I awake to the now-familiar sound of Effie knocking on my door. “Rise and shine!” she chimes as always in her high-pitched, overly-cheery capitol cadence. “It’s another big, big, big day!” I dress quickly and head down to breakfast early, hoping to get in a quick word with Haymitch before Katniss arrives.
Haymitch is already at the table, jotting some things down in a notebook. Effie, who had been pouring herself a cup of coffee, joins him.
“Someone’s up early today,” says Haymitch.
“I wanted to talk to you,” I say, sitting down next to him with a plate of food.
“Oh don’t worry, now that we’ll be coaching you and Katniss for interviews separately, we’ll have plenty of time to talk.”
Effie almost spits out her coffee. “Coach separately? Since when?” she demands.
“Shhhh! Katniss doesn’t know yet,” Haymitch says. “Peeta requested it. He has his reasons. I’d tell you why, but you don’t necessarily have a reputation for keeping your mouth shut.”
Ironically, Haymitch’s comment leaves Effie speechless for the first time ever. After he’s said it, he almost looks sorry. “I’ll tell you eventually,” he whispers to her. “Now is just not the right time.”
At that moment Katniss enters the dining room. She looks at us suspiciously for a moment, but shrugs it off and begins serving herself from the spread that’s been laid out. We all eat in silence, and Katniss is still working on her breakfast by the time Effie, Haymitch and I have finished.
“So, what’s going on?” Katniss says. “You’re coaching us on interviews today, right?”
“That’s right,” says Haymitch.
“You don’t have to wait until I’m done,” she says. “I can listen and eat at the same time.”
“Well, there’s been a change of plans. About our current approach,” says Haymitch.
“What’s that?” she asks.
“Peeta has been asked to be coached separately,” he says.
For just a moment, Katniss pauses her chewing. I barely notice it though, because she recovers from the news quickly. “Good,” she says. “So what’s the schedule?”
I’m surprised she took the news so nonchalantly. I was expecting she might glare at me, thinking that maybe I’d requested separate coaching as a way to get back at her or plot against her. Instead, she seems relieved, even glad.
“You’ll each have four hours with Effie for presentation and four with me for content,” Haymitch explains. “You start with Effie, Katniss. Peeta, you’ll be with me.”
After breakfast we split up into our respective pairings. Katniss begrudgingly follows Effie to her room, while Haymitch and I migrate to the sitting room, taking seats across from each other.
“So,” Haymitch begins, “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since our conversation yesterday.”
“Well that’s a surprise,” I say, teasing him the same way he had to me the day before.
Haymitch laughs fakely, then continues. “So you say you want to keep Katniss alive. I think I might know of something you could do to help with that. Something where you’re still involved, but not directly enough to put her at risk, like you were saying.”
“You do?” I say. “I’ll do anything.”
“The Hunger Games is a show,” he says. “The more juicy the content, the better. I know you like Katniss, only a matter of time before everyone else finds out, too. And two tributes in love? Now that’s as juicy as it gets.”
“We’re not in love一” I say.
“Doesn’t matter. As long as the viewers think you are, or you could be, they’ll do crazy things to make sure you stay alive. They want to see the story unfold, not have it end prematurely. See if the guy gets the girl kind of thing.”
“Except I won’t get the girl. Because either one or both of us will be dead.”
“A tragic romance, two star-crossed lovers fighting for their love even if it costs their lives,” Haymitch announces, spelling it out with his hands in the air. “They’ll love it.”
“So what’s your plan?” I ask, confused on how exactly this all fits together.
“Interviews are tomorrow. If the audience finds out that you have feelings for a girl that’s supposed to be your enemy, they can’t help but pay to see more. It’ll be all anyone can talk about. More attention means more sponsors means more money means more life-saving gifts in the middle of all the action. And ultimately, better chances of staying alive. For both of you.”
“And the longer I’m alive, the longer I can help,” I fill in. “But once one of us is gone, it’s all over. Isn’t it? Nothing more for them to cheer for.”
“Exactly. If this works, it’s meant to keep you alive for as long as possible. But once that falls through, it’s up to whoever is left to survive on their own through the rest.”
