Dell Conagher was ushered onto his metal plate by his prep team, all of whom were busily working their way over his body in an attempt to make a few last minute touch-ups to his outfit and makeup. Rather than dressing him in sleek leather or cutting his clothing in intimidating patterns, his team, under the advice of his escort, had decided that presenting him as an everyman was the best way to secure sponsors. Despite the fact that those in the Capitol enjoyed showy pizazz, they were still human beings and still fell in love quickly with public figures that charmed them. By presenting him as a man without an air of superiority, they were portraying an image of accessibility that crossed genders and ages. To the young woman Dell was a father figure or an object of sexual desire; to the middle aged man, a true gentleman or a drinking buddy. The other tributes had been presented as bloodthirsty warriors, men whose goal it was to destroy the competition in the most violent way possible. They were exciting, sure, but they weren’t likable. In the end, nobody would be rooting for them.
“Remember to smile big for the camera when you get into the arena!” his stylist said as she straightened the collar of his green and brown flannel shirt. “You’ve got a coy little grin that the ladies just die for. If you can keep your charm about you in the arena you’ll be getting sponsors left and right. All of Panem agrees: you’re the most likeable of the bunch.”
“That’s very kind, miss,” Dell murmured, his mind elsewhere. His team had given him the same advice over and over again: smile, be charming, try to be a gentleman and you’ll get sponsors. To Dell, it seemed that sponsors were all they cared about, not him. The more sponsors he acquires, the better chance he has at winning the Games; if he wins the Games, his prep team becomes the envy of Panem and will be showered with glory. In a way, their self-serving attitude would, in the end, serve him well.
“There, all finished!” his stylist said, taking a step back and giving Dell one last look over before he would be sent up into the Games. “Oh dear,” she said with a tsk, “you would have looked so much more dashing if you had hair.”
The doors to his launching tube slid closed and his stylist made a final suggestion as his metal platform jolted from the ground and began rising towards the arena, her voice muffled by the Plexiglas that separated them. “Remember to keep that teddy with you as long as possible! It’ll make for great TV!”
Finally, his team disappeared from view as his platform rose out of the launching room under the arena and through several meters of dark earth. An eerie quiet descended on him as he began to pass through the soil, only the soft hiss of his platform rising there to accompany him. It was the first real moment of silence he had since the day he was reaped and, he thought solemnly, and probably the last he would ever have. He could take these last few moments of peaceful solitude to go over his strategy for survival, but he had already memorized everything he needed to know. Instead, Dell closed his eyes, let the silence overtake him and recalled the chain of events that led to his participation in the Fourth Quarter Quell of the Hunger Games.
As was custom with an upcoming Quarter Quell, Dell and his family were sitting close to their television, waiting for President Snow to announce the twist in the Games that would mark the anniversary of the Capitol’s defeat of the districts during the Dark Days. This was always the worst part of the year for him, not that he had anything to worry about. He was far past the age limit to be an eligible tribute and his daughter, Delilah, was still too young. Still, the mystery behind the Quarter Quell had him on edge. Some had speculated that the Fourth Quarter Quell would see pairs of siblings fighting to the death, while others rumoured of a 100th Hunger Games meaning 100 tributes would be sent into the arena. Dell didn’t see the point in speculation.
“What do you think the Quell is going to be?” his sister, Dara, asked. She was sitting across from him in the cramped room, trying to keep her cup of tea steady in her hands as the anthem of Panem began to play and President Snow’s face popped onto the screen.
“I guess we’re about to find out,” Dell replied. In his lap, Delilah began to squirm so he wrapped his arms around her torso and held her close to his chest. He couldn’t imagine the Quell lowering the age limit of the tributes to include Delilah, but he still felt protective of her in this moment.
“Good afternoon, citizens of Panem, and happy Hunger Games!” President Snow declared with an oily smile. Despite his frailty in his old age, Snow’s voice still held a snake-like quality that seemed to burrow in through your ears and coil around your heart. With just a few words he could crush it like a vice and squeeze the very life out of you.
“Ugh, I hate him,” Dara spat as the President prattled on about something.
