were wondering when you'd get here," a friendly, middle aged woman says to us as she walks from around the corner of the house, carrying a large basket of laundry. She sets it down and extends her hand, "I'm Sylvie. You must be the two from Twelve."
I am about to take her hand when I look down at mine and realize how dirty it is and that I have no clean place to wipe it. We must look horrible. Mud caked to our clothes, in our hair, dirt up to our knees, on our faces, even in our ears, probably. I have to stop myself from begging this woman to let me take a bath before introducing myself. I turn my handshake attempt into a wave.
"Hi," I say as brightly as I can, "I'm Katniss and this is Gale. We are the two from Twelve."
"Glad you finally made it," she says, looking us up and down. "I'll see if I can get the two of you cleaned up a bit and then I'll work on feeding you…Just follow me."
We follow her to her porch and see several tiny faces peering out as us from the window. Sylvie ushers the children out to meet us. They gather around her and she puts her hands around the smaller ones lovingly. "This here is Katniss and Gale," she says, looking down at the small faces. "They are going to be our guests for the next few days."
"Hi," Gale says warmly to the children. He crouches down to their level. A couple of them back at him, the others aren't sure what to make of us.
"Hello," I try to match his friendly tone.
"Cinda," Sylvie calls into the house, "fetch a pale of warm water, will ya? These are my children. This here is Willow," she places her hand on the back of a girl just a little younger than Prim, "her brother Trek," she gestures to a dark haired boy who's maybe ten, "Glennie," she grabs an even younger boy who can't be more than six, "little May," she touches the tiny blonde girl clinging to her skirts. "My oldest, Cinda, is bringing you some water now, and I've got another baby boy, Brook, sleeping inside."
Dear God, I think, all these children are hers?
"It's very nice to meet you all," Gale says with a friendly smile. Sylvie returns it. She must notice how good he is with children. The younger girl, May I think, tentatively takes one of her small hands and waves at Gale. He crouches down by her and waves back. May must be shy because she blushes and buries her face back in her mother's skirts.
"You like kids?" Sylvie asks Gale as she leads us to the back porch.
He nods. "Yeah. I've got three younger siblings."
"But none of your own?" She's looking at me as she asks this.
"No way!" I blurt out, perhaps too forcefully. "We're too young."
"Too young," she scoffs, "I already had one in my arms and another in my belly by the time I was your age."
"Oh. Well, I don't want kids, anyway." I look away awkwardly.
"No?" Sylvie repeats. I don't know why she's looking at me like this. I just shake my head in response.
Sylvie opens the door to the porch and we walk in. There another girl, who I can only assume is her oldest Cinda, is filling a large wash basin with water from the stove.
"Thank you, Cinda," Sylvie tells the girl. She gets up and looks us up and down. I feel really uncomfortable as she stares at me. I wonder how horrible I look.
"Of course, mother," Cinda nods, glancing one more time at Gale, before leaving the room.
"I don't know which of you wants to go first," Sylvie gestures to the tub, "but you can just throw your clothes in this basket and I'll wash them for you. My husband Cott going to be away for a while, so he won't be needing these," she puts some clothes on a chair for Gale, "And these are Cinda's," she looks at me as she points to an outfit on the table, "it should fit you nicely." Sylvie didn't say anything more before leaving.
Gale and I look at each other awkwardly for a second and at the steaming tub of water.
"You first," we both say, almost simultaneously, and laugh.
"No seriously, ladies first," Gale repeats.
"Ha," I laugh, "I'm not a lady, especially like this," I look down at myself.
"Still look amazing to me," and before I even have time to figure out what he means, he's stepped out of the door.
The water was still steaming. I tentatively put my finger in it. Warm. No, hot. Hot water. I involuntarily sigh as I feel it. I quickly strip off my clothes and submerse myself before I even think to look around and make sure no one is watching. I come up and look around. Good, I'm clear. I take a deep breath and relax for a moment. I see the soap and bubbles Sylvie set out for us. I don't think I've ever been so excited to see soap in my life. I eagerly grab the bar and start scrubbing my body. I didn't realize how dirty I was, and I knew I was pretty dirty.
