Chapter 12 - Paul
Ken and I have a bit of a tradition on Trivia Master registration day. On that Monday afternoon, Ken handles the paperwork while I hide in the library.
You need to realize that, for reasons I still don’t fully understand, Ken loves every part of this thing, up to an including the registration. I guess he sees it as an opportunity to mix it up with the other teams, get some info – that sort of thing. I’m not sure what sort of information you’re going to get out of that crowd other than that a lot of them are completely nuts.
Actually, some of you may already know this. Last year, Ron Janowski brought a camera to school and shot some footage outside the office on registration Monday, which he posted online under the title “Monsters of Trivia.” It would have been better if it had stayed in obscurity like the rest of his projects, but no – this one caught the attention of some big deal Illinois blogger, started spreading through the media and then the country and next thing you know the damn thing has six hundred thousand views. It’s probably closer to a million by now, not that I could bring myself to watch it more than once to find out.
I can’t say that I’m shocked that it spread so fast. Train–wreck video is always popular, and he got some good stuff. No fewer than three students broke down crying while talking about the competition. One kid pulled out a stack of notebooks, half–black with pencil marks, and detailed his theory – based on the composition of the question sheets from the last three years – that the school was conspiring to hand certain favored students the victory. Another guy used the opportunity to go off on an entirely unprovoked rant about cryptocurrency, physically grabbing and holding onto Ron when he tried to move on. The crowning moment, however, was definitely Christine Hekkler, a lead member of the championship team. I’m not sure which was the best part – her belief that she was being stalked by dozens of students and faculty (she knew because they were all wearing red) or when she declared that she never drank anything onstage because she thought the school’s water supply was adulterated with neurotoxins. I often wonder just how many of the other school’s teams saw that video before they faced off against Christine.
My point being that it’s a circus down there, and I never have liked the circus. I don’t relish seeing what fresh madness Ron is going to capture this year, and I’m sure I’ll have a chance to see it all in the comfort of my own room anyway. So I always spend my lunch break in the library. The library has been a regular sanctuary for me over the years. There’s never anyone in there at noon, so it’s whisper quiet. I can lean back, read magazines, and pretend that none of this nonsense is happening.
But of course, the library is not a sanctuary. It’s a public space that admits everyone, whether I want them there or not. So when I walked in there on Monday and saw Aaron sitting in my usual spot leafing through an issue of Time, there wasn’t much I could do about it.
“Something you wanted to say to me?” I asked him.
“What makes you think I’m here for you?” Aaron didn’t even look up at me. “I’m just hanging out.”
“Why aren’t you downstairs at the office?”
“The registration? Oh, I’ve got one of my people taking care of that.” He tossed the magazine aside and looked up at me with an odd little smile. “Personally, I enjoy having a little quiet time during the day, don’t you? Just a chance to be alone with your thoughts.”
“Your people, huh?” The subtext of that line never ceased to amaze me. “And you just happened to come here? To my place?”
“The library is not your secret hideaway, Paul. You don’t own it, as much as you’d like to.”
His smile grew wider as he spoke. That smile...it wasn’t a friendly smile. Over the years, I’ve concluded that Aaron isn’t capable of regular human emotions. Any time he expresses an emotion, it’s always false and twisted. This was more like a “You have no idea what’s coming” smile, or maybe a “I’m about to make you regret being born” smile. It’s hardly the first time I’ve seen it, and always right before he does something truly awful.
“Cut the crap, Aaron.”
“I don’t understand where this hostility is coming from. Is there something you’d like to say? Get it off your chest.”
“So what is this, some weird little strategy? Act all nonchalant, lull me into a sense of false security? You really think I’m going to buy that?”
“You’re getting so paranoid, Mr. Sunshine.” There were traces of rage seeping into Aaron’s voice, like his phony act was about to break. “It’s not all about the game, you know.”
“Oh, don’t even try it. You’re forgetting that I know better than anyone how you operate. Aaron Bellamy plays dirty from the jump. And I don’t have to put up with it.”
