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Chapter 18 - Jane

The real–deal Trivia Master lasts for two weeks, with the first being for preliminary matches. These are the rounds that are so uninteresting that they don’t bother showing them to anyone. Hell, even with the school making a big deal of uploading footage of “every match” to their official district website, no one bothers recording the preliminaries. It’s just a boring slog on an undecorated stage in a barely lit auditorium. Most years I wouldn’t even bother recounting the details but I suppose I’m obligated, what with everyone talking about how significant this year is supposed to be.

If nothing else, there is one good thing to come out of that first round. The stage is closed, but the setup is otherwise identical to the matches that the students actually watch. It lets you ease into the experience, nice and easy. This is a perfect chance to help someone who’s suffering from a nasty case of stage fright.

“So no one else is there for this round, right?”

Hannah and I were out of class and headed to the auditorium. She had no shortage of questions about the prelims, but this is the one that kept coming up, like she isn’t quite sure if she wants to believe me. It’s funny – in a sense, she’s an old pro at this, having done quiz competitions since she was about eleven. The difference is that most those rounds were conducted in classrooms, with no one but the teams, the alternates, coaches, and a bare minimum of crew. You’re looking at fifteen people, tops. Meanwhile, our friendly little game is going to be held in front of close to eight hundred people. And that’s for the quarters – if old man Jameson has his way, this’ll be going out to the whole world. It’s a very different feel.

Clearly, this was going to take some effort on my part. “It’s just the two teams and a four–person crew. Relax.”

“I don’t think I’ll be able to deal with this,” she said.

“It’s really not that bad, Hannah. We went over this,” I said.

“Yeah.”

A different approach was needed, clearly. “Let me put it this way: You’re on a team. Even if you completely choke, you’ve got three other people to take care of business.”

“So you don’t really need me?”

“Just try to have fun, okay?” I couldn’t help but grin a little. “It’s not life or death, so you can take it nice and easy.”

She nodded. “Okay, I’ll try.”

I opened the doors into the auditorium. Empty auditoriums always feel like they’re frozen in time – dark, dusty, with lots of moving parts that haven’t started moving yet. They’re like big tombs, mausoleums just waiting for the stiff to show up. I never understood why we had to do the prelims in here instead of a regular classroom. We could use that empty room on the third floor where the stoners go to do their thing. Air out the incense and ganja smell, and it’d be perfect.

I guess they do it so they can test the equipment under real conditions. That’s why we’re asked to come down so early – buzzer checks.

The JamesonTech 150–8L Buzzer System used by Northwest is really a very simple piece of electronics. The buzzers are just boxes with buttons, each containing a sound chip and colored light. They’re set up on a single circuit that feeds into the main console, so that activating one disables the rest until they’re all cleared. Still, even the simplest of devices will break down, and usually at the worst possible time. So the first part of this little ritual is each player hitting his or her buzzer to make sure that they’re working properly. Thrilling stuff, truly, but it has to be done.

The other team was already there, as was Isabel. “This is funny. You’re usually the one waiting on me,” she said.

“Yeah, well, I had to reassure our teammate,” I said, gesturing at Hannah who was seated off in the shadows.

“You think she’ll be cool?” said Isabel.

“I guess we’ll see. We’re missing someone...Karen’s not here?”

The doors flew open and our missing member ran in. “Sorry for holding everyone up,” said Karen as she hustled to the stage. “I had a few things to wrap up before coming down.”

We checked the buzzers and got down to business. Long story short: we won 300 to 80.

That may seem high, but keep in mind that it’s the preliminaries so the score doesn’t really matter. Also, the other team got most of their questions wrong. They botched at least half of them, which is an awful lot. I mean, none of these questions are all that hard, and it’s not like there’s any pressure what with the room being empty. Guess they got overconfident.

Once it was over, Hannah took off to her next class while the rest of my team hung around for a little while. I figured Isabel would want to chat, and I was right. “That was the best round we ever had! I shoulda let you set up the teams from the start.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’m feeling pretty good about it.”

“We are going to kick some ass this year,” she said.

“I guess.”

“All we gotta do is clear the first round, and we’re golden.”

That struck me as a little weird. “Well, the quarter shouldn’t be too hard, but after that we’re up against Paul’s team and then Aaron. How are they the easy ones?”

“I’m not worried.”

“Everyone’s going on about the big rivalry in the final. We’ve got a few people pulling for us, but not as many as they do.”

“Oh, they’re not so tough. Let ’em chew on each other for a while, they’ll both snap from the pressure and we’ll brush them aside.”

Now, I’ve never seen Isabel this confident about anything school–related, so there was no way I was letting this pass. “You know, Aaron plays dirty. Real dirty. I mean, who knows what he’ll try if it looks like we might beat Paul.”

“Yeah, yeah, don’t sweat it. I’ve got some plans of my own. Just trust me on this. Oh, I gotta get going. Later, Jane!”

I tried to stop her and get some more clarification on those “plans,” but she was already sprinting off to do whatever it is she does with her popular friends when I’m not with her. I could have shot her a text, but I’m not too worried. She’s not Aaron, she’s not going to cheat.

