Into the Woods

Chapter Twenty One

Gale is asleep in no time. I can tell because his breathing always changes when he's sleeping. It's deep, rhythmic, and even. Sleep, however, doesn't come so easily for me. The smiling, nice faces swirl around my head and for some reason make me very uneasy. As I close my eyes, I can hear them laughing, and for some reason, I can't help but think they are laughing at me. Their images mix with memories of Prim and my mother. They too are smiling and happy. This should comfort me, but I can't help but think it's because I'm away. They are happier without me. Especially considering my behavior after the Games. I've spent my whole life trying to protect them and part of me thinks the best thing I ever could have done was leave them. They're better off this way, without me. Dark thoughts begin to creep into my mind. Everyone is better off without me, I think. My mom, Prim, Peeta, Haymitch. Gale even too. Poor Gale, I think, he'd be so much better off if he'd never known me. I think about all the pain and grief I've brought him. All the sacrifices he’s had to make because of me. I wonder how his family is doing, how they're making out without him…they've all suffered so much because of me.

I try to calm myself and push these thoughts from my mind. But seeing everyone so happy tonight, seeing a family so happy tonight won't leave me. The image is like a rock in my shoe cutting into my foot, and it gets deeper and deeper and more painful, and I'm not sure why. Shouldn't seeing a happy family be a source of hope or comfort to me? But it's not. Instead it's like a cruel reminder of something I'll never have. Something I'll never want, I remind myself as I find an uneasy sleep.


I'm walking back to my house at the Seam. The small, familiar, cramped but cozy little shack I grew up in. I never liked it much, but home is home, and I sigh a breath of relief as I reach for the door.

"Katniss!" Prim squeals, running up to me as I walk in.

"Hey, little duck," I say, reaching down to pinch her chin.

I throw down my satchel and walk go to the living room.

"Catnip," a familiar voice greets me. As I turn the corner, I see Gale. I smile and move to hug him. But before I can, another voice pipes my name.

"Katniss!" It's Posy. "Come play!" I turn to greet her, about to say I can't, but before I'm able to, I see more and more faces. Vick and Rory are here too. "Hey, Katniss!"

"Hi," I respond with a wondering tone.

"Come play with us, Katniss." The boys cry.

And Posy and Prim echo, "Katniss, come play!"

"What are you all doing here?" I ask to avoid their call.

But no one answers. Instead, I see more and more faces, all calling my name. Our neighbors' kids Sam and Chip. Some of Prim's friends from school. "Katniss," they call, some reach for my hand and pull me. "Katniss, come play!" Glennie and May join, pulling my other hand.

"I'm so sorry, I can't," I say, trying to detach myself from all the eager little hands.

"Why not, Catnip?" Gale is addressing me. There's a disapproving look on his face. He shakes his head as I search for an acceptable answer.

"I…I…" I certainly I have something better to do, I think. I try to explain I have to hunt, or gather food, or cut wood, or clean something, but none of those words will escape my lips. And instead, my mouth just hangs open and I stammer, "I…I…"

"As usual, Katniss, it's all about you," Gale says and turns away to go play with the children. I feel like I've just been stabbed in the heart as I watch him scoop some small blond child up in his arms who I recognize but don't know the name of. They both erupt in laughter.

I try to explain to Gale. "It's not about me, Gale, please! That's not what I meant!" But everyone is busy playing and giggling, and no one can hear me over the uproar. They all look so happy.

Maybe I should go play with them, I think, what's it going to hurt? "Okay," I call with a smile on my face. "I'll play. I'll play with you guys." They still can't seem to hear me. "Prim! Posy!" I say louder as I walk through the crowd of riotous children, "I'll play."

Neither Prim nor Posy react to me.

"You say you want to play?" A blonde figure says, turning around to face me. It's Effie Trinket, and she's dressed even more ridiculously than usual. She gets up off the floor and grabs my arm. "We're so happy you want to play, Katniss," she says as she pulls me out the door.