I turned to leave, but Aaron kept on talking. “And of course, Paul Liston only uses good, clean tactics like splitting up two very old friends.”
I stopped dead and spun around. “I didn’t do anything!”
“Oh no?” He stood up and approached me. Aaron is a good two inches shorter than me, but he can be intimidating in his own way. “So that wasn’t you talking to dear old friends Duncan and Trevor? I understand that after you spoke, they went their separate ways.”
“Are you having me followed?”
“You must think a lot of yourself to imagine that you’re worthy of being followed. News travels very fast around here, you should know that. Hey, I don’t blame you. A year like this, you really have to pull out all the stops to stay competitive.”
“Why does everyone keep saying that? It’s the same people, the same teams every year. What makes this year different?”
“You haven’t figured it out?” No sooner had those words left his mouth than Aaron’s demeanor changed. The fake smile and fake geniality were gone. It wasn’t two friendly rivals having a chat in the library. It was a rabid hyena eyeballing his blood enemy. “It’s because of you and me. Three years we’ve done this, and we’ve never faced each other. Three years!”
“I hadn’t realized that.”
“Oh, you cut the crap, Liston. Don’t tell me you haven’t been waiting for it.” Aaron was scowling now, staring holes right through me and digging his fingernails into his palm. “I mean, what good’s a rivalry when you never get a chance to test your rival? And I guarantee that that’s all these idiots are waiting for. After three long years, they’re not going to be satisfied with a nice, gentlemanly contest. They want to see ugliness. They want to hear the bones break. Do you understand?”
Sadly, I did. “I’m gonna wait somewhere else.”
“Fine. Go and find yourself another hidey hole. You won’t be able to run when we’re on stage! Flee while you can!”
He was still ranting and raving when I left. I imagine that he had that little speech ready and waiting for a while, and he was going to finish it even if no one else heard it.
The library isn’t the only place where one can get a little peace and quiet. Over the years, I’ve found any number of hidden little spots in this building. There’s a little–used classroom with a broken lock on the third floor – it smells funny, but I don’t mind. The choral room goes unused after third period, so that’s a good place to hide in the afternoons. If all else fails, there’s one place I can always rely on. There’s this weird little side stairway which very few people know is there. It’s not all that comfortable, but it gets next to know foot traffic and it isn’t close to any of the classrooms, so it’s totally quiet, especially over the noon hour.
That’s where I was sitting when he came down the stairs. First came the heavy thump of footsteps, then a massive shadow covering me entirely. I looked up very slowly, already afraid of who it might be.
“Hey there, little guy.”
I was right. It was Leonard Vaughn.
Solace is one of those towns where football is a big deal. To be fair, we do have probably the best team in the state. I did stats for them for a semester (a sad attempt to garner some residual popularity) and they are very good, if that kind of thing is impressive to you. And if football is king here, Leonard Vaughn is the emperor. Varsity quarterback. Two–time Junior All–American. Lettered more times than I can remember. The Northwest Salamanders were a losing team when I was a kid, and Leonard gets a lot of the credit for turning it around. You know, though? He deserves it. I used to double– and triple–check his stats because I didn’t think that anyone could be that good. No joke.
Once I saw who it was, I jumped to my feet and stepped aside. “Oh, I’m sorry. I was in your way.”
“Don’t sweat it, you’re cool where you are. It’s Paul, right?”
I like to think of myself as the kind of person who doesn’t care about celebrity, who isn’t affected by someone’s status. I’m lying to myself. The fact that Vaughn knew me by name made me feel downright special.
“Uh...yeah, I’m Paul.”
“So what’s up? You’re not doing the trivia thing this year?”
“...Oh, because I’m up here? No, I’m in it. My friend is signing us up.”
He smiled – a casual, friendly one this time. “Cool. ’Cause, you know, after last year, you guys are a lock to win.”
Vaughn didn’t just know my name, he had an opinion about me. “You watched the tournament?”