I could have spent an hour in there, but the water was cooling down, and I think I got off as much dirt as I possibly could. Plus, Gale was probably desperate to get in. I hop out and dried off as quickly as I can. I go over to the pile of clothes Sylvie left me. Oh no, I think as I unfold the garment. It's a dress. Not only a dress, but one with flowers on it. It feels like something I should be wearing to a Reaping, and that makes me nervous. But also, I hate wearing dresses. The material is pretty nice though, soft, not horribly worn. It's a nice, white linen with small purple flowers on it. It's some sort of wrap dress, which I've never worn before, and it takes me a few minutes to figure it out. I pull it on like a robe, but am unsure how it all connects until I finally see a small hole a few inches beneath the arm on the left side. In the seam, whenever clothes have a hole, it's really a tear, but I finally realized this hole was put there on purpose. Once I'd figured that out, it was easy to see how the belt looped through and held the dress together. Not well enough for my comfort though. I didn't like how the dress crisscrossed over my chest. I'm not even sure I'd let Cinna dress me in something so low, but maybe Cinda wasn't as well developed as me. The dress has thick straps, but no sleeves, so Sylvie laid out a sweater for me as well. I put it one and go to the mirrors, towel around my shoulders. I feel very self-conscious in the dress. Prim would tell me I look pretty in it. Gale probably would too, come to think of it. And I blush at the thought. But there is nothing really more I can do to help my appearance, so I throw my hair in a braid like normal and come out.
"Oh, there you are!" Sylvie said brightly. "Trek," she commanded her oldest son, "go empty the tub quickly." Her son shot up and obeyed. "The next batch of water is almost heated up. You've got perfect timing." She smiles at me. I don't really know how to react.
As I enter their family room, I see Gale lying on the floor playing with the younger children. He was playing a folding paper game that he often played with Posy. I could see that the little girl, May I think, was astonished with it. Prim used to be as well. And I remember how he used to come over and make little animals that had moving legs, or bugs with wings that could flap out of our old school papers and how she'd delight in them as May and Glennie seemed to be doing now.
"Just about ready," Sylvie says to Gale. He hops up, messing Glennie's hair as he does, causing the young boy to giggle. Sylvie starts to lift the have pot of water for Gale's bath.
"I got it," he says, running over to help her.
"Oh no," she begins to protest, but Gale doesn't let her. He easily lifts the steaming pot from her stove. "Why, thank you," she exclaims, "it's so nice to have a man around. This way," she starts to lead Gale to their back porch, "Trek, have you emptied the tub?" she calls out to her son.
"Nice dress," Gale says with a smirk, knowing full well how much I hate them, as he passes.
"Ha," I scoff, "you're lucky I didn't put on the clothes she left out for you."
And I hear Gale chuckle as he walks by.It feels like Gale is in the bath for ages. I try and offer Sylvie some help, but she says she doesn't need any.
"Oh no, dear, I'm fine," She calls from the kitchen.
Great, I think, as I awkwardly sit on the couch. Both Glennie and May are looking up at me with wide, expectant eyes and Gale's paper animals in their hands. I meet theirs and stare blankly back. What do you want me to do? I think. With no ideas, I weakly wave my hand. They stare at me like I'm an alien. Only little May extends her hand to return my gesture. I am so bad at this.
The children return to their makeshift toys. Gale had made them quite a few. Glennie is amused with a little frog that hops when you push it down. There is a look of genuine surprise on his face every time the frog hops up, even after he's done it four or five times. He lets out a squeal of laugher as he does it again. I don't think I'd ever had the occasion to use this word before, but it comes rushing to the front of my mind: precious. A faint smile crosses my lips before I feel sick for thinking it. Hmmm, precious… I scoff. But I'm not sure the smile leaves my lips.
May, however, is playing with two of the mammal creatures. One is clearly chasing the other. She dashes the two figures about, racing across the floor until one suddenly overtakes the other. Victor in hand, she crushes the loser, completely crumpling the paper animal. She voices its demise, and a tangled snarl escapes her lips as it seemingly dies. She trots the triumphant animal around its vanquished prey then laughs. In an almost evil way.