I stammer and try to find something to say, but I'm so shocked at seeing Effie, I can't find any words. My mind is moving in slow motion, trying to figure out what she is doing here. I will my tongue to say her name, but it is thick and useless in my mouth. "Effie," I choke, "Effie, wait, stop, please, where are we going?"

"Don't be rude, Katniss," she chirps, pulling me along more forcefully. I try hard to wriggle free, but Effie's grip is like a vice. It hurts as I struggle.

"Where are we going?" I repeat.

She stops and looks at me like I'm the most tedious person in the world. "You said you wanted to play, Katniss."

"Well, yes…"

"Come on then, there's no time to waste!" she chirps and resumes dragging me.

I try to ask more questions, but the words just get caught in my throat. Effie drags me down a long, white hallway until we reach a door.

"Where are we going, Effie?" I ask as she throws it open.

"To the Games, of course!" her voice is as bright as ever and she leads me out the door.

"The Games?" I stammer, trying to make sense of it all. "You don't mean…" I ask as I pull away from her again.

"You did say you wanted to play, didn't you?" A man is speaking this time. It takes my eyes a moment to adjust to the light.

My stomach turns to ice and my feet feel as heavy as stones.

It's President Snow.

"No," I say as I try to back away, "no…"

"But, my dear Ms. Everdeen, you said you wanted to play." His thin, cold lips curve into a cruel smile.

"No…" I stammer again and again, trying to back up.

"But Katniss, darling, you volunteered," Effie reminds me in her annoying accent.

"I don't want to go back," I scream as I look for a place to run. "I don't want to go back! I don't want to play! I don't want to play!"

"Katniss, Katniss, Katniss…" Snow and Effie are circling me. "Katniss, Katniss…" I now see Peeta, Cinna, and Haymitch too. They are also calling my name and surrounding me, closing in. "Katniss, Katniss," more and more people are pressing in on me. They sound like a monster hissing.

"I don't want to play," I fall to the ground and curl in to a ball, "please, don't make me go back, I don't want to go back, please, please, please," I sob.

"Katniss."

"No!" I scream as someone grabs me. "Please, no!"

"Katniss, hey, Katniss." This voice sounds different from the others. "Katniss!"

My eyes burst open and I realize it's Gale. I'm in bed back at Sylvie's cabin. "Please, please," I spurt, still trying to shake my nightmare.

"Hey," he pulls me into his arms, and kisses my forehead," it's okay, Catnip, I'm here, I'm here."

"No, Gale, please, I don't want to…"

"You don't have to, not as long as I'm here," He says, holding me tighter.

"No, not the Games, please, no," I continue to sob as Gale rocks me.

"It's okay, it's okay," he strokes my hair.

"I don't want to go back, I don't want to go back. Please, please…I don’t want to play…I don’t want…"

"You don't ever have to. It was just a bad dream, Katniss, you're safe now." Gale says. He takes my face in his hands and tilts it up to look at him. Tears are streaming from my eyes. I want to look away but can't. "Katniss," he says, and looks like he wants to say something more. But I can't bare it so I bury my face in his chest and continue to cry until I fall asleep again.

I finally awake the next morning when the warm light from the window begins to be uncomfortable. I'm on the floor – where I sank into Gale's arms the night before, I remember – and he apparently made me comfortable with extra blankets and pillows. But he's nowhere to be found. I grab a sweater from behind the door, put on some socks, and walk out of the room.

"Katniss," Sylvie says warmly as I walk into the kitchen, "how nice to see you. Did you sleep well?"

I nod and try not to remember my nightmare. "I haven't been sleeping too long, have I?"

"Not at all," she says as she pulls a chair out for me. "In fact, the youngest ones are still asleep too. Gale and I got up around dawn, and Cinda not long thereafter, but the rest are still in bed. What can I get you for breakfast?" She asks as she put on her apron.

"Oh," I can't help but feel really awkward. "Just whatever is easiest. Has Gale already eaten? And Cinda?"