“This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Hunger Games. As it is a special year, it will be honoured in a special way. Let us reveal the Quell.” The camera panned down to an ornate purple box that sat on the president’s desk and watched as Snow’s withered hands lifted the lid and pulled out a yellowed scroll. He unrolled it slowly, delicately, drawing as much tension out of the moment as possible. Finally, he held the scroll in front of him and began to read. “In this 100th year of the Hunger Games, the fourth Quarter Quell…” he paused for effect, “…two adult men from each district will be reaped as a reminder to the rebels that even the strongest among them is at the mercy of the Capitol.”
Beside him, Dara gasped and looked at Dell with frightened eyes but all he felt in that moment was a flood of relief. So the twist in the Games wouldn’t endanger Delilah. That was good. That was all that mattered, really.
President Snow peered through the television screen with malice, not even bothering to hide the enjoyment he was getting from this. “We look forward to seeing you all tomorrow for the Reaping. May the odds ever be in your favour,” he drawled before the broadcast cut off and his face disappeared from the screen.
“Ouch! Daddy yer squeezin’ too hard!” Delilah squealed in his lap.
He hadn’t noticed when, but sometime during the announcement Dell’s muscles had begun to tense and he was crushing his daughter against his chest. “Sorry darlin’,” he murmured and loosened his grip.
He thought he had finally escaped the Hunger Games twenty years ago when his name hadn’t been called at his final reaping. He thought his terror was over. But that was what the whole purpose of the Quarter Quells, he supposed, to keep the people of Panem under the Capitol’s thumb by constantly threatening their safety. It was effective, he had to admit.
“Dell? You haven’t said nothin’ yet…” Dara said, reaching across and placing a hand on her brother’s forearm.
Dell shrugged, feigning nonchalance. “There ain’t nothin’ to say. It is what it is. I’m just relieved the kids are staying out of the arena this year.”
He took a deep breath. “Naw,” he lied, scooting Delilah off of his knee and standing. “If they’re lookin’ for men over eighteen that means the age pool is gonna be a lot bigger this year, more tributes to choose from. The more people there are, the less of a chance I have of getting’ picked. The math tells me I’ll be just fine.” He stepped over to Dara, placed his hands on her shoulders and kissed her forehead. “Don’t you be worryin’ your pretty head none, sis.”
“Hmm.” Dara seemed unconvinced. “The math tells me that you got just as much a chance of getting’ picked than anybody else.”
He smiled sadly down at his sister, conceding the point. “I’m going to put Delilah to bed now. You should probably rest up yerself. We gotta be at the square bright and early tomorrow.” He bent down and scooped his daughter off of the floor. “C’mon, sugar. Off to bed with you.”
Dell had a hard time falling asleep that night. Images from past Hunger Games kept flashing across his mind whenever he closed his eyes. Death in the Hunger Games was always a brutal affair. People were stabbed, shot, burned, crushed, gutted, beaten or eaten alive by the muttations. They died in agony, their last few moments of life filled with terror and pain for the entertainment of Panem. Despite his efforts to comfort himself with probabilities and numbers, Dell had to admit that he was afraid. Very afraid. Something in his gut told him to be worried that one of these fates might soon befall him.
He was pulled from his reverie as his bedroom door creaked open, a sliver of pale light expanding across the floor. Dell propped himself up on his elbows and peered at the doorway, the tiny silhouette of his daughter and her teddy illuminated from behind.
“Daddy?” she called quietly. “I had a bad dream.”
Dell threw back the covers and patted the mattress beside him. “Well, then you best spend the night with me, young filly.” Delilah padded quickly across the room and hopped onto the bed, snuggling into her father’s chest. Dell wrapped an arm around her small frame. “You wanna tell me what yer dreamin’ about, or is that a secret?”
He could feel Delilah shrug. Just like her father, she wasn’t adept at expressing her feelings or admitting her fears easily. She liked to be the tough girl. He let the silence hang for a few moments before it became clear she was staying quiet.
“Well, that’s alright then, you just—”
“I had a dream about the President,” she suddenly said, “except he wasn’t a person. He was a big monster with mean eyes and white fur and big, sharp teeth. He snatched you up an’ took you away an’ then he started chewin’ on ya like you were a chicken leg.” She abruptly went silent, apparently done with her story.