Maybe this kid isn't so bad, I think as I watch the one animal then eat the other admits violent sounds.
Gale finally emerges from his bath. He's not only washed but shaved and looks good. The clothing Sylvie gave him is a little too tight for him and he moves awkwardly into the room. The pants are at least three inches too short for him, and the clothes are definitely too small in the shoulders and seat of his pants. But small clothes are nothing new to Gale, who spent most of his childhood growing faster than Hazelle could keep up.
"Oh, good, Gale," Sylvie says as she sees him, "dinner's almost ready. I take it you two are hungry?"
"Yes," we both say automatically. Gale looks at me and smiles.
"Great! Dinner's almost ready! Come on kids, food!"
At Sylvie's pronouncement, I hear scampering from all corners of the house as the children nearly knocked each other over to get to the table. Glennie and May disappear in a flash and were seated with knife and fork in hand before I'd even gotten up. Trek comes barreling in from outside somewhere and doesn't even stop to take off his shoes. He appears eagerly next to his little brother and sister.
"Trek, now you go wash up before you sit at the table," Sylvie reproaches he eldest son as she carries a pan to the table. The boy lets out an unhappy sound by doesn't question his mother. He sulks away from the table as Willow walks in carrying the baby Brook.
"Do you need help with anything?" Gale asks as he approaches the table.
"Oh no, dear, take a seat," Sylvie gestures to one of the empty chairs.
I tentatively follow Gale. For some reason, this entire situation makes me uncomfortable. It's not Sylvie, she seems very sweet and nice. I guess it's all the kids. I've never had a big family, and they make me uncomfortable. My role as sister only involved providing, never playing. That's why I let Prim keep Buttercup. As I take my seat next to Gale at the large table, part of me almost thinks I'd rather be back with Brillow and Teak as I look at all the small faces surrounding me.
Cinda and Sylvie bring the last dishes to the table and take their seats. Cinda positions herself across from Gale and smiles coyly at him. He warmly returns it.
"Thank you so much for this dinner, Mrs…." Gale pauses awkwardly as he realizes we don't know Sylvie's last name.
"Oh, just call me Sylvie. And there's no need for thanks, it's my pleasure to do this for you."
There is silence for a moment as bowls are passed around and the only sound is spoons scraping servings onto our plates. Sylvie has made quite the meal. There's freshly baked bread with is warm and steaming, a bowl of stewed greens seasoned with pepper and butter, baked yams or potatoes, glazed carrots, and roasted chicken. We pass the bowls around and pile the food on our plates. I haven't seen so much good food in ages. My stomach rumbles as delicious scents hit my nose. I look to those around me to see when it's appropriate to eat. Sylvie and Gale are the only two who haven't any food on their plates. They're both clearly waiting to make sure everyone else has enough. Sylvie passes the food to Gale, trying to get him to serve himself first, but he refuses.
"Ladies first," he insists.
Sylvie looks like she's about to protest, but relents fills her plate before passing the bowls to Gale. I feel a little ashamed that I didn't think of doing the same. Sylvie thanks Gale and lifts her spoon, signaling us all to eat.
There isn't much talking as we all begin. The youngest attack their plates. I'm inclined to do the same, but it seems Cinda is determined to make conversation. She's sitting up straight in her chair and trying her best to appear lady-like. Effie would be proud to have such an eager student. I don't know why, but I suddenly want to show her up. I recall all of my training at the Capitol, holding my silverware daintily, carefully cutting my meat and taking small, pretty bites despite my hunger.
"So, you all are from District 12?" Cinda asked. "What's that like?"
I have to stifle a laugh at the question, "horrible."
"It can't be that bad!" Cinda's eyes are bright. "What's the town like? Do you have a school? Shops?"
And suddenly I feel a little bad. Cinda's probably never had any real friends other than her siblings. She might not even have ever met anyone outside her family. She's probably never been in any other building other than this house.
