Nerd World

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Chapter 19 - Paul

The Trivia Master preliminary week is long and very boring. You play one match, there’s no audience, and after that there’s nothing to do until the next week. The school administrators do what they can to speed it up – running two quiet little matches every day from Tuesday to Friday, getting everything out of the way without much fuss. For participants, though, it’s just more waiting.

I guess that’s why I decided to speak with Edward Page. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first round of prelims on Tuesday ended predictably, with triumphs by the Valkyries and Flying Brains. Ken was about ready to break in to the auditorium during the Brains round, but I was able to talk him out of it. There’s really not that much he could have learned by watching Aaron clobber some other team. I suppose he was as geared up as everyone else, and Ken really needs a project to keep himself going. Both of us had time to kill until our round on Wednesday.

That morning, I found myself sitting in a pool of light on a mostly empty stage, waiting for the other team to show up. Scott seemed perfectly at home here, which made sense – a stage is a stage. Ken was keeping himself busy with a calculator and a notebook, doing statistical calculations or whatever it is he does when he has a minute of free time. Even after all these years, I’m still not quite sure what the hell Ken is doing when he breaks out one of his notebooks. Meanwhile, Trevor looked like an absolute wreck, fidgety and disheveled. It looked like he was waiting to be shot.

“Trevor, you okay?”

He sighed deeply. “Duncan’s team is going on after us.”

“When’s the last time you spoke to him?” I said.

“Over the weekend, but that’s not the point,” he said. “It’s like, I just now realized that I might have to play against him. I’m not sure I can deal with that.”

I understood his feeling. The day before, someone mentioned that we were slated to face Jane’s team in the semifinals. I wasn’t sure if I could deal with that. Of course, Trevor’s problem was different altogether. Trevor and Duncan have never been on different teams, so there was never any chance that they’d be in direct competition. I’m sure that neither of them anticipated this.

I searched for something to say that might make him feel better. “Look, try not to make too big a deal out of it. It’s just a game, it’s not important. Friends are what’s important, even when they make you do things you don’t want to do.” I shot Ken a look, so he wouldn’t miss my point. “If you’re really that tense over this, you can slip out the side or the rear entrance when we’re done. No chance of running into anyone.”

“I think I’ll do that,” said Trevor. “Thanks, you’ve been a real help.”

I turned back to Ken, who seemed to have been babbling on about stats the whole time. “...so if I’m right, we’ll get at least one more question per round, for a net gain...were you listening?”

“No, Ken, I wasn’t listening,” I said. “I never listen when you talk about this shit.”

Ken laughed. “You really take me for granted, you know that? Not everyone gets to have a comrade like me, you know.”

“What a blessing,” muttered Scott.

“I heard that,” said Ken. “And if you think comments like that are going to affect me...”

Over the years, I’ve learned how to tune Ken out when he gets rolling. It’s a simple matter of focusing on something else, something more important. In this case, that was the kid standing in the darkness of the aisle, waving at me. “Yo! Liston!”

I squinted at him. “I’m sorry, do I know you?”

“Oh right, we haven’t had a face–to–face.” He stepped close enough to the stage that I could just make him out – a pudgy kid in a downright preposterous trilby. “Edward Page, Northwest Mirror. You got my message?”

Ed Page is on the school newspaper staff. Now, for most students, that’s an excuse to get school credit for doing things you want to do anyway – whether that’s talking about music, ranting about current events, watching football games, or whatever else your passion might be. Most of the student reporters spend an hour a day lounging around the staff room, pretending to work while they kill time on internet “research” and idle chit–chat, before dashing off a quick column at the last minute.

Ed is a different breed altogether. He’s a “serious reporter,” from a long line of serious reporters, or so he tells people. The one story he loves to tell is that his great–grandfather caught a shotgun blast to the back while investigating the Chicago Outfit. I’ve never seen any proof that this really, but he seems to genuinely believe it. Ed never, ever shuts off. He spends hours on these ridiculous “stakeouts,” trying to dig up information about some local figure that he can turn into his first story.