“Well,” Dell began, giving Delilah a comforting squeeze, “the President ain’t here, is he? He’s off in the Capitol, probably asleep in his own bed at this very moment. I don’t think he’d be comin’ all the way here just to snatch me up. I can promise you one thing, though.”
“He won’t be having me for dinner anytime soon. I’m pretty sure the President doesn’t eat people,” he said, although he wouldn’t be shocked if that turned out to be true. President Snow was a vicious old goat and so much of what happened in the Capitol was shrouded in mystery.
“But he won’t be takin’ you away, will he?”
Dell took a deep breath and let it out slowly before kissing the back of Delilah’s head. He didn’t know how to answer that. “Why don’t we just worry about you gettin’ some sleep, alright?”
“Okay,” Delilah said, although she didn’t seem satisfied with that answer. She hugged her little hard-hatted teddy close to her chest and found comfort in her father’s arm. Dell knew that she was at the age where she was finally beginning to understand what the Hunger Games really were. For years she was too young to understand that the figures she saw battling on the television were real people who suffered real pain, that when they were eliminated from the game they didn’t come back. That was all beginning to change and he was sure her dream was a manifestation of her realizations.
Dell fell asleep that night mourning the loss of his daughter’s innocence and praying that come tomorrow he would be able to stay in District Three and help her understand just how cruel the world she lived in could be.
The next morning the square filled up faster than Dell had expected and was quite a bit more disorganized than what he had been used to. Usually the children of District Three were aligned alphabetically row by row, but with such a large pool of tributes this year the men were left to form a cramped, amorphous blob around the center stage. As the men entered the area designated to the tribute pool, they were each subjected to getting an ID chip implanted under the skin of their forearm so that the cameras could find them in the crowd if their name happened to be called. As luck would have it, Dell found himself jostled and elbowed until he was just a few feet away from the stage itself. “Sorry, mister,” he said after accidently trampling somebody’s toes.
He had been in this position six times before, but this year was an entirely new experience. When he was a teenager standing in straight, obedient rows, every face around him had shown some degree of terror. Back then, everybody in the tribute pool thought the worst; every single child assumed their name was going to be called. But as Dell looked at the men around him, most seemed relatively unconcerned. And why would they be concerned? They all had been here six times and every single one of them had beat the system six times. Unlike their teenage years, it was only natural now to assume they wouldn’t be reaped. Maybe the memories of those days were too far away for some of them to feel afraid. Dell wasn’t so foolish. The stakes were exactly the same now as they were back then. There was still going to be two suckers in the crowd who would be heading into the arena. Dell just prayed it wouldn’t be him.
The clock in the square struck noon and the idle conversation began to silence as two figures stepped onto the stage. One was the mayor of District Three, a beefy man with an impressive mustache named Saxton Hale. The other was District Three’s escort for the past two years, a young woman with black hair named Miss Pauling. Usually people from the Capitol were the epitome of vanity, dying their skin and changing their hair color to stand out from the crowd. Miss Pauling, however, was quite conservative. Other than her bright purple dress she seemed no different than the people of the district she represented.
Saxton, who was usually loud, brash and overconfident, approached the microphone timidly and recalled the history of Panem to the gathered people, as was required before each reaping. Dell had assumed that Hale would be exempt from the reaping based on his status, but his subdued demeanour suggested otherwise. When Saxton was finished with his speech Miss Pauling stepped forward. She waited a moment for the square to be completely silent before she spoke.
“Good afternoon, District Three, and happy Hunger Games,” she said matter-of-factly. “I know it’s sort of crowded right now, so how about we get this show on the road? Let’s bring out the names.”
Two Peacekeepers emerged from either side of the stage, each with a huge glass bowl that was filled with little pieces of paper. They placed the bowls in their stands on either side of Miss Pauling and left the stage. “May the odds ever be in your favour,” Miss Pauling said before she stepped to the bowl on her left. She reached down into the pile of names and pulled out a single piece of parchment, holding it high above her head for all to see.