I consider Haymitch’s plan for a moment. It’s not perfect, of course. Nothing can be. It has its flaws. If one of us dies too early, it’s over. No one will care enough to keep the other alive. If it does work, at least for awhile, it still doesn’t guarantee that Katniss will be the last one standing. And then there’s the slight possibility that we’ll be the only two left, in which case I know I would stand down without a fight, make it easy on her. It could work.
“Okay,” I say finally. “Makes a lot of sense, actually. I suppose it’s easier said than done though, right?”
“Ain’t that the understatement of the century,” Haymitch says, matter-of-factly. “Once you’re in there, everything changes. One mistake, one blink of an eye, and everything you ever thought you knew, anything you ever hoped for, goes up in flames.”
I think of Katniss, everything I’ve ever hoped for, literally going up in flames beside me on the chariot, her hand in mind. But we can never be together. That dream was crushed the moment her sister’s name emerged from that reaping ball. I knew that, though I never allowed my heart to truly feel it. But now I have a new dream. And it’s for Katniss to go home.
“So,” I begin, trying to get this all straight, “does that mean you want us to be allies?”
“Not necessarily,” Haymitch says, clearly expecting this question. “Alliances have to be a mutual decision built on trust and a need for each other. I can’t force you to be allies. That part, I’m afraid, is a decision that rests with Katniss. She needs to feel like she can trust you. And, to be honest, you need to know if you can trust her. She might be so determined to win that she won’t hesitate to drive an arrow into your chest, and a love story isn’t too convincing if she tries to kill you the first chance she gets. No, you need to earn her trust first.”
I nod, taking in Haymitch’s every word. “So, you’re saying don’t be allies in the beginning. But we must be eventually, right? Otherwise how could we be in love if we never see each other?”
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll see each other. The arena is only so big and your paths are bound to cross. But yes, the time will come when you’re stronger together. When you trust each other, like I said. And to build that trust, I suggest you protect her from the outside in the beginning. Keep a close watch on her if you can, distract the others from getting to her, save her or warn her if she’s being attacked. That way she knows you’re on her side.”
I take a deep breath. “I think I can do that.”
“Excellent. Now, back to the topic at hand: interviews,” he claps his hands together, leaning in. I mimic him playfully so our faces are inches apart. He chuckles at my enthusiasm, then leans back in his chair and brings his hand up to stroke his chin stubble. “You’re easy,” he says, smirking. “Katniss, on the other hand, I don’t know what I’m going to do with her.”
“What do you mean ‘I’m easy?’” I ask.
“You’re already who I want you to be for the interviews. I don’t feel like I need to train you to be a certain way so that people like you. They already will.”
I’m taken aback by what I think is my mentor’s first genuine compliment, but I’m half-expecting him to say just kidding and proceed to pick me apart piece by piece.
“Everyone has to have an angle,” he continues. “A certain personality that makes them memorable. For the Careers it’s usually cocky or brutish. Gives them the appearance of an over-confident and savage killing machine, which they usually are, and that always earns them lots of sponsor gifts from people who are betting on them to win. Sometimes the female tributes go for the sexy or girlish image, and a lot of the sicko older guys sponsor them. Other people are just funny or clever or sweet. You, well, you’ll just be you.”
Haymitch takes on the role of the interviewer and asks me a few sample questions. He asks about back home, and I tell him about the bakery and how I like to decorate the cakes. He teases me a bit, doing a rather good impression of my actually interviewer, Caesar Flickerman. So a big, strong guy like you likes to frost flowers onto sponge cake in his freetime? Seems a little delicate for a guy about to go into the arena, wouldn’t you say? I laugh jovially and tease back. Hey, it’s dangerous business. One time I knicked my finger with the pointy part of the frosting tip and it started bleeding. If I can survive that, I’m prepared for whatever they throw at me in the arena.
We practice a mock interview for about half an hour, even though the real thing will only last three minutes. Haymitch reminds me that I have to grab the audience’s attention right from the get-go and keep them hooked to the very end since there’s only so much time to make an impression.
