My interview with Seneca Crane is over. The lights are out, the cameras are off, and the audience has long since deserted the studio. My face has been wiped clean from the dramatic make-up that has become an integral part of my act. I know that I should feel relieved at being free from my necessary disguise, had not my body been rendered completely numb in the last two decades by the countless invasive procedures that have kept me from aging, or at this point, even from dying.
I’m older than anyone could possibly imagine, even though it is not so difficult to wonder how for the past forty-five years I have been hosting the Hunger Games without aging one day. I’ve been sliced open countless of times, given skin grafts, polishings, injections and implants to retain my ageless appearance and to ensure continuity in this pageant. There can be no Hunger Games without Caesar Flickerman, and the price I have had to pay for carrying out my job flawlessly was the near complete obliteration of my sense of touch, taste and smell, and an almost perfectly preserved body that is successfully hiding the fact that inside I am slowly, inevitably, and literally dying.
There is so much one can do to keep a heart beating, a lung breathing and a liver…living, even if you are from the Capitol, and the telltale signs of my slow decline have been there of a while. The irregular heartbeats, the erratic trembling of limbs, the coughs that are always taking longer to heal…It takes all my energy to host the Hunger Games for the three or four weeks of continuous showing with my trademark enthusiasm, and it is a very badly kept secret that I spend the following eleven months in near to complete solitude in my mansion on the outskirts of the Capitol, refusing even the most basic social interaction with anyone except the medical team that has practically set up home there. What is instead an extremely well kept secret is that my physical deterioration (and subsequent partial regeneration) is not the only thing that turns me into a hermit for the best part of the year.
I hate the Hunger Games. I hate the Capitol for sending other people’s children to their slaughter. I hate my fellow Capitol citizens for allowing themselves to
become genetically engineered imbeciles who have been so desensitized by the vacant lives that they are made to lead that they are unable to see beyond the light, glamour and show that I so masterfully provide for them. Most of all, I hate myself for failing, year after year, to stop the show that has taken over my life, and has so far kept me from the release of death.
I do not consider myself to be any different from those around me, though I do pride myself on being somewhat smarter than that first class moron, Seneca Crane. I was just as bad as they were, when forty-five years ago, I charmed my way through the audition to host the Hunger Games as a bright, young TV Host in his early days. I was ecstatic for the first few years, and oblivious to the notion that the kids I was interviewing were actually the same ones who would be eviscerating each other on live television just a few days later. It was only after ten years or so, that I started to look at them, really look at them. It was then that I started to notice the thin layer of nervous moisture on the upper lips of the most arrogant of Careers, the uneasy twitch of the self assured underdogs, the terror, often mistaken for negative attitude, of the Tributes of the outlying Districts. I still ignored the gnawing awakening of my conscience for a long time however, and let first indifference, and then resignation, take over.
There was nothing I could do, the Capitol had decreed it so. The Districts had to be reminded not to get out of line again. So I laughed and made people laugh. The Capitol wanted an act, so I performed and innocents died with my inane words echoing in their ears. I am not sure when resignation gave way to insufference. It was so long ago that I can’t remember, but it might have perhaps been during the second Quarter Quell. What I can pinpoint exactly, however, is the moment when insufference turned into horror. This was when the twelve-year-old from 8 won the 63rd edition. He was a sweet, shy boy that all bookmakers had written off immediately, but he had gone to win the Games that year by burning alive the towering Career who he had managed to trap in a snare set up by the usual industrious Tribute from 11. The look on the kid’s face as he looked indifferently at the burning Tribute still haunts my dreams occasionally, even when I try to drug myself into oblivion. That was the only year that we managed to kill all the twenty-four contestants. The winner committed suicide immediately after the Crowning Ceremony.
Annie Cresta’s mental breakdown and ensuing catatonia had then turned my horror into rage, and this is where I am now, raging and hating the Games and desperately trying to find a way to stop them. For the past years, I have wracked my brains trying to find something to cling to, some way to turn the tide, to make them stop watching. I have suggested arenas that were atrocious, costumes that accentuated the innocence of the younger ones, and I tried, time and time again, to downplay as much as I could the vicious persona of the
Careers. Nothing worked however, nothing seemed to get through the blood tinted glasses of the masses. This year however, I have hope. I think I have something to work with, and this faint stirring of hope has the name of Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark from District 12.
Ironically enough, this year’s edition, the 74th, kicked off rather ominously. For the past few months there have been news of discontent in some Districts, nothing too alarming of course, but enough to be noticeable, and to cause an emergency meeting in the presence of President Snow. It had become rather clear to him that the wealthier classes, especially in the outlying Districts, were starting to feel safe and immune from the Reapings, a state of affairs that led him to decide that it was time to remind Panem that no one should have the presumption to believe oneself free from the clutches of the Capitol. A list of Tributes was drawn up, including a lame boy, a Mayor’s son, two twelve-year girls, and countless of merchant children who had never, or hardly ever, made use of the tessarae system.
I cannot say that I was shocked. Nothing really shocks me any longer – my inner contempt has bred so exponentionally that it drives out any other feeling that I can possibly conjure. In fact, having a list of Tributes which is set prior to the Reaping actually works in my favour, since it gives me more time to set the stage for the final interview, gathering information about each Tribute, based on the mandatory file that the District Escort is made to request from each Head Peacekeeper, and on the frantic notes that I ask my assistants to gather during the Training Days.