Even though he was putting in an effort to stay calm, Dell’s heart began to thump against his ribcage as memories from his teenage years began flooding his mind. What if it was his name? What if it was somebody he knew and cared for? What would happen to his family if it was him? Despite their bravado earlier, the entire tribute pool held their breath as Miss Pauling opened the piece of parchment.
“The first tribute from District Three is… Martin Graves!”
Dell exhaled audibly and tried to steady his shaking knees. One down, one to go.
Thanks to the ID chips implanted in their arms, the cameras took very little time finding the right person in the crowd and zooming in on his face. Martin Graves, rather than looking terrified or shocked, looked quite angry. He probably felt cheated, like because had already passed the age of eligibility he should have been safe from the Games for the rest of his life. A few men surrounding him patted his shoulders sympathetically as he elbowed his way through the crowd towards the stage.
“Congratulations, Martin,” Miss Pauling said once he was standing beside her. He rolled his eyes. “And now for the second tribute!” She stepped over to the second reaping ball and swished her hand around inside for a moment before she clasped her fingers over the second tribute. She pulled the name from the bowl and, again, raised it above her head for all to see.
Dell swallowed hard, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up as Miss Pauling stepped back to the microphone. He suddenly felt very nauseous. The last thing that crossed his mind before she read the name was President Snow and his serpent-like voice, slithering its way into his body and coiling tightly around his heart, hissing its malice.
“The second tribute for District Three in this Fourth Quarter Quell is…”
Dell shut his eyes.
The snake around his heart smiled and flexed, crushing everything in his life down to a pain in his chest. A rush of blood surged to his head at the announcement and for a brief moment he thought he might fall over. He wanted to think of his family, he wanted to think of Delilah, but as soon as he felt the camera’s eyes on his face he knew he couldn’t afford to. Something in his brain clicked over from fear and settled on logic. He had seen enough Games to know that the audience didn’t like a tribute to be emotional when reaped. To those in the Capitol, those with the money for sponsorship, participation in the games was an honor and they didn’t like to see tributes disrespect that honor by breaking down into tears or displaying their anger. Martin Graves had made a mistake by doing that. Dell wouldn’t make the same mistake.
He opened his eyes and tried his best to smile for the cameras, despite the dread that was blossoming in his chest. “Well, alright then,” he said before worming his way through the crowd towards the stage.
“Congratulations, Dell!” Miss Pauling said once he was standing beside her.
“Thank ya kindly, miss,” he said, the microphone catching his voice and broadcasting it across all of Panem. Somewhere in the Capitol, a wealthy woman took notice.
An appraising look flashed in Miss Pauling’s eyes as she looked at him, like she was suddenly interested in who he was. But she had a job to do, of course, so she grabbed Dell’s wrist in one hand and Martin’s in the other and rose them above her head. “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the District Three tributes for the One Hundredth Hunger Games!”
One hour later Dell found himself secluded in a small room in the Justice Building, waiting for his family to arrive. After tributes were reaped they were granted short visitation rights by their family to say their final goodbyes. It was almost cruel, the amount of time they were given. There are so many things one wants to say, so many confessions one wants to make when death is so close but the amount of time the tributes were afforded was minimal.
The visitations weren’t a favor bestowed upon the tributes from the goodness of President Snow’s heart, that much he knew. More than anything they were supposed to give the tributes a final reminder of why they wanted to live, what they had waiting for them back at home if they were to pull off a victory. The visitations weren’t designed to be an occasion to say goodbye, but to ignite the flame of competition in the tributes.
There was a knock on the door and Dara stepped in with Delilah by her side. He could see in her eyes that his sister had been crying.
“You have ten minutes,” the Peacekeeper by the door said before stepping out to give them their privacy.
Dara rushed forward and gathered her brother in her arms. “I know you want to spend yer time with her,” she whispered, “so I’ll make this quick. I love you and you best come home, ya hear? She’ll be just fine with me, but she’d be better off with you. Listen, you ain’t that fast and you ain’t that strong, so you use that blessed brain of yours. Don’t get cocky. Ally up if you have to. Don’t be afraid to play dirty.” With that final piece of advice, Dara kissed Dell on the cheek and retreated to a chair in the corner of the room.
