The Arena: Masks
I learned Teddy’s mother couldn’t come to the Games. She had some kind of flu and was too sick to travel, which means the last time she saw him was at the reaping, if she was even healthy enough for that.
She’s a kind woman, one whom I’ve only ever spoken to maybe a few times throughout my years here. She won the 67th Games. It was a big deal at the time. An outer district winning is always a big deal but it’s quickly forgotten when the Capitol doesn’t find the Victor as interesting as others.
“What an unfortunate end to a potentially fantastic partnership,” Caesar says brightly, his eyes burning into the screen as if he’s staring right at me, “Basil Mellark is proving quite a firecracker, just like his mother. Let’s hope that attitude keeps him alive.” And I know the threat beneath the kindness telling me not to do anything stupid in my interview, not to make it worse for my children.
“But,” Caesar remarks with a wide smile, “that brings us to the top eight. And what a top eight it is, don’t you agree Claudius?”
Claudius and Caesar continue on their assessment of how the games are going so far and already I can hear it in their voices, this is an exciting one, this is a popular one, this is one that the Capitol and Panem are going to remember for a while. There will be highlights, the Victor is going to be sold, I can see it so clearly as if the path is laid out for me to take. And maybe once upon a time it was my path. If Peeta had died, if it had just been me, my Games may not have been as memorable, but I would have been.
And it could be my daughter or my son who has to face that path now. But the truth is I don’t want it to be either of them if there’s no way out. It would be a mercy if they didn’t survive given what the future holds.
I look at Finnick and I know what the Capitol has done and I didn’t want to see it, I never wanted to know the truth, but deep down I always knew. I saw. I saw the sponsors come in, the Victors brought out by an escort. I saw that look they brought back with them. And they all had it, no matter which district they came from, no matter how much they pretended they liked the attention, they all had the same look. They all shared the same vacant stare even as they tried to focus on their tribute, the same shaking hands, the same chewing lip or picking of their cuticles until they bled.
Bas had said we can win and I want to believe him. I want to believe that look in his eyes more than any haunted look I’ve seen before, more than my own look or knowledge that we can’t. That everything I do, anything I say, it’ll all be paid back by the Capitol with interest.
And President Snow said Twelve was stopping production, they were starting to fight without my words, without me doing anything. Maybe they got tired of waiting. Maybe other districts got tired too. Maybe they’re taking matters into their own hands.
But it doesn’t matter if it was their decision or not, President Snow will only see me and my influence, my children’s influence. And I have to make sure my interview makes it clear that it has to stop, that I have nothing to do with this, that the Capitol keeps us safe.
Or I can tell the truth, but that’s not an option. That’s never been an option.
“We have an interview to prepare for,” Haymitch interjects.
“After that?” Peeta asks.
“After that,” Haymitch repeats, “Everything is good. Everything is normal.”
“Top eight is good. You’ll be able to send them more,” Effie says, her voice quiet, her eyes watching the screen and she’s shaken up by everything.
Good. I can’t help but think. Maybe she isn’t the only one.
And I don’t think like this. I haven’t thought like this in years, but it feels good. It feels great. And I’ve spent so long burying my anger, so long trying to hide, and I can’t anymore. But even with that anger I won’t add to the fire. My children are still in the arena, they can still pay for my words. And I won’t let them, even if Bas may have already done it for me.
“Yeah I’m sure Snow loves that they’re in the top eight,” Johanna calls.
“Johanna,” Finnick warns. Annie watches him and his eyes stare down Johanna. And he looks genuinely threatening even without a trident in his hand. She backs off. Annie returns to watching her screen.
Beetee goes to the table and picks up a piece of bread. Haymitch watches him and looks back at Johanna who does the same thing.
They’ve been doing this dance since the games started. One of them going to the table, leaving the table, taking one piece of bread, taking two, and the others watch. Peeta does too. And I know he’s thinking the same as me. That there’s more to it than hungry mentors.
“We need to get you ready for your interview,” Effie says to me, breaking my concentration from the table. Effie starts to lead me and Peeta out of the room. We’ve never been in the top eight before I’ve never had to do this part.
“Good luck,” Johanna calls, “Don’t say anything stupid.”
I turn back to the screens, “Haymitch make sure…”
“You got it, sweetheart,” he says giving me a thumbs up, taking a seat beside Annie.
She says something quietly to Finnick. He nods and follows us out for his own interview, though his eyes drag back to the screen like he’s hoping he can take it with him. Peeta and I have always been a pair in interviews and it would be a disappointment to the Capitol if we were to suddenly change that habit. Especially now in these Games when both of our children are in the top eight. Thankfully, Haymitch is here, there were some years where he wasn’t. But we’ve never been in the top eight, so this is new.
Finnick is the mentor interviewee for Beck. Cashmere chooses to take the interview for Emery. Gloss won’t move from his seat in front of his screen. His daughter’s face plastered on it, his hands locked in a prayer position.