The system I have established throughout my years as Host is pretty straightforward. Everyone assumes that my interviews go so swimmingly well just because I’m amazing in front of the camera and an expert in making my guests feel at ease. Well, the latter part is true, but only because I would have spent the two weeks preceding such interview rehearsing over and over again with hologramed images of the Tributes and perfecting the questions and answers based on their presumed reactions. My team constantly updates the details in the holograms, taking note of mannerisms, tempers and reactions. Having the details of the Tributes from weeks before thus gave us so much more to work with, and at the time the decision was taken, it provided me with hope that I would be able to find an angle that might actually work. Perhaps if I hadn’t been so excited about it I wouldn’t have unknowingly disclosed President Snow’s decision in front of Effie Trinket, but there is not much to do about that now. Also, she’s such a moron that she problably did not even understand a word I said, let alone processed it under her feathers.
Katniss Everdeen, District 12 Female, caused me some problems with her unprecedented and certainly unexpected, volunteering. I had already made some
headway in the preparation of my interview with her sister, and I suddenly found myself having to restart from zero. The fact that Katniss seems to have the charisma of a boiled clam certainly did not do seem very encouraging to me. In fact, as I watched the Reaping recordings over and over again, I was quite at a loss as to what to do with her.
Peeta Mellark, her District partner, was from the beginning a far, far easier project. His personal file says that he is easy-going, smart and a generally friendly, charming lad. The fact that he is an extremely pleasant looking chap definitely works in his favour as well. Even before his arrival at the Capitol I had already bantered with his hologramed self countless of times, with each interview bringing an improvement on the last as more and more data arrived from his District and was fed into his file. He actually reminds me of a guileless, trustworthy, open version of myself. Caesar Improved, so to speak.
It was obvious from the start that Peeta was going to be my choice this year. He is the one I am banking on to try and make an impact, but I know that even his jokes and charm will not be enough to stir any negative feelings towards the Games. If anything, it might even lead to the Capitol Citizens seeing him as a new hero, the successor to Finnick O’Dair, another success story of the Hunger Games. With each virtual interview I could feel that there was something that was missing, something that seemed to be just beyond my grasp…
And I was lucky enough to have found the missing link during the presentation of the Tributes. On the night, while everyone is mesmerized by Katniss (she seems on fire … the Girl on Fire. I’m bloody brilliant!), I am drawn without knowing to the calm steadiness of her partner. He holds her hand tightly, slightly overwhelmed but still dazzling in his understated way. What draws me to him however, is the unguarded, reckless look of adoration he gives the girl as their chariot rushes in front of the frantic crowd.
This is it. This is what I have been looking for.
“Call Haymitch Abernathy,” I whisper to my personal assistant, Callista.“Tell him to call me after the presentation, using the secure line,” I add, rather unnecessarily. Haymitch and I have spoken on this line often enough, and always in vain, but this time, I am optimistic. Peeta Mellark and Katniss Everdeen might just be the spark I need to ignite the fire.
For the first time in many years, I decide that I am also going to be present for the Training Day. This year, I’m going to be the one taking down notes.
My interview with Katniss goes much better than I expected, but I take no credit for that. All my efforts to engage Katniss were headed towards the forecasted disaster had it not been for Cinna’s spectacular trick with her dress. Her volunteering for her sister would have made a moving story, had it not been for her difficulty to open up and engage the audience.
Peeta, on the other hand, wins everyone from the get go. His reactions to my questions are flawless, and I note with satisfaction that they are surprisingly similar to those provided by his hologramed projection, but his jokes about the showers floor me anyway. This boy is definitely wasted in his father’s bakery. Had he been a Capitol Citizen, he would have been very much on his way towards taking my place.
The audience hangs on to every word he utters, and engages with him on every count. He reacts confidently, his only sign of discomfort being the slight tapping of his foot and the almost imperceptible drumming of his fingers against the seat. He is nervous, and from what I know about him, probably disgusted at the show, but his survival instincts seem to overcome any distaste he must be feeling. He has understood the way to play this game.
Halfway through the interview, I decide that the time has come to set the flame. This is it. I think to myself and change the mood into one of confidentiality, intimacy even, as if Peeta and I were friends.
“So tell me Peeta,” I begin as I look at him carefully, “is there a special girl back home?”
The boy hesitates, and replies with a half hearted shake of the head.
Come on boy. This is not the time to act coy. Easy Caesar … don’t scare him. Lead him to it …
“Handsome lad like you,” I insist with my most appealing smile, “there must be some special girl. Come on, what’s her name?”
Peeta sighs. “Well, there is this one girl, I’ve had a crush on her ever since I can remember,” he replies as he squirms uncomfortably. “But I’m pretty sure she didn’t know I was alive until the Reaping.”
I fight the urge to jump in my seat. That’s it. Here we go…
“Here’s what you do,” I tell him conspirationally. “You win, you go home. She can’t turn you down then, eh?”
Peeta glances sadly at the audience, who has gone completely silent. “I don’t think it’s going to work out. Winning … won’t help in my case,” he replies in a low voice.
Come on lad … out with it.
“Why ever not?” I reply, pretending to be mystified. I could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium.
The boy blushes beet red and stammers. “Because … because … she came here with me.”
Before I can help myself, I sit back with satisfaction and watch the crowd gasp in sympathy. I catch sight of a young man in the front row, his green fringe almost, but not quite covering his eyes, as he automatically reaches for his girlfriend’s hand and looks at Peeta with an expression that I have never seen before in a Hunger Games audience. This young Capitol lad is actually… relating to Peeta. For the first time ever, a Tribute is finally being seen as a fellow human being.
I close my eyes and breathe in before I continue my charade.
I’ve done my part Abernathy. Now it’s up to you.