"Yes, they ate together about an hour ago. I made them some potatoes and eggs. Would you like that as well?"

"Yeah," I say, a bit slowly. "That'd be fine."

I try to shake all the sleep from my body as Sylvie serves me food. The potatoes and eggs are well seasoned and quite excellent. I'd forgotten how much I'd liked eggs and make a point of telling Sylvie. "That was really good," I say, wiping my mouth. "I'd almost forgotten what salt and pepper tasted like."

Sylvie smiles at me. I really wonder how she can be so nice. I offer to help do the dishes, but she refused, insisting she can manage. "I had Cinda wash your clothes this morning," she calls to me from the sink, "they are out on the line drying now. They should be done, if you want to check and change. I'm sure you'll be more comfortable in your own clothing. I know I always am."

I look at her thankfully and nod. Sylvie starts to scrub her pots as I head towards the porch to the back. I see Cinda and Willow craning out a window as I walk through the living room. They are both giggling. For a moment I think about asking them what is so funny, but I don't, and when I reach the porch, I realize: they are ogling Gale. He's in the back, shirtless, chopping wood.

He was still wearing the pants Sylvie gave him, and they fit tightly on his muscular form. The shirt was off, however, and I was reminded of how grown up my childhood friend really was. Gale put the ax down for a second and stopped to swipe the sweat of his brow from the mid-morning sun. He was totally unaware of his audience as he reached for the next log to split. For some reason, I'm annoyed by Cinda and Willow's antics. I want to tell them they shouldn't be watching, but since I'm doing the same, I don't know what to say. I don't like the way these girls are looking at my friend though, even if I can't figure out why.

I force myself to stop looking at Gale, and continue through the porch to the back yard where the laundry line is. Both my, Gale's and some of the family's clothes are hanging there. I feel my shirt, and it's still damp.

"They're still wet," I hear Gale call. I turn to look at him. He sets down the ax and walks over to me.

"Yeah, I guess I'm wearing that dress for another day," I say with a bit of a frown.

Gale laughs. "At least it fits you!" he say, fidgeting with his pants uncomfortably. Gale looks at me and his smile flickers. "Are you okay today?" His tone suddenly becomes more serious.

I look away, not really sure how to explain, not sure how to make Gale understand when I'm not quite sure if I understand myself. I nod and try to smile reassuringly. Images from my nightmare come rushing back to me, and I shudder as I try to fight them off.

Gale looks me up and down questioningly. "Well, just let me know if you want to talk."

I nod thankfully and can't think of anything else to say. I'd rather not think or talk about it, so I change the subject. "Need any help?"

"You can stack up the logs I've already chopped," Gale says, "Sylvie's got a wood rack on the side of the house."

"Great," I return, "let me go change."

"Into your dress?" His eyes sparkle as he says them.

Why on earth would I wear my dress to work? I think incredulously. "Of course not," I say genuinely. But as I look at Gale, I can see he wasn't being serious. He smiles at me and shakes his head the way he always does when I don't understand something.

"Too bad," he says, turning to walk away.

I'm still not sure what he meant, but I go inside and ask Sylvie if she has any clothes for me to work in. She gives me an old shirt that has a few tears in it but with serve just fine for doing chores and another pair of her husband's pants. There are far too big for me, and I have to wrap a piece of cord around myself twice to hold them up.

It's nice to be busy. Gale and I busy ourselves for the rest of the day. After chopping a fair amount of wood, I stack it all and collect kindling. Gale climbs to the roof and repairs some of her shingles in the afternoon and I clean the gutters. Trek comes out to join us, and seems eager to learn from Gale. Gale seems equally happy to have a student and enjoys teaching the child how to measure, cut, and install the new roofing.