“You’re golden,” he says after he’s asked me every question he can anticipate. “Just be yourself, make them laugh, keep their attention.”
“And what about Katniss?” I ask. “When do I start playing up the “star-crossed loves” thing?”
“Oh, I’d bet my right arm that he’ll give you an opening. You’re a classic heartthrob, there’s one every year. People will be dying to know if you have a girlfriend or a love interest, I’m sure Ceasar will ask,” he says. “And you want to hear the bonus part?”
“What’s that?” I ask.
“You and Katniss, if you haven’t noticed, are pretty much polar opposites, but you compliment each other well, I think. She can do things that you can’t, but the same is true the other way around. We can use you to fill in the gaps that she can’t fill on her own.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“She’s blunt. Unpredictable. Rash. Not particularly friendly. Her interview could really go anywhere. You? You’re likeable, good with words, down-to-earth. Everything that she’s not. If the audience likes you, and you like her, then by the transitive property, the audience will like her, too. Simple math.”
Having finished a little before our four hour time block is up, Haymitch and I help ourselves to lunch and chat for a bit; he tells me a couple funny stories from the interviews during his round of the Games. One girl from District 6 was so nervous that she threw up all over her nice dress. One of the District 8 boys was so caught up in waving to the audience at the beginning of the interview that he didn’t notice that the stage ended, and he fell right off and knocked the cameras over. In my head I’m thinking that Haymitch really shouldn’t be one to talk, since he did almost the exact same thing at the reaping this year.
Katniss joins us after a little while, looking livid. She’s wearing a floor-length dress, no shoes, and a look of pure frustration. We don’t speak much, but judging by the look on her face, she didn’t much enjoy Effie’s presentation lessons. I wonder if Effie will have the same positive impression of me that Haymitch did, or if she’ll spend the whole four hours criticizing the way I walk or how my back isn’t always quite straight.
After lunch, Effie, who didn’t decide to join us to eat, meets me by the door outside my room, looking relieved to see me.
“Oh, thank heavens we’re switching. I thought those four hours would never end,” she says, fanning her face and adjusting her wig. “It’s good to have someone presentable. Come on in, dear, we’ll get you something nice to wear for practice and then we’ll get straight to work!”
She selects an outfit from my closet: a three-piece burgundy and teal suit with a marbled pattern, and shiny teal shoes and a bowtie to match. I feel ridiculous, like a human canvas for modern abstract art, but I remind myself that Portia will be in charge of my outfit for the interviews tomorrow, and I trust her style much more than Effie’s.
She has me practice walking up and down the hall. “Not very light on your feet, are you dear?” She shakes her head. “Here, like this,” she demonstrates by stutting delicately down the hallway. “Pretend like you’re walking on eggshells. Nice and slow, no need to rush. Add a wave, a nice smile. Chin up!” She demonstrates again.
We take it from the top, practicing every moment that the crowd will see me, starting when I walk onstage. I wave, I smile, I give Effie, who is playing the role as Caesar in this moment, a handshake-turned hug.
“Almost perfect!” she says. “Just try not to clobber onto the stage. And definitely do the hug! It’s a nice touch! Oh, they’ll love you,” she’s absolutely giddy. “Okay, now that we’ve done the entrance, let’s work on sitting.”
I had no idea how much there was to learn about sitting. First, Effie emphasizes the importance of the transition from standing to sitting. “Don’t just plop down,” she says. “Be graceful.” She flutters her hands as she demonstrates, as if to represent a bird making a gentle landing. “Now you practice,” she says, gesturing to the open seat next to her.
I stand up and sit down a hundred times until Effie seems pleased. Then we practice sitting positions. Both feet on the floor? No, too tense. Legs spread? No, way too casual. Legs crossed at the ankles? No, too feminine. Effie bustles around me, rearranging my arms and legs and back into the perfect position. We decide on resting the ankle of my right leg on the knee of my left, my hand resting on my propped-up leg, leaning back slightly. So many details I’m sure I won’t be able to remember.