"Yeah, we do," Gale patiently begins. He indulges the girls with descriptions of the town, but also makes it clear about the hardship. "Twelve is pretty small. We do have a town, but few people can afford to shop there."
"So what do you do for food?" Little May pipes up, looking legitimately concerned.
Gale smiles at her fondly. "We scrounge, hunt, and trade."
"Ohh," she nods, processing the information.
"So that's why so many people want to leave," Cinda nods as she figures it out.
"Yeah," Gale says, "it can be pretty bad. Some districts are worse than others, but Twelve is one of the worst. But not everything is so bad," Gale says, glancing in my direction. I've got a mouthful of chicken and swallow quickly, thinking he wants me to say something. But I don't know what to add.
"No, it's pretty awful." I say, giving Gale a curious look. He only smiles and shakes his head.
"Not always," he disagrees. The smile doesn't leave from his face.
"Did you have families?" Willow asks, looking up from her plate. I think this is the first time I heard her voice.
"Of course," Gale says. "I've got a mom, two little brothers and a little sister."
"And a dad?" Willow continues.
"He died working in the mines. So did Katniss's."
"I'm sorry," Sylvie says.
"It happened a long time ago," Gale remarks, "And lots of people die in the mines in Twelve."
Everyone is awkwardly silent for a minute. I've no idea why I can make it better. "I've got a mom and a little sister too." Everyone turns and looks at me. "My sister's name is Prim. She's about your age," I look at Willow. She blushes as she looks back at me.
For the rest of the meal, the children ask us about life in District Twelve. They are amazed to hear about even the simplest things.
"Now children," Sylvie finally puts a stop to their questions. "We don't want to pester our guests too much."
"No, it's okay," I tell her, feeling much more talkative now that I'm no longer hungry. "They remind me of how we Seam kids talk about the Capitol."
"What's the Capitol?" Glennie asks.
"That's the place everyone in the Districts works for," Gale explains.
Glennie nods, "what's that like?"
"Better ask Katniss that one, I've never been."
All the little faces are suddenly looking to me. "Oh," I begin, "Well, it's very very big and the people have the most amazing clothes…" I search my mind for good things to say about the Capitol to the children but it's hard for me to find anything, so I try to think of neutral things. "Oh, and they have more food than you can imagine."
"Why did you get to go to the Capitol?" Trek asks.
I sense Gale suddenly tense. He didn't mean for the conversation to take this turn. He hardly asks me about the Games, and usually, I'm just as happy not to talk to them.
"Every year," I began carefully, "two children from each district are chosen to go to the Capitol to represent their district."
"Represent them for what?" Trek presses.
I look over at Sylvie, it's clear from her expression that she knows what the Games are. I don't want to say anything too dark to her children. I've no idea what they know. Judging from their faces, not much. "A competition, sort of," I explain.
"Ohh, like a game?" he asks excitedly.
"Yes, very much like a game," I say, "and the winner gets supplies and things for their district and family."
"That sounds awesome," the young boy says. I don't know what else to say, so I only nod. Sylvie is now looking at me with a bit of pity, and I can hardly bare it. The way Cinda is looking at me has also changed, and I think she must have some idea what the Games are too. I'm feeling really uncomfortable and am wishing someone would do something to take the attention away from me.
It's Gale to the rescue, as always. Just as Trek was about to ask another question, Gale cuts him off. "That was an excellent meal, Sylvie. Can I help you clean up?"
I look over at him thankfully and realize his hand is on my thigh, trying to comfort me. I place my hand on top of his and he squeezes it reassuringly.
"Oh, yes, Gale, that would be lovely," Sylvie responds, probably equally happy to change the subject.
"I can help too," I say, this time, sure to remember my manners.
"Thank you so much."
I stay in the kitchen cleaning as long as I can to avoid playing with the children. Once Gale'd helped carry all the dirty dishes to the sink he was pulled away by Glennie and May to play in the living room. Sylvie smiled fondly as she dried the dishes I handed to her, clearly happy to see everyone getting along so well. I smile as I look at her. I can't even imagine what it is she's feeling. But it's good to see a woman who's been so nice to us look happy.