Still waiting by the door, Delilah looked solemn and thoughtful as she clutched onto her teddy for comfort. “C’mere then, little’un,” he said and patted his knee. She scurried over to her father and plopped herself on his lap.
“You goin’ away?” she asked without preamble.
Dell nodded. “Afraid so, sugar.”
She nodded. “You comin’ back?”
In the corner, Dara sniffed loudly and dabbed at her eyes.
“Well, I sure hope so.”
Delilah was quiet for a few moments as she considered the matter at hand. Dell could almost see the gears working in her brain, a trait that father and daughter shared, according to Dara. Before too long she nodded and extended her teddy bear forward. “Here.”
“What’s this for?”
“I don’t want him anymore.”
“Why not, sugar? You love Roosebelt.”
Delilah just shrugged, stubborn as always, but Dell knew what this was. It was a voluntary shedding of her naiveté, a symbolic casting off of her youthful innocence. In one gesture Delilah aged ten years. It hurt him to see her make the decision to face the cruelties of Panem head on, but it also made him immensely proud. He pulled her into a tight embrace and buried his face in her hair, at which point he could feel her body begin to shake with tears. Peeling off the sugar coating on life at such a traumatic moment was brave, but it was still far too much for a little girl to bear. And that’s suddenly what she was, a little girl who was about to have her father torn away from her.
Dell held his daughter close and cooed at her for several minutes until there was a knock at the door. Their time was up.
“Please, just five more minutes,” Dell pleaded to the Peacekeeper, tears beading in his eyes. Masculine strength be damned, he was hurting and he needed to show it.
The Peacekeeper shook his head. “Time’s up,” he repeated.
But he had so much more to say! There were so many things he still needed to teach Delilah, so many nuggets of wisdom he needed to pass on to her. The Peacekeeper, seeing Dell’s hesitation at letting his daughter go, took a threatening step into the room and raised his baton in warning.
“Alight! Alright, hold yer horses, ya yella-bellied cog!” He uncurled his body from around his daughter and held her at arm’s length, looking her straight in the eyes. “Listen to me carefully now,” he said quickly, knowing that the Peacekeepers threat was real, “I’m gonna take Roosebelt into the arena with me. He’ll be mah token. Every time you see me hug or kiss that little feller just know that I’m thinkin’ of ya and that I love ya like a horse loves apples. Got it?”
Delilah nodded, her eyes wet and swelling. “I don’t want you to die!” she finally wailed.
“I won’t, I promise.” Dell said in a moment of desperation, full well knowing that was a promise he couldn’t keep.
“I said time’s up!” the Peacekeeper hollered and stormed forward, his baton ready to strike.
“We’re leaving!” Dara said, bursting from her corner and stepping into the path of the Peacekeeper. “We’re leaving, alright? Delilah, sweetie, we gotta go now. Right now.”
Dell placed one last, fierce kiss on his daughter’s forehead and sent her on her way. They disappeared into the hallway and the Peacekeeper closed the door with an indignant slam.
Before he even had a chance to collect his thoughts he had another visitor. Miss Pauling strode in with a small briefcase and sets it down on the table, flipping it open and pulling out a few files. “Hello Mister Conagher,” she said and dragged a chair over and sat opposite Dell, eyeing him steadily.
“What in the hell do you want?” Dell snapped, still swelling with emotion. When she raised an eyebrow at him he took a calming breath and tried again. “I’m sorry Miss Pauling, that was rude. You understand if I’m a little on edge here.”
“I saw what you did in the square today,” she said, dismissing his outburst. “You smiled.”
He huffed a deep sigh, still trying to regain composure. “So?”
“People don’t smile when they’re reaped, Mister Conagher.”
Dell spread his hands, waiting for her to make her point.
“Fine, I’ll spell it out for you. It’s clear to me that you’ve started playing the Hunger Games before we’ve even left the district,” she said. She was clearly impressed.
Dell looked back at Miss Pauling levelly, not giving anything away. She must be very observant if she had noticed that.
“And it’s already working,” she said, opening one of her files. “These are just early reports so don’t get too excited, but you’ve already been pegged as an early favourite. Not in the districts, of course. They’re more confused about your reaction than anything, but the districts’ opinion of you doesn’t matter. The people in the Capitol, though. They’ve already taken an early shine to you, and you know what that means.”