Like Haymitch, Effie asks me a few sample questions and dissects my facial expressions, making sure I smile, furrow my eyebrows, lean in, and nod at all the right moments. Overall, she seems pleased.
“You’re much better at this than Katniss was,” she said. “That girl is a disaster. I can only hope she doesn’t spit in Caesar’s face during her interview.”
That night Haymitch, Effie, and I eat alone. Katniss never comes to the table, but at one point I see two Avoxes walk by with platters filled with all kinds of food, mostly desserts, headed in the direction of her room. We review some of the day’s big takeaways: walk gracefully, smile, be causal but polite, be yourself, laugh, shake Caesar’s hand at the end. Simple stuff. I’m not particularly nervous about the interviews, except for maybe that slight detail of confessing to the whole world my feelings for Katniss.
Near the end of the meal, we hear the sound of plates crashing down the hall. Katniss seems to be having a tantrum in her room, taking her anger out on the fragile dishes. The red-headed Avox rushes to her room, cleaning supplies in toll, and soon the smashing of plates turns into yelling.
“Do you know what’s going on with her?” I ask, concerned. “I mean, did something happen today?”
Haymitch and Effie look at each other. “Well, we may have been a little, erm, harsh on her today,” Haymitch confesses.
“But she did deserve it,” Effie fills in. “She’s so uncompromising. And she nearly ripped her dress!”
“Her personality just isn’t exactly… compatible with what the expectation is,” Haymitch says. “The Capitol likes to see tributes who feel honored or even just the least bit excited to be here. But Katniss, she hates everything about this, and she’s not afraid to let it show. I mean, I agree with her one-hundred percent, but saying those kind of things can get you killed.”
“Well, you have to give her credit,” I say. “She has the courage to say what everyone else is afraid to.”
“She has guts, I’ll give her that. She’s fierce. But it’s a damn good thing you’re around,” Haymitch says to me, “or else there’d be no ice to balance out her fire.”
The entire morning and afternoon of the following day are dedicated to physically prepping us for interviews. Though my prep team doesn’t have to do quite as much deep-cleaning as before, they’re still working for hours so that I look just right. By the time they’re finished, my body is glowing. My face is clean-shaven and my complexion is flawless, with just enough makeup to highlight my features and cover up what’s left of the bruise Haymitch gave me on the train. That seems like so long ago, and yet Haymitch has pulled himself together more than I ever could’ve hoped for. My hair is styled in a swish to the side, and my prep team, finally satisfied with their work, goes to fetch Portia.
Portia enters moments later carrying a garment bag. “You look fabulous,” she says after her first glance at me. “Just wait until you try this on.” She gently removes a suit from the bag and hangs it from the mirror in the middle of the room for me to see. It’s a glossy black tuxedo with red and orange flame detailing on the cuffs and a lapel with the same coloring. “It’s amazing,” I tell Portia. “Thank you.”
The suit looks even better once I’ve put it on. It fits perfectly, clothing me in fiery sophistication. Portia completes the three-piece ensemble with a fire-red tie and a matching pocket square. Once she’s finished brushing off my shoulders, adjusting my collar, buttoning my buttons, and fastening my flame cufflinks, she steps back to admire her work.
“Wow,” she says, unable to think of anything else to say. Looking in the mirror, I’d have to agree, the only way to describe how I look and how I feel right now is wow.
“So, are you ready for your interview?” she asks.
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I say, “especially now that I’m wearing this.”
Portia chuckles, flattered at my admiration. “Are you nervous?” she asks.
“I mean, naturally. I have three minutes to convince a crowd of thousands of people that I’m worth trying to keep alive. The stakes are pretty high, so yes, I’m a little nervous.”
“It’s normal to be nervous, dear,” she says. “Just be yourself. That in itself has been enough to woo every person you’ve met here so far. Don’t overthink it.”
I try my best to honor Portia’s advice and not think too much about tonight. But the thought of what I’ll say, especially if the topic of Katniss comes up, makes my stomach twist. The part that really makes me nervous is how she’ll react. I obviously have never revealed how I feel to her, and yet I’ll be spilling my heart to thousands of complete strangers. Being who she is, I don’t think she will take it lightly. It might even make her hate me, although I feel like she’s getting to that point anyway.