"He's a good man," Sylvie tells me as she grabs a wet mug from my hands. I nod, not sure how I can add to the conversation.
"Yeah, he's the best man I know."
"He loves you," she adds.
I'm not sure what she means by this. I look at her as if she's told me something as plain as the color of the sky. "I know," I respond, meeting her eyes, "he's my best friend. We'd do anything for each other." This time it is Sylvie who nods at me as I hand her another dish.
When there's nothing left to do in the kitchen, Sylvie and I go to the living room. Gale is sitting on the floor playing with the younger kids. May and Glennie are climbing over him and they all have smiles on their faces, even Willow and Cinda who are sitting on the couch nearby.
"Now what is going on in here?" Sylvie says with exaggerated surprise as she enters the room. Her younger children look up to her and try to stifle their giggling.
"I can see that," Sylvie laughs back. Everyone in the room seems so happy, even Willow, who seems so reserved and quiet, is smiling and bouncing the baby on her knee. I feel like an alien here, like they are all part of something I'll never understand. I look around from one beaming face to the next and just can't understand. I try to remember the time I spent with my family, but we were never like this. Not with my mom…my sister…
Little May comes running over to me. "Come play with us too, Katniss!"
"Yeah, play!" Glennie echoes.
"Oh…" I falter, unsure of what to do.
Gale notices my discomfort. "Oh, I'm getting tired," Gale yawned exaggeratedly.
"Yeah," he yawns again, stretching out his long arms and knocking both of the children as he does, "I'm getting sooooo soooo sleepy."
The giggles begin to die down, "No!"
But Sylvie picks up and agrees. "He's right! It's already dark. And I know a couple of short people who are supposed to be in bed."
"No," the little voices chorus.
"Yes, yes," their mother repeats. Sylvie gets up and grabs the baby from Willow. "Cinda dear, and Willow, go grab your stuff from your room, we're going to let our guests sleep in there tonight. I'm sorry," she says, now addressing us, "we don't' have any extra rooms here, so you're going to sleep in the girls' room."
"We don't want to inconvenience anyone," I quickly say.
"Yeah," Gale adds, "we're quite used to the floor."
"Oh, no, they can share my room with me. There's plenty of room in my bed with their father gone." Gale opens his mouth to protest, but Sylvie silences him again. "Let me show you to the room." We get up and follow. "I hope that you two are comfortable in here. There are several blankets on the bed and I've put some night clothes for you on the dresser," she points as she says this, "and the bathroom's right by the porch should you need it." The children scamper past us as Sylvie shows us the room. The younger ones protest as the older ones round them up. Gale and I thank her, and as doors shut around us, we enter the room.
Gale lights the lamp. The room is small. There is one large bed pushed tight against two walls. I figure the three girls can probably sleep comfortably in there. At least while May is still so small. As I look at the bed, I remember when Prim and I shared a bed. That was before she started sleeping in the same bed as my mother. I was always annoyed when she slept with me, but to be honest, I also missed her when she was gone.
"I'll sleep on the floor," Gale says as soon as he sees there's only one bed.
"Don't be silly," I counter. "We've slept next to each other before." Does it make any difference if it's on the floor or in a bed? But as soon as I think it, I realize, for some reason it does.
Gale grabs one blanket and a pillow and makes a little bed for himself on the floor.
"Are you sure?" I ask him one more time.
"Of course," he repeats, "I'm so used to sleep on the floor now anyhow, and I’m more comfortable here anyhow." Gale smiles as he says this and tosses me my sleeping clothes. I barely have enough time to react and just catch them. The smile doesn't leave Gale's face as he turns around and prepares to change. He's pulling off his shirt by the time I realize what he's doing and I also turn to follow suit. Once we're changed, I climb into bed and Gale kneels on his knees, face on level with mine, before he situates himself on the floor.
"You okay, Catnip?"
"Yeah," I say, though I part of me knows I'm lying. But since I don't even understand what it is I'm feeling, there's no point in worrying Gale.
"Alright," he says with an expression I can't quite read. "Good night."