By the time we've finished, it's time for lunch. Gale is a sweaty mess and I'm not much better as I'm covered with gutter gook. We try to wash up a bit before the food. Cinda kindly brings out a big pan of warm water and soap for us. I take to scrubbing my hands and nails as she stands by holding towels and watching us. Well, not us, but Gale. I look up at her and her eyes are glued. Gale's taking one of the sponges and passing over his strong arms. The water runs in little rivers down his muscles. He cups his hands and splashes water on his face and over his head and shakes it off. I feel like he's moving in slow motion. My first impulse is to roll my eyes and chastise Cinda for being so silly. Her behavior reminds me of the rich town girls who sometimes watched the young Seam men working. I always used to hate those girls. I hated their behavior, objectifying people that way, reducing them to nothing but a toy to be used for their own pleasure. Exactly the same thing the Capitol does to all the district people. But those thoughts don't hit me today. I don't want to rebuke Cinda, I don't think of being exploited by the Capitol. For the first time, I understand why they all want to watch: it's fun. For the first time, Gale's incredible body doesn't mean how hard a life he's had or how much work he can do. For the first time, I notice that it is beautiful. And something warm shivers inside of me. My face feels warm, and I think I might be blushing. I sheepishly turn away and aggressively start scrubbing my hands.

I should not be thinking about my best friend this way, I tell myself, especially since he'd never think about me this way…I look down self-consciously at my oversized pants and the large shirt with the rip across the stomach and in the arm pit. Cinda is wearing another nice and simple dress. It fits her well and even though she's probably a bit younger than me, she looks more womanly.

"I'm going to go change," I say before I realize what I'm doing. Gale stops and looks up at me curiously. "These are pretty dirty." I gesture at my outfit and leave before I do anything else awkward. I hurry to the room and put on the dress I was wearing the night before. As I look at myself in the mirror, I wonder what on earth I'm doing and fiddle with my hair. I'm not sure I look any better or feel any more comfortable. I huff frustrated and throw it back in my usually braid. I nearly run into Gale as I march of the room. "Sorry," I stammer as I see him.

"No worries. I brought you your clothes, I didn't know if you wanted to wear them. They are just about dry now," he holds up my shirt and pants.

"Oh," I realize I probably should be wearing them. "Thanks. I…I'm already changed, so….the dress suits me fine."

"It does." He smiles and turns to let me pass in front of him and follows me into the kitchen.

Sylvie's made some fresh bread and soup. It's been so long since I've had soft bread, I scarf it down. I'd forgotten how good bread was. The children squabble and chatter around the table, and Sylvie thanks us for helping out.

"It's no problem," Gale responds, "if you want to make a list of other things you need done, I'll do what I can over the next few days."

"Oh, thank you so much!" Sylvie seems legitimately excited at the prospect. "My husband Cott's been gone awhile now, and I know when he gets back, he'll be too tired to do anything for the first few says."

"Just tell me what you need done," Gale says in between bites, "it's the least we can do for you after everything you've done for us."

"Well, there isn't too much more to be done," Sylvie says, folding her napkin in her lap, "unless you like to hunt…."

My eyes shoot up and meet Gale's. His look as excited as mine. We both smile. "Sylvie," Gale says, "you're in luck, Katniss here," he reaches over and touches my hand, "is the best hunter I've ever seen." I look away and blush as he says this, "tomorrow, we'll get you more game to feed you and your family for a whole season."


Gale and I rise early the next morning. I put on my own clothes and my old hunting boots feel good on my feet. As I grab my bow and head out the door, I feel myself again.

"Which way, Ms. Everdeen?"

"I don't know," I say as we walk out the door. The world is so full of possibility. I survey the landscape around me. There is a thin layer of mist blanketing the green world. The sun isn't visible yet, but it's growing light. "What do you think?"

Gale is smiling. "Last night, I saw a few deer at the edge of the garden. Sylvie sent Trek out to shoo them away. I'm game for tracking down a buck, if you are."

"Please," I playfully nudge him and accept the challenge and start walking towards the trees behind the garden.

"Katniss."

"What?"

"The deer went that way." Gale smirks as he points away from the vegetable patch.

"Oh." I try not to sound like he's bested me.