Before I know it, it’s time to go. Portia, the rest of the prep team, and I meet up with the others and head out. My eyes catch on Katniss, who looks stunning in a long flowing gown bejeweled with gems of red, yellow, and white with tiny flecks of blue. Her long dark hair is intricately braided with strands of red intertwined, her face is beautifully accented with dark makeup, and her skin is shimmering as if dusted with gold. Haymitch notices me pause and proceeds to shove me into the elevator.
The interviews will take place in front of the Training Center, where a temporary stage has been constructed. When we get there, the other tributes are lining up, and it’s clear that many of their stylists spared no expense either. Everyone is looking their very best, and you can feel the tension in the room. In a moment when the show begins, all twenty-four of us will come onstage and take our seats in an arc at the back of the stage, behind the two large chairs where Caesar Flickerman and the interviewee will be seated.
Before we’re queued to go on, Haymitch approaches Katniss and I. “Remember, you’re still a happy pair. So act like it,” he whispers harshly under his breath.
Katniss and I give each other fake smiles, but that is the extent of our friendliness. We’re not given much chance for interaction, though, because the next moment I hear music playing and we’re prodded to walk single-file onstage and take out seats.
I walk in line, telling myself, smile, chin up, and I look out over City Circle. I have never seen it so full. The audience is an assembly of exuberant Capitol citizens, cheering so loudly it rattles my eardrums. It’s easy to pick out the special guests. The stylists sit front row, with Portia and Cinna sitting side by side, clapping casually, gentle smiles on their faces. The Gamemakers, who I’m able to recognize from a distance in their long dark purple robes, share a large balcony. Camera crews are scattered everywhere, trying to get every possible angle. Every eye across all of Panem will be watching us tonight.
Caesar Flickerman springs onto the stage, looking as smiley and as sharp as ever. Though he’s been hosting these interviews for over forty years, he doesn’t appear to have aged. His big mouth reveals a sparkling white set of teeth, his face is covered in pale makeup, and his hair is dyed blue along with his lips and eyelids. Any signs of wrinkles or gray hair are erased by the Capitol makeovers. He’s wearing his usual deep blue suit, sparkling with tiny lights so that he resembles the night sky. He’s greeted by tremendous applause, bowing, waving, and blowing kisses to the crowd in response.
“Welcome, everyone to the 74th Annual Hunger Games! Seventy-four years, has it really been that long?” Caesar begins with a few jokes that have the crowd laughing immediately. “And let’s not even talk about how long I’ve been here,” he says. “Definitely much longer than any of our tributes today have been around! Let’s hope that these young folks respect their elders- me, that is- tonight. And now, without further ado, let’s get started! This old man can’t miss his bedtime again.”
Even if you despise the Games and the Capital as a whole, it’s hard not to like Caesar. Ever since I was little, my favorite part of the Games to watch was the interviews. Caesar is always kind to the tributes, no matter what district they’re from, and he likes to help make everyone look good. He knows when to be serious, when to crack a joke, and always asks just the right questions and responds in just the right ways.
We begin promptly with the female tribute from District 1. Everything you need to know about her you can tell just from hearing her name: Glimmer. She’s very pretty, with long blonde hair that falls in voluminous waves past her shoulders, striking green eyes, and a slender body that her stylist clearly wasn’t trying to cover up. Her dress is nearly transparent, showing off her feminine figure, and by the airy way she talks and the showy way she sits, you can tell that she was coached into tantalizing the audience.
District 1’s male tribute, named Marvel, follows. From the training sessions I remember that he, like the rest of the Careers, was very skilled with weapons, especially spears. He comes off as rather arrogant, which I find almost ironic because of his poor grammar and limited vocabulary.