Anyway, it’s not like I had time. No sooner had Isabel left than Karen came up to me. “Great job, Jane! You really crushed that round!”

“Don’t mention it,” I said. “The prelims aren’t much.”

“I have a little favor to ask. Are you up to anything this afternoon?”

“I don’t think so. What’s up?”

“Well, I’ve got a project going in my carpentry club and I was hoping you might come give me a little critique.”

“Carpentry club?”

“Yeah. You just need to drop by for a few minutes so I can get a fresh set of eyes on this thing. Is that okay? Don’t feel like you have to.”

“No, that’s okay. I’ll be there.”

I’ll be really honest here. Most days, I would have made up some excuse so that I wouldn’t have to hang around the school and look at wobbly chairs and bookshelves. But frankly, I needed something to do. I put my life on hold for Trivia Master this year, and with our prelims out of the way on Monday, I really had nothing to do for the rest of the week. The least I could do was take ten minutes to look at Karen’s big wooden thing.

The rest of the day was very long and very slow. Trivia Master does that. Once you’ve faced the crowd and received cheers to answering trivia questions, regular class just seems horribly dull. Where’s the excitement when I ace a test? Honestly, I had to force myself to not just run right home after the last bell rang. Instead, I found myself on a bench outside of the technical arts department, hoping that Karen hadn’t forgotten that she talked to me. She’s not terribly flaky or anything, the problem is with me. I have this compulsion to do favors for people, including things that people don’t really expect I’m going to do. I’m not going to tell you how many times I’ve ended up standing around at some function while one of my friends told me “It’s so boring, I kinda figured you were going to blow me off.”

I wasn’t there by myself for long, though. After a minute or two, Paul Liston showed up. He did this thing he always does – stand around acting conspicuous, waiting for me to acknowledge his presence. It’s really pathetic, if somewhat cute in a weird sort of way. I’ve discovered that he will stand around like that for a very long period of time if no one does anything, so for both our sakes I try to break the ice as swiftly as possible.

“Hey, Paul.”

“Oh, Jane!” Paul did his best to look surprised, like he just wandered by or something. “You waiting for someone?”

“I’m waiting for Karen. She wants me to look at her carpentry project.”

“Karen does carpentry?”

“Apparently. She’s a little late, though.”

“I can wait with you. If you want, I mean.”

“It’s a free country.”

Paul leaned up against the wall in what I guess was his version of a nonchalant post. He’s not very good at it – coolness is something that always slips away from him. The long, awkward pause didn’t help.

It was a good fifteen agonizing seconds before Paul finally said anything. “Uh...your preliminary was today, right?”

“Yep. Smoked them by over 200 points.”

“That’s awesome!” I guess this is his idea of flirting? It’s hard to say.

“Well, it is just the prelims.”

“Hey, 200 points is great no matter what. You’re a lock to win.”

“Until the semifinals, you mean.”

Paul laughed it off, or at least he tried to. I don’t think he considered until now that he was going to be playing against us next week. “Hey, I think you have as good a shot as us.”

“We’ll see.”

I heard Karen’s voice from the door. “Hey, Jane! Over here!”

I hopped up to leave. “Well, I gotta get going. See you, Paul.”

“Yeah, see you.” Paul shuffled off, looking strangely sad. Every time we spoke, he walked off looking beaten. I don’t think I’ll ever understand men.

I walked inside with Karen. “So, what, exactly am I looking at?”

“A clock.”

“A clock?” I swore I’d misheard her. “You mean, like a timepiece?”

“Yeah.”

“That works?”

“Sure it works! Wouldn’t be much good, otherwise.”

Karen led me into a room filled with surprisingly good bits of furniture. I guess I underestimated the Northwest High carpentry club. But my jaw really hit the floor when Karen showed me her project – a full–sized, fully functional grandfather clock, ticking away with perfect time.

“You made this?”

“It looks amateur, doesn’t it? There are a few nicks over here. I hoped the lacquer would cover them up, but they’re still visible, aren’t they?”

Karen kept eyeballing the clock, looking for invisible flaws that no one else would ever see. I was still a little stunned. “How long did this take?”

“I started working on it last year in my free time. So you really think it looks good?”

“Yes, I do.”

Karen giggled. “I’ll be honest, I really just wanted to show this off to someone. Oh, I just wish I’d been a little more careful moving it around.”

I spend my free time watching old TV shows and writing stories that you don’t get to read. Karen Schumaker built a damn clock. Somehow, she’d never felt the need to tell anyone outside of the club until now. You learn something new every day, I guess.

I even learned something about myself. I really enjoyed crushing that other team. Yeah, I’ve been playing off like it’s no big deal – because it wasn’t. But damn it, when I saw that final score I really felt something. I felt like a winner. But what’s more, I was really wishing that there was an audience there, even if it was just a few stray students. It would have been so much sweeter if there was someone there to watch us dominate that other team.

This feeling is really addictive. Is that natural, or is it a little sick?

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