“Well, yeah. Doesn’t everyone?”
“I guess they do.” I never quite got used to having fans. “Are you participating at all?”
“Nah, I’m gonna be real busy this next few weeks, so no time for that.” He actually sounded disappointed – I swear by whatever deity you respect.
“With practice?” Once again, I failed at being nonchalant.
“Yeah, practice. But I’ll be there to watch every round. All of us will. The offensive line’s pulling for you guys.”
I chuckled like an idiot. “Well, it’s good to have supporters.”
“Tell me about it. But I hear that there’s some kid giving you shit? What’s going on there?”
“Where’d you hear that?”
“My older sister knows your cousin.”
“Oh, Diana’s talking about me now?”
That’s another thing I never got used to. As the smart kid, I occupy a specific place in the high school hierarchy, meaning that I’m more visible that I would be otherwise. As a result, there are people I’ve never met discussing me on a regular basis. Since sixth grade, I’ve lived with the fact that, on occasion, a perfect stranger would come up to me, greet me by name, and start asking questions about my personal problems. It’s strange, but I got past it. What I never got past was my family discussing me with people in other cities and states. It’s a little disconcerting, knowing that somewhere out there is a group of college students that know all about my life.
“It’s not that big a deal,” I said. “There’s just this guy who has some problem with me, I don’t even really get it myself.”
Lenny nodded. “Listen, I know a few things about people who play dirty, so if he keeps messing with you, talk to me or one of my friends. I’ll deal with it.”
“No problem. Well, I’m off. Have a good one.” And with that, Lenny was gone, and everything was quiet again.
A lot of people might be surprised by how civil that conversation was, but with the benefit of hindsight it makes perfect sense to me. I’m not so sure that this jocks vs. nerds rivalry is something that still longer exists, assuming it ever even did. The whole thing is based on stereotypes that originated in 1980′s coming–of–age movies – the same movies that we’re still watching thirty years later. It’s become a cultural memory, something no one saw but everyone remembers.
Ken came up the stairs a few seconds later. “Were you talking to Leonard Vaughn?”
“Really? Did he want something from you?”
“No.” Cultural memories are hard to shake.“Did you come up here to tell me something, Ken?”
“Oh, right.” Ken dug through his pockets. “I got us all squared away. Took a few notes while I was down there. Some of these teams are going to be tough.”
“The only one I’m worried about is Aaron Baines Bellamy. He was waiting for me in the library. I got a preview of his bag of tricks.”
“I’m not surprised. You know he’ll do whatever it takes to beat us.”
“We’ll deal with him when the time comes. Speaking of things we need to deal with, we never discussed our team name.”
“That’s because I forgot about it.”
I couldn’t help but laugh at him. “You planned every aspect of this team down to the finest detail but you didn’t come up with a name?”
“I got a little distracted, you know how it is. I’m not perfect. So I had to come up with something on the spot.”
Ken handed me a scrap of paper. Scrawled across it was The Raging Nerds.
“This is seriously what you wrote down and submitted?”
Ken shrugged. “It’s not my best work, but it’ll really stand out on the posters. Plus, you have to admit that it’s catchy.”
“I have to? You really want to compete under this name?”
“‘Nerd’ isn’t really an insult these days, more like a term of endearment.” He patted me on the shoulder. “Hell, I’ve heard you use it a hundred times.”
“That’s not the part that bothers me, Ken.”
“Well, I know you don’t have a problem with rage. Do I need to list all the times you got mad over a rules change in some tabletop game or a release delay?”
There’s no point in arguing with Ken over things like this. Besides, it was already done and behind us. Also – and I’d never admit this to his face – he had a point. Trivia Master is a geek’s game, one in which we hold court. Perhaps the best way to attack the game is to revel in our inner dorkiness, to own it and show the world what a nerd can do.
That’s the real reason I keep doing it year after year. It gives me one real shot at a moment of triumph. I just wish it didn’t entail dealing with some junior psychopath. Maybe I just need to get used to it.