They rattle out the first two tributes quickly, then transition to District 2 with Cato, the brute male tribute and Clove, the feisty female tribute. Both were volunteers and seem very excited for the bloodbath to begin. Districts 3 and 4 flash by without making much of an impact. The red-haired girl from District 5 seems very clever, and when asked by Caesar what her weapon of choice was she responded with “No weapons can match a brain.” District 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 follow, but by that point I’m so nervous for my own interview that I’m barely paying attention. I don’t even realize I’ve been zoning out until they call up Rue from District 11. She looks like an angel, wearing a poofy baby-blue gown with sparkly white wings. The audience awwws as she scampers onstage and takes her seat. She is so tiny that her legs dangle from the interview chair. Caesar compliments her dress and has her giggling immediately, trying to make her feel comfortable and valued, despite being the youngest.
“Rue here received an impressive score of seven in training, and at just twelve years old!” Caesar announces, followed by cheers from the audience. Rue looks away shyly, but seems to be flushed. “Now Rue, tell me, how did you manage that? I wonder if you would be willing to tell us what you would say is your greatest strength in the arena?”
“I’m very hard to catch,” she says proudly. “And if they can’t catch me, they can’t kill me. So don’t count me out.”
“I wouldn’t in a million years,” says Caesar heartfully. “Run fast out there,” he says as he takes her hand to help her out of her seat, raising it to the sky. “Let’s give it up for Rue!” The audience cheers.
Thresh, the massive male District 11 tribute, is up next. He’s very quiet and doesn’t reciprocate much to Caesar’s questions, mostly just answering with one word. His voice is deep and intimidating. I heard rumors that the Careers offered him a spot in their pack after finding out he scored a ten in training, but he rejected them. I’m sure he won’t have much of a problem making it out on his own. I for one certainly wouldn’t want to be the one to go after him.
Katniss, who has been nervously rubbing her sweaty palms on her dress all this time, snaps back into reality when her name is called. She rises steadily from her seat and makes her way to center stage, looking dazed. Caesar eagerly awaits her and shakes her hand. They both take their seats, Caesar smiling from ear to ear and Katniss looking around as if she’s forgotten where she is.
“So, Katniss,” he begins. “The Capitol must be quite a change from District Twelve. What’s impressed you the most since you arrived here?”
Katniss is silent for a moment, as if she’d gone deaf. Finally, she stutters out “The lamb stew.”
“The one with the dried plums?” Caesar asks, laughing, and Katniss nods. “Oh, I eat it by the bucketful.” He turns, concernedly, to the audience, hand resting on his stomach. “It doesn’t show does it?” The crowd objects politely, and I notice as Caesar and the audience laugh, Katniss is taking deep breaths, trying to compose herself. You got this. I coach her in my head, though she has no way of hearing me. Relax.
Caesar quickly transitions to his next question. “Now, Katniss. When you came out in the opening ceremonies, my heart actually stopped.” He says the words slowly, hand on his chest. The crowd hoots in agreement. “What did you think of that costume?”
Katniss searches the crowd, her eyes locking in on the front row, undoubtedly looking for Cinna. “You mean after I got over my fear of being burned alive?” she says, followed by more laughter.
“Yes. Start then,” Caesar urges.
“I thought Cinna was brilliant and it was the most gorgeous costume I’d ever seen and I couldn’t believe I was wearing it.” She glances down at herself, taking the skirt of her dress in her hands. “I can’t believe I’m wearing this, either. I mean, look at it!”
Caesar motions for Katniss to stand up and give a twirl. As she does, her dress catches the light and sparkles like a fame dancing in circles around her. The audience oohs and ahhs, whistles and screams, and I can barely hear him as Caesar urges her to keep going, keep spinning.
Eventually Katniss looks like she’s about to topple over. Caesar catches her, and helps her sit back down. “Don’t worry,” he says. “I’ve got you. Wouldn’t want you following in your mentors footsteps.”
The crowd can’t take it. They’re cackling with laughter and suddenly I see Haymitch’s face on the big screen, looking slightly embarrassed but waving off the comment like a good sport.
Next Caesar begins to ask Katniss about her impressive training score. “E-lev-en,” he pronounces each syllable slowly for dramatic effect. “Give us a hint what happened in there.”