Gale is right about the deer. We find several fresh footprints and follow their tracks into the woods, looking for prints and broken branches to guide us. It isn't too long until we find some of their scat.

"Pretty fresh," I say, examining it. Gale pokes it with a stick and nods.

"We can't be too far behind them. Maybe an hour or two?"

"Yeah, as long as they aren't still running."

"Doubt it. They probably stopped to sleep somewhere along the way."

We resume our tracking. If I let myself, I can almost think I'm back in the woods around District Twelve. These woods aren't quite the same. They're rockier and hillier, but, if I don't look too hard, it's like being back at home. I never thought thinking of Twelve would be a source of comfort to me, but, strangely, it is. As we make our way into the woods, memories come flooding back to me.

"Do you remember that time," I start to laugh so hard I have a hard time talking. Gale throws me a quizzical glance. He thinks I've gone mad, but I keep laughing, "do you remember…when you…got…"

"Katinss – “he knows where I'm going and doesn't think it's funny. "You're going to scare off the animals," he tries to stop me.

"Got sprayed by the skunk?" I almost snort as I say it.

Gale's face remembers and tells me he doesn't think it's as amusing as I do.

"You tracked it for like four miles…thought it was a wild dog or something?"

"I was young!"

"And followed the tracks into a tree hollow." I keep laughing. "Why on earth did you think a dog would be sleeping in a tree hollow?"

Gale is shaking his head. "It isn't funny. I took me over a week to get rid of that stench!"

"I remember."

"My mom made me sleep outside! And she never got the stink out of my clothes. I had to wear them for another six months smelling that way."

"Haha, yeah, I remember. I think I was the only person who'd talk to you."

"Just about," Gale scowls.

"Come on, it wasn't so bad." But I can tell Gale isn't totally over this incident and don't press him too much further even though a few more laughs escape my lips. "Well, at least your learned your lesson about sticking your hands in dark holes."

Gale sighs deeply. I can tell he's not amused. "Not like you're so perfect yourself, you know. I can't even remember all of the scrapes you've gotten yourself into."

"But at least I've never been sprayed by a skunk!" I laugh again.

"No, but you've nearly drowned. Twice I think. You've fallen out of more trees than I can count. Didn't you get bit by a goose once?"

"Yeah," I sheepishly admit. "But that was a mean goose!"

"And there was that time you shot down a bee's nest."

"Ohh, yeah, that wasn't good."

"No," Gale says, "it wasn't. I think I still have scars."

"Hey, I never asked you to play the hero!" I remember how Gale's body reacted when my arrow hit the large nest. He moved so quickly I didn't even see it land. He grabbed me and threw me against a tree, pressing his body tightly against mine. He didn't move until the sound of the angry insects died down. And when I did, I saw that he'd be stung at least a hundred times. His back, his neck, his arms, his legs. I'd only been stung a few negligible times, but he, he was in pain. I threw his arm over my shoulder and helped him back to my mother. She spent three hours pulling the stingers out of his skin. He was lucky, she told me, that they were bees and not wasps or hornets. Their stings contain venom. If he'd been stung that many times with venom…. "You didn't have to shield me," I insist.

"Instinct, I guess," Gale says like it was no big deal. But I know it was. I remember how he laid on my mom's table for two days. I remember helping her apply the salve to his back. Him writhing in pain while he slept.

"Well, thanks for that."

"Don't mention it, Catnip."

"Seriously," I say turning to face him, "you're always there for me." My words are almost a question.

"Someone's got to look out for you." Gale says without stopping, so I reach out and grab him. My eyes pull at his. He smiles, "I was really hoping Haymitch would take over. But here I am." I can tell Gale is making a joke to avoid something serious.

"I guess I just can't help but get myself into trouble."

"Well, I guess I just can't help but try and get you out of it." He brings his hand to mind and squeezes it reassuringly. "Come on, we don't want those deer to get too far ahead of us."