Cashmere plays it off like he’s concentrating, like he’s strategizing, but I know the truth. I recognize that look and I wonder how many layers he lives under, if it’s more than me or less. I wonder what kinds of Hell the Capitol has put him through over the years and what acts he’s played. What acts Cashmere has had to play as well. And I’ve seen the look of a victor being sold on her eyes, but she’s better at hiding it than the others. And maybe it was the fact that most of their tributes usually killed mine but I’d never had much sympathy for the Careers.
But all of a sudden it isn’t as easy to hate the Careers for being the Careers. At least not Cashmere and Gloss. Brutus and Roman still irk me. And the pair of them are laughing and celebrating their children being in the top eight, as if they had expected anything less.
Stone’s father has been pretending to be annoyed that his son was weak and stupid. And maybe he’s not pretending. Maybe he was proud that his son was here, maybe he’s angry that his son is dead but for reasons that are different than Johanna’s.
And in a lot of ways Grover was her son, but she won’t talk about it, she won’t say anything. She can’t even look at her screen, which now shows what the regular audience of Panem gets to see. Every so often some Capitol bred assistant, who’s probably hoping to become a Gamemaker, will come in and hand a card to one of the mentors who have lost their tributes and that mentor will leave and come back an hour later with tear stained cheeks and red eyes, but never Johanna, they don’t come for her.
I’ve never gotten the privilege of saying goodbye to my tributes, not like others. That’s what the card is. An invitation, a reminder, that you’re doing what the Capitol wants you to. And in doing so you get the honor of a final farewell before the dead tribute is shipped back home to be given the funeral of their district. And I’ve never been able to do it. Not that I think I could face the dead, especially the dead that I’m responsible for not being able to save, but still, the invitation has never come.
And it won’t for Johanna. It won’t for Finnick. It won’t for anyone the Capitol doesn’t deem worthy enough for one. The one’s they think are dangerous, who don’t listen, they don’t get to say goodbye.
I take one last look at my screens. Seeing my children together brings me some hope, some peace. And that final look is over too quickly as Effie leads me and Peeta out with the other mentors and escorts, the doors sliding shut behind us.
The interview takes place on the stage in the tribute center. We never really leave this building even as mentors, unless it’s to go see a sponsor or get certain things settled for our tributes. In a lot of ways I’ve grown and lived and will die in this building.
We are guided down a long hallway past a room with a metal door. There’s a cold breeze coming from it and a chill raises goosebumps on my arms. The man from ten steps out of it, shaking and pale, and I know what that room is. I’ve never seen inside it, I’ve never been invited, but I know what that room holds. The dead.
I keep watching the man from ten as he’s escorted back towards the elevator. Why do they take us down this hallway? Why make us see this and know that it’s there?
And I could spend years asking why. I have spent years on it. The answer is always the same. Because they can. President Snow can and will keep you in your place for as long as he is alive. And when he dies someone else will do the same. I’m their puppet, we’re all their puppets, and they will break us and remake us and use us until we are gone.
My tributes were in that room. And no one came to say goodbye to them, no one cared for them in their last moments. Not like I did for Rue. And it’s all coming back now. The flowers. The song. And I buried it away, I locked that memory where it couldn’t hurt me anymore, but it’s back. And I see her face. I hear her voice. I hear the mockingjays.
Did anyone come to see her in that room? Or was I the only one to say goodbye? To remind people that she was a person who should be missed.
“Katniss,” Peeta’s voice cuts through the fog and I realize I’m still staring at the metal door.
“I know what it is,” he answers before I can tell him. His arm loops around mine and we walk together towards a waiting Effie at the end of the hall, her heels clicking on the floor in an impatient rhythm.
“I’m sure they’re just walking us past it to remind us what the Games mean,” he says in a steady voice.
“Yeah, I’m sure they are. Reminding us that they kill children to prove a point.” I feel a squeeze on my arm.
“And that those children are there because of a war long ago, and that we do this, because it’s necessary,” he keeps speaking in the steady voice and it’s frightening how calm he can be when I feel my stomach in knots.
“What do you think we should talk about in the interview?” I ask.
“Whatever keeps our children alive,” Peeta responds, “And in the Capitol’s good graces.”
I nod and we follow Effie once more. He’s too steady, he’s too calm, he has to be planning something. He’s only like this when he’s about to say something in an interview that could turn the tide. I’ve only seen it a few times. In our Games before he said he loved me, on our victory tour when he gave the families money, and throughout the years when he spoke of our children to the Capitol.
And this is the most steeled I’ve ever seen him before an interview. I don’t know what to expect from him. I only hope it won’t put our children in danger.
I can’t help but feel anxious every second I’m away from the screens. The lights are up on the stage, the stylists are working on us, making sure we don’t overpower the tributes we are supposed to be talking about, but at the same time still make a statement. They dress me and Peeta in similar colors of blacks, greys, and greens. I’m in a simple dress while he’s in a suit and we pair together as we always have.
The stage is well lit, but it doesn’t overpower the two chairs and the intended intimate setting. Cameras surround the chairs with a crew sitting behind them. The screens on the stage show the number of district and the image of the tribute.
One of the crew has a small screen where the Games are being played. The sound is low so as not to disturb the interview, but I can just make out the picture. There’s nothing of note happening, just someone who’s face I can’t see walking beside a river. The crew’s attention is more focused on the stage.
