Chapter 3: The Death Train
Never before have I seen anything like this. So this is what being the Capitol looks like. As soon as we step in the car, we're greeted by a freshly vacuumed blue carpet and an unimaginable feast. Most of the food laid out on the table that spreads across half the car reeks of Capitol lifestyle. There's all kinds of meat cut into peculiar shapes, bowls overflowing with juice of exotic fruits, and what I can only gauge to be an ostrich head sitting on top of a plate usurped by various sea weeds in the middle of a circle of lamb stew. What catches my attention, however, is a thing much less magnificent in comparison; a tiny cupcake, one of many tiny cupcakes, sitting atop a glass cupboard bordered by black, opaque bars in the corner. I've seen a cupcake once, at last year's Hunger Games celebration. And cupcakes always go hand in hand with excessive amounts of liquor, bottles of which I immediately spot lined up just one level below the dessert. Let me explain the mockery in this. It goes like this; on the rare occasions that the Capitol decides to share a shard of its wealth with the districts, we feast, eat a cupcake, then spend the little money we have on whatever alcohol is close, hoping spirits will erase the memory of atrocities committed from our minds. I took one to avoid public suspicion, but never liquor. I don't fancy having my senses numbed.
Sean and I are seated at the back of the car while Gold excuses himself to go look for Jefferson. We rest in the satin-covered armchairs, but the tension of our muscles is apparent. The train starts to move at the pace of a rocket, though we barely feel a thing, and we're alone.
"Are you any good at this? Killing people?"
I stare out the window at the last bits of free nature I might ever see whizzing by in a messy blur, ignoring Sean's question completely.
"I'm not trying to figure out your strategy or anything. I just… I've heard stories about you. You're a bit of a mythical legend to the children."
I flinch at that. What is he implying? That I'm a fan favorite? That everybody likes an underdog? I should win so that his siblings or friends only lose Sean and not a hero?
Why should we talk about this, anyway? In this, like in all games, chance and luck are a welcome ally. For all I know, we could both be dead within seconds of the beginning. "Look, whether we like it or not, one of us is going to die. I don't want you to win and you don't want me to win; that's natural and expectable. I just don't think it's necessary to rub it in. Or get too close, for that matter. It's nothing personal, but it's better for both of us if we keep our distance," I snap, perhaps a little too fast (as the soliloquy sounds rehearsed), careful not to make any eye contact. Once you see its eyes – the window to the truth – it's not an animal anymore. I'm not naïve enough to tell myself facing him isn't going to be hard enough as it is, but I don't have to complicate things for myself. And him.
We don't speak anymore after that. I'm trying not to think about what he was trying to achieve with that small talk, but the conversation refuses to leave my mind. The only goal he could have had is to determine my strength in case of a potential duel. I don't blame him; haven't I been trying to do the same? Sighing internally, I close my eyes and rest my head on the conveniently placed pillow behind. The whole affair is, against my better judgement, starting to indeed look more and more like a game.
I snap my head up when I hear Jefferson enter the car. Before he sits down, he gives Sean and me an exaggerated bow, waving his cylinder hat in the air down side up as if he were catching flies. His gaze passes my fellow tribute out of sheer politeness – such that one simply has to picture him giving another imaginary bow in his head – and lingers on me just a tad longer. Instead of a secondary gesture that would be just as redundant as the first one, I see malicious intent, fingers that promised my safety crossed behind his back. I don't like Jefferson.
"Welcome to the death train, tributes. Ah, I see those pained expressions. Worry not; I fully intend to get one of you home safely. Nevertheless, should the odds be against your favor, it's better for you to embrace the possibility of your imminent death." The way our eyes met once again would almost suggest a staring contest. Fortunately for me, only two can play at this game, and just in case it is, I will not let him or the other tribute witness my weakness, so we stay locked. Already he's mentoring me about competition, huh? Not bad.
As if on cue, Jefferson leans forward, his elbows on his knees, and the slight playfulness in his mood disappears. "As I'm sure the two of you are aware, I'm here to increase your chances. I'm not gonna lie to you; it won't be easy, champs. You're children. You may think the cruelest thing the Games do is kill – murder – bring pain and insanity, but it's not. The cruelest thing the Games can, and will, do to you," he zones out, then my imagination convinces me he cuts right through my gut, "Is make men out of you."