Luckily, the deer are pretty easy to track. Since it rained only a few days ago, the earth is still wet enough in some places to reveal their tracks. We continue on well into the morning. The sun is getting high and hot. We've been gone for nearly four hours, I estimate, and when we come upon a small stream, we stop for a snack. Gale pulls an apple out of his sack and begins to cut it as I fill our water bottle. I take a long drink and then trade it off to him for an apple half. We munch in silence. Gale is starting off into the distance, something deep is working in his mind.

"What are you thinking about?" I say with a small smile.

He shakes the thoughts from his head and throws the last hunk of apple into his mouth before responding. "Oh, nothing."

"What?"

"I was just thinking," he pauses, "how nice this is."

"Yeah, just like the old days. Never thought I'd think fondly of them but – "

"I wasn't thinking of the past."

"Oh?" I don't follow him.

"I was thinking…." He chooses his words carefully, "I could get used to this."

"What do you mean?"

"This," he gestures around him, "this life."

"Gale, this is exactly the same life we had back in Twelve. Hunting out in the woods, only" I start to see where he's going with this, "there's no fear of the Capitol out here."

"Exactly."

"So this is how you want to spend the rest of your life?"

"I could do it." His tone is more serious than mine. He meets my gaze. "You know I could."

And I remember a conversation he and I had about a year ago. When we were out hunting in a forest very similar to this. Gale's words come rushing back to me.

…We could do it, you know…Run off, live in the woods, you and I, we could make it…

For a moment, I wonder what would have happened if I'd said yes to him. I wonder what would have happened between us, where our lives would have taken us. But then I remember: if I'd said yes to him, there would have been no one to volunteer for Prim. That she would have gone into the Games. That she would have died in the Games.

There is no use in wasting yourself on what ifs and wishes. That's one of the few things I know for sure. I didn't go with Gale. I couldn't. I couldn't leave my family. And I didn't want one of my own.

But that was before…

I shut that thought down before it even starts. "I think this would be a great life for you, Gale." I touch my friend's arm tenderly.

"And not for you?"

"I don't think much about the future beyond tomorrow."

"Katniss, don't you ever let yourself hope for something better?"

"What's the point in that? I don't need more disappointment in my life."

"Katniss –”

"We're two kids from Twelve, Gale, I'll be happy if I can eat at least once a day for the rest of my life."

"But we're changing things! Come on, Katniss, why do you think we're out here!? Trying to get to Thirteen!" He jumps up, passionately, and he's speaking in that same tone he always takes when he rants about the Capitol. But he calms himself after a moment. "And anyway, we're not always going to be kids."

I'm not sure where he's going with this. But this is one of the chief differences between Gale and me. No one would guess it, but he’s a dreamer. He does think of the future. He does want something better. These dreams were what gave him the energy, the motivation, to hate the Capitol so much, which was something I never had. My ire for the Capitol revolved around how they interfered with my life on a day to day basis. It was never about principles for me, like it was with Gale, only practicality.

Gale looks at me. He's upset, and I don't want him to be. "I guess I just never thought I'd have a life to call my own," I offer him. "But maybe I can." I try to sound hopeful for Gale's sake.

"Sure you can, Catnip. Doesn't seeing Sylvie remind you of that?"

"You like staying with her." It's half a question.

"I do," he confesses.

"Because it reminds you of your family?"

"Not exactly."

"No?"

"I guess it reminds me…" he chooses his words carefully, "of the family I could have."

Gale is looking at me intently and I have to stop myself from rolling my eyes. I'm again taken back to the day of the reaping, when we were together in the woods. I remember thinking:

If Gale wants kids, he won't have any trouble finding a wife.

And for some reason, that thought bothers me now.

"I know, Katniss," he seems to sense my mood, "you don't want any kids."

I'd probably told Gale that about a thousand times, but I'd never told him this: "I always thought I'd have to have them, though."

"Really?"

"Oh, I'd try and avoid it for as long as possible, don't get me wrong. But I guess I'd have to in the end. That is, if I could find someone who'd have me."