Katniss hesitates, then says “Um… all I can say is, I think it was a first.” I chuckle to myself and the cameras focus on the Gamemakers, who are also laughing and nodding in agreement, but no one besides them and the District 12 team have any idea why. I realize that if I were from any other district, I would be pretty afraid of Katniss. No one wants to mess with someone who can one-up even the Career pack.
“You’re killing us,” Caesar complains. “Details. Details.”
Despite Caesar’s urging, Katniss keeps her composure. “Sorry, my lips are sealed.”
Reluctantly giving up, Caesar continues. “Let’s go back then, to the moment they called your sister’s name at the reaping, and you volunteered.” His voice is softer, compassionate. “Can you tell us about her?”
“Her name’s Prim,” Katniss says, and you can hear the sadness in her voice. “She’s just twelve. And I love her more than anything.”
The crowd is silent, hanging onto Katniss’ every word, sharing in her sorrow.
“What did she say to you?” Caesar asks. “After the reaping?”
Katniss swallows, taking a moment to answer and looking as if she’s holding back tears. “She asks me to try really hard to win.” If at all possible, the audience gets even quieter.
“And what did you say?” Caesar implores gently.
“I swore I would,” she says. But this time, there is no pain in her voice. This time, there is only determination.
“I bet you did,” Caesar says as he leans over to give Katniss and earnest shoulder squeeze. The buzzer sounds, announcing that Katniss’ time is up. I’m next.
“Last but certainly not least, Peeta Mellark! From District Twelve!” Caesar’s voice booms.
I give Katniss a reassuring smile as she returns to her seat and I rise from my own, but she seems too dazed to notice. I make my way towards Caesar, remembering to smile, wave, stand up straight. He greets me with a massive grin, an enthusiastic handshake, and a playful slap on the back. He’s hasn’t even spoken a word to me, and yet he’s already put me at ease.
I take my seat and Caesar takes his, and the audience’s cheers are almost deafening. When the roar of whistles and applause begins to fade, Caesar jumps right in.
“Welcome, Peeta!” boasts Caesar. “It’s a pleasure to meet you!”
“It’s a pleasure to be here,” I return. “I’ve always wanted to meet you in person, and getting to see all this with my own eyes is a much different experience than just watching you on TV back home.”
“Well, the camera does add fifty pounds and the wrinkles are a lot harder see from a distance,” Caesar jokes, and the audience laughs.
“You know that’s not what I meant,” I assure him, chuckling myself. “You’ve always been my favorite Capitol celebrity.”
“Always nice to meet a fan,” Caesar teases. “But enough about me, let’s talk about you! Tell me about back home, District 12. What do you do there? Family of miners?”
“No, actually, my family owns the bakery in town. So I’m personally more partial to bread rather than coal, tastes a lot better in my opinion.”
Cesar cackles. “He hasn’t actually eaten coal folks!” he assures the crowd.
“Well compared to what I’ve been eating the past few days here in the Capitol, the food back home might as well be coal. District 12’s dry ugly drop biscuits even look like it. Actually, I played a bit of a matching game with myself the other day during lunch at the Training Center, matching each bread to its corresponding district. I even noticed some similarities between each district’s bread and its tributes.”
“Oh you have?” Caesar asks, curiousy. “Do tell.”
“Well, since I go last in almost everything else, I’ll start with me,” laughs bubble up from the crowd. “One time, at the bakery back home, I accidently burnt the drop biscuits, they got all black and crumbly. I had a little bit of a flashback to that moment during the tribute parade when Cinna set us on fire, and my first thought was ‘I feel like a lumpy burnt drop biscuit.’”
The crowd gets a kick out of that one, loving my self-deprecation. “Oh trust me, you were the best-looking burnt drop biscuit out there.” The crowd almost loses it. “So what about the other tributes?”
I talk about how District 1’s glittery costumes resembled the star-shaped, gold flecked biscuits of their district. How District 4’s fish-shaped bread had to be inspiration for the slimy sea-green and scaly outfits of its tributes. How the basket-weaved dough from District 9 resembled the delicately woven textiles worn by those tributes during the parade. I talked about how District 11’s bread was a poppy seed crescent roll, resembling the dark and delicate Rue with her even-darker freckles. The flakey and fragile nature of the tiny crescent roll, however, didn’t bear the same resemblance to Thresh, the indestructible giant, I say.