There is no audience for these interviews, just Caesar and the mentor before him. Cashmere goes first, smiling just as much as he is.
“My dear, it’s so good to see you,” Caesar says with a kiss on her hand. She plays along, apologizing for her brother not making an appearance.
“He was too busy strategizing. You know how he can be,” she laughs and Caesar does too.
“I’m sure it’s all for a good cause. Emery is really proving herself. She had an injured leg, healed up quite nicely.”
“Well, she’s had amazing sponsors who we couldn’t more thankful for. I’m sure she won’t let them down.”
It goes like this through Brutus and Roman, bragging about their children’s skill sets, their kills, their ruthlessness. Beetee is more quiet and calm when he speaks about Springer, but Caesar doesn’t show much interest in the boy from three.
And neither does the crew, they’re attention back on the screen in front of them. I watch the screen too, someone is running, and they’re larger than the person who was walking by the river. My best guess is it must be Cain. My fingers twist around the empty space where my wedding band would be.
After Beetee finishes Caesar sends him a few jokes about inventions and wondering if Springer would join him in that front. Beetee smiles sternly and answers with a quick, “I don’t think so,” and then it’s over.
Caesar takes a break for some water, shaking off whatever boredom he was in. But he perks right back up when Finnick steps onto the stage. The camera crew does as well. The lights of the stage seem to brighten with his presence like they’re trying to keep him shining, like he’s their sun.
“Finnick Finnick Finnick, we are always delighted to see you.” Finnick straightens at Caesar’s words, like he’s ready for battle, and in a lot of ways he is going into one.
“And I am delighted to be here,” Finnick says with that same charming smile he’s mastered for the cameras.
I turn to the screen again and it’s switched from the person running to two people walking side by side. I know its Beck and Ivy without having to see their faces.
“Of course, I have to say I wasn’t sure about Beck Cresta. His mother being who she is, no father, I had my doubts.”
Finnick clears his throat, “As did I, who wouldn’t? Are you glad to be proven wrong?”
“I am. He’s quite a presence, reminds me of a certain mentor I know.”
Finnick laughs but the smile doesn’t reach his eyes. “As you heard from him in the arena, I’ve been a friend to the family for a few years now. We mentors tend to stick together, more or less, and Beck needed a,” Finnick swallows hard, “strong presence in his life. So I saw it as my duty to help out. You can’t win without a strong presence.”
“No, you can’t.” Caesar grabs one of Finnick’s hands, slapping his own on top. “I think that’s very noble. Isn’t that noble?” Caesar asks to no one and if there were an audience they would be swooning and cheering. Finnick smiles in kind.
“And his allying with Ivy Mellark, honestly it’s one of the things I can’t stop watching.”
My pulse starts pounding and for a minute I see red. She’s being pulled into the same lie, the same story, and I want to tear the cameras apart, tear Caesar apart. I just want it to stop.
I look at the screen again but they’re not on it. Instead there’s more running. I’m confused. Something must be happening. Tributes must be colliding.
And then I start to worry again, something is happening. I need to get back to the screen. I need to see. I need to know. But I’m trapped.
“He’s very clever. When he told me he wanted her as an ally, at first I wasn’t sure, but now I see it was the right call.”
“He’s smarter than you,” Caesar jokes.
“He just might be,” Finnick returns, “But that shouldn’t reflect poorly on me.”
“Of course not.”
There are a few more compliments and then Finnick is done. He spares me a glance as he passes and it appears apologetic. His escort says something in his ear and he’s gone before I can question him. And now I know something really is wrong. Haymitch would have come to get me, right? He would have done something.
I wish I was back upstairs. Standing in front of the screens, sending parachutes, doing the only things I can. And what more can I do? What help can I give them? I just need to make sure they’re still there, still together. I need to know.
I am back staring at the screen and I can make out a group. There are weapons. There’s what looks like yelling, but I can’t see their faces. I count the figures, there are five. My children have to be in that group.
The mentor from five is brought out and I don’t bother to listen, I’m too drawn into trying to figure out what’s going on in the screen. I’m stepping out and the mentor from five is boring the crew and Caesar.
“Katniss,” I hear Peeta say but I keep walking. The person running is scared. They’re screaming. Something is happening. Something bad. The crew looks to me and there’s something in their eyes, something scared and almost excited. And I want to tear their eyes out. They shouldn’t look excited.
Something is wrong. And I feel like I did the day of the reaping. I knew. I knew it was going to happen twenty five years ago when Prim’s name was called. I could feel it. Whether I knew it or not, there was something in the air, a change, a death sentence.
And I can feel it now. I’m aware of it now. Something is wrong. I need to see a screen. I need to know. I need to be sure I’m just overreacting.
But Peeta is following me and he says nothing. He feels it too.
I don’t even realize I’m out on the stage until Caesar is looking at me and so is the mentor from Five. And I’m staring at the light from the screen. And I can see a face. It can’t be that face.
And then I hear it. The cannon. Even in the lowest sound for the screen it booms throughout the room, through my nerves and my heart. It shatters me.
And I know.
That cannon was for me.
One of my children are dead.