"I'm sure you'd have no problems there."

"Please," I say a bit exaggeratedly. "I'm the town weirdo, remember? That strange girl who doesn't always bathe regularly and doesn't like to talk to people. I think most people were afraid of me."

"I don't think so," Gale disagrees.

"Anyway," I shift uncomfortably as I say if, "I probably just would have made you marry me."

"Really?" he says with a bit of a laugh.

"Well, I already know you." We're moving into awkward territory now. I'm not quite sure what to say. "But you'd probably marry someone else."

"Why do you think that?"

"Because," I wave my hand at him like it's so obvious. "You're…you!"

"I am." He doesn't get what I mean.

"All the girls liked you."

"Doesn't mean I liked them." He's said this to me before.

"Well, I'm sure one caught your eye over the years."

"One sure did," he says, looking at me intently.

For the first time I start to wonder if Gale means me. Our relationship has been non-romantic for so long, I've always assumed that he feels nothing for me other than platonic friendship. But then again, he's done a lot for me. A lot more than most friends would do for each other. Of course, Gale's and my friendship isn't like most peoples. But still, if he liked me in some capacity beyond that, wouldn't he have done something by now? We've been alone all this time…And am I even certain I like him that way? Or do I just like the way he looks? I'm so bad at figuring out what I want.

All these thoughts spinning around my head are starting to make me feel dizzy.

"Are you okay, Katniss?" Gale looks a bit concerned. I must have a funny look on my face.

"Oh," I try and recover, "just thinking about all of that. Marriage. Family. Kids…still not sure I'm sold on the whole thing."

"Come on, you don't want a little Katniss running around?"

"I especially don't want a little Katniss running around. What a nightmare that would be." We both laugh. "But I don't know," I say after a long pause.

"Don't know what?"

Gale looks at me, face punctuated with a question mark, so I continue. "I mean, I don't know. I never wanted kids because I couldn't imagine bringing children into our world. Into the district, to the reapings. But if you're right, if that is about to change, if it is possible to live away from all that like Sylive does, maybe I should reconsider things…" I can't quite read the expression Gale is giving me. "Don't get me wrong, Hawthorne, I'm not completely sold on the whole giving birth and diapers things, but…"

My words hang in the air and I wonder if Gale is feeling as awkward as I am. I feel like I've got a lot of stuff to figure out and crinkle my brow. Gale's looking at me like he's trying to read me and I wish I were half as good at reading him. Could he really like me? Or is he just being a good friend? Why on Earth are we talking about having kids and a family…Guys tells girls if they like them, right? That's what Peeta did. And he did it a lot. Of course, it took him several years to muster up the courage to do it. And only once we were faced with certain death...

This sort of stuff is not my sort of game. I can't imagine how most girls my age survive if this is all they think about. I'd go insane. Best not to dwell on it too much, I tell myself, especially when there is so much other stuff more important to worry about. Like dinner.

"Come on, Gale," I say getting up, "we don't want the food to get too far away from us."

He smiles and agrees, and we silently resume our hunt.

We pick up our speed to make up for the time lost at lunch. After another hour, we find some more scat and it looks very fresh. Gale thinks we're getting close. Not long after we found their beds.

"Still warm," Gale said, pressing his hand to the indented dirt. "They were here not too long ago."

"Something must have scared them off," I say.

"Yeah. We may have competition."

We follow their tracks northwards. When it's clear they slowed from a run we figure they passed whatever spooked them and probably found a place to sleep again.

"They're probably nesting close by," I say, leaning against a tall oak tree.

"Perhaps."

"Remember how we got that buck that one time?" My eyes sparkle as I remember.

"Which time?"

"Come on, Gale," I playfully nudge him, "It's not like we downed that many bucks in our day."

"We've caught a few."

"Okay," I relent, "remember that time you called to scare them off and I was up in the tree to shoot them down?"

Gale nods.