“Sponsors,” he replied.
“Exactly,” she said, smiling thinly. “Do you know who wins the Hunger Games, Mister Conagher?”
“That would be last one alive, unless I’ve been mistaken all these years.”
“Well, yes. But do you know who usually ends up being the last one alive? The clever ones,” she supplied before he had a chance to answer. “And you, Mister Conagher, are very clever. The way you thanked me after you were reaped was a stroke of genius.” She pulled another file from her briefcase and flipped through a few pages quickly. “Of course you will be tested again in the Capitol facilities, but the IQ scores I’m seeing here are very impressive.”
“Hold on, Miss. Hold on a second,” Dell said, holding up a hand to silence her. “If you don’t mind me askin’, what’s the point of you tellin’ me all this?”
She looked at him innocently. “I’m just trying to help you survive.”
“Ain’t that my mentor’s job?”
“Oh, you won’t be getting a mentor,” she said matter-of-factly. “President Snow believes that this year’s batch of tributes have watched enough editions of the Hunger Games to educate themselves on strategies. It’s just you and me, I’m afraid.”
Dell sighed. Great. “Well then, I guess I best listen to what you got to say.”
She smiled at him again, except this time with more warmth. “You can win the Games, Mister Conagher, of that I’m certain. I just want to help you do it. Now, the Capitol has forbidden the escorts from giving their tribute’s survival tips for when they’re in the arena…” she paused.
“They never said anything about strategies outside the arena.”
Dell smiled then, a charming, lopsided smirk. “Would ya look at that, turns out I ain’t the only clever one in the room.”
Despite her efforts, a spot of colour reached Miss Pauling’s cheeks at the compliment. “What you just did right there? That’s called charm and it’s going to be your secret weapon.” She said, the color fading from her cheeks as she returned to the matter at hand. “You’ve got the brains to survive inside the arena and the charm to work the crowd outside of it. If we can work your public image around that charm, you’ll be scooping up sponsorships left and right. I guarantee it.”
Dell nodded, considering the matter. What she was saying certainly made a lot of sense. Sponsorships often make or break a tribute’s game and the more you had, the better your chances were at surviving. Something was still nagging at him, though. “That all sounds well and good, Miss, but if you don’t mind me askin’, why do you care?”
She seemed to consider that for a moment before answering. “You probably think that the escorts get some sort of big bonus if their tribute wins. You’re not wrong, we do. But that’s not why I care.” She fiddled with her pen for a moment, hesitant to continue. “I care because I’m one of the very few people who managed to escape the districts and make a life for themselves in the Capitol. I’ve lived through reapings. I’ve seen friends die. I care because I know you aren’t entertainment.”
“Then why’d you take a job that’s so close to the Games?” Dell asked.
“Because I’m good at what I do. I’m good at currying favour for my tributes and boosting their image in the public’s eye. The Games won’t stop. Twenty three people are going to die every year, but I try to give my tributes the best chance they have so they can get back home.”
Dell studied Miss Pauling critically for a few moments, judging her sincerity. The pieces seemed to fit. She didn’t dress like a regular resident of the Capitol. She went through the motions of the Reaping without fanfare, without undue celebration. And, now that he thought about it, the tributes from District Three the past two years had managed to garner several more sponsors than years previous. He nodded sagely for a few moments, a grin creeping across his features. “Alright then. I’m in.”
Miss Pauling sighed, relieved. “Good. Good, I’m glad to hear that.” She looked down at her watch. “Oh, shoot. We’ll have to talk about all of this a little later. We’ve got a train to catch.”
As she began to pack away her files, Dell stood up, causing little Roosebelt to tumble to the floor. He bent to pick it up.
“What’s that?” Miss Pauling asked, pointing to the teddy.
“This here’s Teddy Roosebelt. He’s my daughter’s but she wanted me to have it. This feller is gonna be my tribute token.” He handed the stuffed bear over to Miss Pauling so she could inspect it.
She took it, looked at the cute little overalls and cute little nose then looked back up to Dell and smiled widely. “Brilliant.”