“So,” I conclude, “I think a lot of the stylists really need to offer their respects to the district bakers for all the costume inspiration. We’re the real artists here.”
The camera pans the lineup of stylists sitting in the front row, who seem to have thoroughly enjoyed my assessment.
“So, clearly you know your breads,” Caesar continues. “You’re very observant. What other interesting things have you experienced or noticed during your time here in the Capitol?”
“The showers,” I say immediately.
“The showers… interesting choice,” he asks, amused. “Explain?”
“There’s so many options. Back home a shower consists of some water and a bar of soap. Here? I get my pick of at least fifty different shampoos and lotions and water pressures.”
“Luxurious, aren’t they?”
“I would say so, but I’m a little paranoid of them because I’ve had countless near-death experiences in those things. First I nearly freeze to death, then when I go to adjust the tap I’m almost burned alive, not to mention suffocated by all the strong perfumes. Just the other day I accidently pressed a button and I was surrounded by a cloud of rose-scented mist, and no matter how hard I tried to drown it out with something, you know, manlier, it just wouldn’t go away!” The crowd guffaws as I tell them my tragic shower story. “Tell me, do I still smell like roses?”
Casar looks at the crowd as everyone cheers him on, and he shrugs his shoulders and shamelessly leans in and takes a whiff. “Oof,” he says. “You’re right. I must be even worse though, here, tell me what you think,” he leans in closer, allowing for me to smell his clothes. I breathe in a savory perfume.
“You definitely smell better than I do,” I joke. “I think the rosemary and lavender perfume really suits you.” The crowd burst out laughing, and Caesar is acting slightly embarrassed that I revealed something relatively private about his hygiene routine and choice of body products.
Once the laughter has died down and Caesar regains his composure, I know that a serious question is formulating on his tongue. We’re running out of time, and all that we’ve done so far is joke around about bread and showers. He always likes to end with the crux, something that will leave the crowd hanging. What he asks next is exactly the thing that I was dreading and yet eagerly awaiting this whole time.
“So, Peeta, everyone is dying to know, do you have a girlfriend back home?” His eyes drill into mine, a smirk on his face, as if he’s really figured me out. Haymitch couldn’t have been more right in predicting Caesar’s approach.
I hesitate, then decide to play it off a bit. I shrug and shake my head, my mouth forming in a small disappointed frown.
Caesar looks at me skeptically. “Handsome lad like you. There must be some special girl. C’mon,” He says, nudging me playfully. “What’s her name?”
I let out a sigh. “Well, there is this one girl. I’ve had a crush on ever since I can remember. But I’m pretty sure she didn’t know I was alive until the reaping.”
Maybe she did know who I was, I could tell from the faint flash of recognition in her eyes when we first shook hands at the reaping. But it didn’t matter, because I was nothing to her when she was everything to me. I look down at my hands, folded in my lap, remembering her as a little girl, walking through the school yard with her sister all those years ago. It was the day after that fateful rainy night where I tossed her the burnt bread that gave her family their first scrap of food in days. She looked so happy, so full of hope, so beautiful. Everything that I can no longer feel because of the Games and what they will do to us.
“She have another fellow?” Caesar asks, pitifully.
“I don’t know,” I say, “but a lot of boys like her.” I think of Gale, one of the few people, second only to Prim, that Katniss truly loves.
Caesar looks at me sympathetically, then suddenly perks up. “So, here’s what you do. You win, you go home. She can’t turn you down then eh?” he says encouragingly.
My heart sinks at his comment. “I don’t think it’s going to work out,” I say. “Winning… won’t help in my case.”
“Why ever not?” Caesar asks, perplexed as to how this could be possible.
The blood rushes to my face. Here it goes. The big reveal, the plan falling into place, the stepping stone of strategy. “Because…” I stammer, “because… she came here with me.”Add to favorites