I sink in my seat. You can never say anything to suggest you oppose the Capitol on a dangerous level – much less if it doesn't trust you and you're under its watchful supervision 24/7 like us. I'm sure they're watching now, too, and even addressing the Games the way he does is considered heresy in Ten. The Capitol doesn't consider any of us to be grown men or women; we're sheep, sheep for slaughter. Jefferson knows that if we are to break Circe's spell and become men, we will become the Capitol. That's what the Games are for. If you can't beat them, join them.
As much as I might disagree, whatever Jefferson says during the next few days could mean the difference between life and death to me, so I drink in his every word as he explains the key mechanics of the Games. It's not only strength and survival skills that matter here; we're going to start fighting as soon as we enter the Capitol, for sponsors. In time of need, sponsors will be able to send their desired tribute a gift in a parachute right into the arena. Jefferson warns us not to expect too much, however. Support is a risky business, especially if the tributes are from some of the poorer districts, like us. Even then, help is not going to come to you every time you get in trouble. There's a limit, just to make the Games more interesting, and most tributes don't even reach it because even sponsors themselves cannot cover the cost of parachutes. Everything is about making a good impression and making people believe you can keep your wits about you for as long as the arena deems necessary. Way to kick my spirits down; the irony of how much I'm not suited for this kind of competition bubbles up when I snap at Jefferson, yelling that I'm not exactly a people person in his face before thinking. Yeah, kind of like that. The death train is changing me fast.
In the Games themselves, it's not all about survival of the fittest, either. First, there's the bloodbath at the Cornucopia at the very start of the Games. The Cornucopia is a giant golden horn overflowing with supplies and weapons scattered all around it. Everyone's going to try to get some, which is why this is essentially the most dangerous part. Whether we run or attempt to steal a bag of valuables, the decision is up to us, according to Jefferson. When we get out of there, we should always check our surroundings for signs of a water source. Water will be our new best friend. Wouldn't want to die off quickly of dehydration, would we? The arena could present itself in the form of any imaginable biome, but in any case, we must check for animals and moss, lest we don't last long.
Jefferson deliberately doesn't ask about our virtues or weaknesses or anything that might differentiate me from the other tribute, treating us as teammates for the time being, which I am perfectly comfortable with. Instead he focuses on basic things – most of which I already know, but I'm more than open to revision – like making fires and snares, tracking and if it comes down to that, what body parts to focus on.
Hearing him talk about it with the same monotony, my resolve is slowly shattering and I excuse myself to my compartment, but tell them to feel free to continue without me. I need to get some fresh train air that isn't breathed by the same people who find it easy to break a bone and rip out intestines but ridiculously hard to imply we're growing up.
I close the door behind me and fall face first onto blue satin. Blue, blue. I wonder why everything is blue on this train. Most likely because blue is a rare color to pass back in District 10. I find it hard to fawn over it though because after just a few hours, I'm fed up for life.
I wish I could cry, but some things are more important than not changing anything at all, such as, let me see, dignity, yes, that's the word I was looking for. There's no doubt they have cameras in every compartment. I could break down now, when I'm not on air and losing sponsors and therefore cutting the burning candle that is my life. Nobody would see but a group of fancy Capitolists in their fancy gold-laden chairs and drinking their fancy cocoa or whatever it is Capitolists drink. The thought of that is making my stomach turn and my veins contract. Pride would never allow me to stoop that low, especially not when I realize that at this very moment, there are 22 tributes struggling just like I am. A part of me acknowledges the possibility this premise is wrong, that some of them are prepared and thirsty for my blood, and I curse myself for hoping it's not true. I hope they're every bit as scared as I am.
I wonder if they're still discussing the Games or whether they too have decided to call it a Reaping Day. Maybe the guy asked Jefferson about how to fight me. If I am as much of a legend as he claims, he knows I hunt with a bow whereas I have no idea what to expect from him. None. That gives him an advantage, at least on this train. Assuming he has seized the opportunity, I could do the same thing later, see if Jefferson's ever heard of him before, but there's no logical reason for why my chances should be greater than those of a boy with a home and a family. Besides, it's not like Jefferson's going to fight him for me. I make a mental note to separate myself from him as soon as the gong rings, just in case.
The night is long. When I finally manage to fall asleep, I dream of being crushed by a giant three-headed snake at a ghastly empty railroad station where no one can hear my ribs crack.