I gesture towards the large tree I'm leaning against.

"That could probably work," he says, "just be careful up there."

"I'm always careful!"

"And still you fall."

"Only like twice!" I defend.

"You've fallen out of more trees than you've shot bucks."

I make an unhappy noise, but I know he's right. "I'll be careful," I say. Gale looks at me dubiously. "I promise."

He nods. I'm not really sure if he believes me or if he knows that there's no point in arguing with me. "You better be," he says, "because if I have to choose between lugging your ass back or the bucks', I'm choosing his."

"Ha ha," I say in mock laughter and start up the tree. This oak is huge and will defiantly give me a great vantage point over the surrounding area. If the deer are sleeping anywhere within a mile of here, I'll see them. Once I'm in the top of the tree, I call down to Gale, to tell him I'm ready. I'm so high up, I can just barely make out his thumbs up gesture before he starts walking off.

To my right, the forest begins to thin and the ground gets pretty rocky. I can see a few giant boulders that slice through the forest and beyond that, the ground splits open into a small cavern or something. To my left, the trees continue, and I figure that's where the deer probably are. I realize I'm right when I see Gale following some tracks in that direction. He goes a few hundred meters before he stops and makes a loud howling call. Sounds just like a wild dog. Definitely enough to scare any wild animal off. A few birds fly off, but I don't see anything else move. Nothing does. Gale makes the call again. It echoes throughout the woods. My eyes quickly scan all the area around me. And then I see it, to the far left, the green begins to waver. I see a flash of brown, then another. The deer are running. They start sprinting to my right and it takes me a few moments to adjust my aim. They're surrounded by a lot of underbrush right now. My visibility on them is poor, and I question how to make the hit. But then I realize, they are heading towards the rocks. There, the plant growth thins. If I can just wait for them to get there, I'll have a clear shot. I aim my bow in that direction and wait. In only a few seconds, the deer family is visible. First, two does appear, slowing a bit when they hit the rocky ground. When the buck appears, I'm ready. I lose my string and in an instant, the great animal falls. The others are so startled by this they scatter. I quickly restring my bow to see if I'll need another, but the animal is down for good. I call down to Gale triumphantly as I scamper down the tree. He says something I can't quite make out, but he's at the base of the tree before I am.

"I got him, Gale! I got him!" I scream as I just from a branch about fifteen feet from the ground. Gale reaches out to try and catch me.

"Be careful!" He says as he sort of catches me and I sort of land on him. "God, Katniss!"

"Gale," I say, to jubilant to heed his warnings, "I got him!"

"I heard," he says, brushing himself off. But when he sees how happy I am, he congratulates me, "I knew you would. Which direction'd they go in?"

"This way," I point and eagerly start towards the rocks.

I'm nearly running, calling back to Gale to speed up. He's walking along, still studying the ground as if we're tracking the animal. "Come on, Gale!" but he doesn't listen or look up at me. "I know where the animal is."

In a few minutes we reach the clearing. I stop and wait for Gale to catch up with me. "See," I tell him triumphantly. The large deer is lying dead with one of my arrows through his eye on the rocky outcrop. "A perfect shot," I say with a smile. "And good timing too," I say smugly, "if I'd waited, he could have fallen into that chasm." It's lying only a few yards to our left. If I hadn't killed the buck instantly, he might have stumbled down there. And then where'd we be?

"Katniss," I hear him say as I walk to retrieve my arrow. I expect to hear some congratulation, laud me for my job well done. But I don't.

Instead, Gale screams, "Katniss, look out!" There is panic in his voice, and before I know what's happening, I feel Gale run into me, pushing me several feet to the side. I hit the ground hard, and it takes me a moment to recover myself.

"What the hell was that for, Gale?" I ask unhappily as I push myself up. He doesn't respond, and when I look up, I realize why.

The air cracks with a savage roar, and by the time my eyes have found my best friend, all I see is his body attacking the figure of a large mountain lion. And both are tumbling over the edge of the cliff.


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