When I wake up shaking and sweaty, I notice the blanket has found its way off the bed sometime during the night. I change back into my brown leather hunting jacket and pants and walk to the dining car to see I'm the only person awake. No wonder; there's a screen displaying current time covering an expanse where a whole window could have been otherwise. The sun has barely risen. Yet another example of the Capitol's cruelty; reminding us, wherever we go, that our days are limited. I eat alone and my meal is meager; a slice of bread with peach jam and another with a crunchy, gluey substance labeled peanut butter. (Why would they grind peanuts, of all things, when they're much less sticky in their solid state?) At first I watch the mountains in the faraway skies and wonder if I could survive there. Clutching the silver swan hugging my neck in my palm, I wonder what pointless propaganda Mary is teaching and get lost counting down minutes and seconds to my death until the numbers start to swim in my vision.
"That bread isn't going to eat itself, dearie."
I jolt and see Mr. Gold, still in his plain turquoise pajama suit, sit down noiselessly beside me. (It startles me because I'm used to loud creaking whenever that happens.) He looks different today – or maybe it's just the change in environment. The wrinkles on his forehead seem deeper, casting a bigger shadow, making him look older somehow. Old and troubled. He lays his cane against the edge of the table and begins to help himself to a healthy breakfast.
"I'm not really hungry," I mutter, dropping the piece of bread back on my plate.
He laughs, again without noise. Strange. "How about we make a deal? You eat that and I will tell you a little secret. Agreed?"
"If I told you, it wouldn't be a secret, now would it?"
Rolling my eyes, I do as I'm told, raising my eyebrows expectantly. "So?"
Gold sighs in this humiliating way that makes me feel like I'm a kid sitting on his knees as he explains how babies are made. "As you know, the arena is different each year. Sometimes, you might find things in there that demand your attention. You will see things you've never seen before. Beautiful things; flowers of vibrant colors, even entire lively sceneries. It's quite a breathtaking sight to behold at times, really." Right before they try to kill me, I think. He pauses, taking the time to take several bites of his own slice and lick the marmalade off his finger. "But most of all, I want you to remember one thing: when you're in the Games, it is critical you do not trust anyone. No matter what you see, no matter what you hear, believe in yourself and your own power."
He's making it sound like I'm going on vacation to Capitol Bay, where people will do anything in their power to get to my hotel room first, even sabotage my suitcase. "So why should I trust you with this in the first place? I'm already part of the Games."
The man grins like a cheeky little imp, finishing his breakfast. "I see we have a quick learner," he says, tightens the fluffy pajama belt around his waist and limps back to his compartment without so much as another look my way.
None of that is news to me, though. Surely he can't consider me to be that dumb. "Do you know something I don't?" I call after him.
He stops mid-stride, turning but halfway back to me. "Let's just say I'm invested in your future."
I follow in his footsteps, disappearing in my own compartment for hours to come to reflect on Gold's words, as the idea of confronting the rest of our ensemble isn't particularly exciting for me – that is, until I hear a boy's voice coming from the other side of the door as he knocks furiously until it sounds like a stampede of wildebeests.
"Emma, come out! We're here! Come take a look!"
Judging by the graceful melody of an elephant stomping on a herd of miniature zebras, I know he's already by the windows. Oh what the hell, I could as well go see what the fuss is all about. None too enthusiastically I exit and let my legs drag me down the hallway in what seems like the longest walk in my life. There he is, just as I suspected – except something seems off. He's paralyzed. Petrified, even. I follow his gaze towards the outside world, a world I never would have expected to see.
People of all kinds of colors, forming an entire array of rainbows in front of my eyes with their dresses and alien hairdos, animals tied to a device in their owners' hand by ropes and chains and they're all the same, cheering, clapping, delighted to see this year's crops from District 10. Behind them, a blinding curve of skyscrapers I have only ever seen in old photographs, glowing whiter and brighter than the Sun as they reflect the light it's distributing equally among them. Peacekeepers are forming a human barricade in order to keep the crowd from getting too close, but some are virtually gluing their faces to the train as it goes past.
That's when the boy steps forward, struggling to smile, if nothing else. "Let them see you. They're gonna love it," he says without turning. Spoken like a true tribute.
I try to let myself be captivated by the Capitol's beauty like he is, but all I see are thousands of pigs waiting for us to put on a show. Torn between anger and pity, I can't decide whether they're so ignorant or so cruel to act like this. "No," I reply and retreat back into shadow.
He frowns as if trying to understand why I wouldn't sacrifice a few seconds of my time to be polite and charming and pretty and all the other things Capitolists like. It's his next step that catches me off guard. It is towards me.
He joins me in the back. "Okay."
Looks like the puppet boy and I have reached our final destination.