I don’t know why I agreed to talk to him. From the start, I figured he was going to go the exposé route, which meant that he wanted me to dish about cheating. Of course, I could have given him material for a whole series of articles on the subject, but I wasn’t yet sure that spilling all my secrets was wise..

“It’s really not a good time, Ed,” I said. “The round’s going to start soon.”

“So we’ll talk afterward,” he said. “Look, I gotta get this story out for the big Trivia Master edition. It’s only a couple questions, we can wrap it up anytime.”

“I guess. Why are you here now, anyway?”

“Haven’t you ever heard of gonzo journalism?” Ed took a seat, flipping open his retro faux–leather–bound memo pad. “The journalist becomes part of the story.”

Scott glanced over at the rear of the auditorium. “Other team’s here.”

Four students I’d never seen came through the doors. Clearly, they recognized me, though. One of them pointed right at me and moaned, “Oh, great, it’s his team. Can we just concede right now? I could get an early start on my math homework.”

Ed started scribbling furiously. “Oh, this is gonna be beautiful.”

I won’t lie – it’s nice to be noticed.

Prelims really aren’t interesting enough to merit a detailed breakdown. I’ll just say that it was a tougher round than I thought it would be – we only won 310 to 110.

After the match, Trevor slipped out through one of the stage exits while Ken and I left through the main doors. Scott stuck around for a while – I’m not sure, but I thought I saw him inspecting some leftover set pieces in the backstage area. He is dedicated, if nothing else.

Meanwhile, Ed dogged us every step. “Can we talk now?”

“We have class now,” I said.

“You have the rest of the period free,” said Ed. “Come on guys, five quick little minutes. You promised.”

“I wouldn’t mind talking with him,” said Ken.

I pushed open the doors. “Ken, now is not the time.”

Duncan’s team was hanging just outside the doors, waiting for their match. “Afternoon, guys,” said Duncan as we left.

“Hey, Duncan,” I said. “How’s it going?”

“Good enough.” Duncan looked the three of us over. “Trevor’s not with you?”

“...He had something to take care of, so he went out through the side,” I said.

“All right,” said Duncan. “I take it you won?”

“Yeah. 190 points.”

“Solid score.”

“Well, it is just the prelims...” I hesitated for a moment. Suddenly, I understood all too well how Trevor felt. “...I know this is uncomfortable, but I just want to say again that I’m very...” There was the sound of scribbling behind me. I turned to Ed. “Do you have to do that?”

“It’s relevant.” Ed was attacking that memo pad with an unusual fervor. “The story never stops.”

“Look, this doesn’t have anything to do with the damn contest. Would you back off for a second?”

Ed flipped the memo pad shut. “Okay, I’ll just wait in the corner.”

I turned back to Duncan. “...As I was saying, I’m really sorry how this all turned out.”

“It’s not a big deal, okay? Don’t take it personal.”

“It’s hard not to.”

“Look, I’m fine, so you should be fine, too. I gotta go but really – don’t sweat it.” He disappeared into the darkness of the auditorium, leaving me alone with the kid who put me into this situation in the first place. I really wanted to be mad at Ken, but I was mostly upset with myself for making such a big deal out of this. What I said to Trevor about friends was true, but I wasn’t following my own advice.

Ken turned to me cautiously. “Is it okay if we talk about the team now?” He looked a little nervous himself, like a six–year old who’s parents had been fighting.

“Of course it’s okay, Ken,” I said. “We can talk in the library. Okay? It’ll be quiet there.”

“That’s great, but what about him?” Ken nodded at Ed, still watching us, still taking in every word.

I sighed. “Look, Ed, I’ll give you a statement or whatever, but after that we’re done, all right?”

“All I wanted.” Ed stopped to search through his bag. “I should really record this.”

“Fine.” I turned back to Ken. “So what new strategy have you cooked up this time?”

“It’s not a strategy this time, I think you’ll like this. I was thinking that, this being our last year and all, we could try something a little more...I don’t know, theatrical. You know, a gimmick.”

“You’ve said that before. What did you even have in mind?”

“I had a few thoughts. How about this: we could really play up that old–school nerd stereotype. You know, I’d wear horn–rimmed glasses with repair tape on them, you could have a pocket–T with pens or a little calculator in the pocket – ”

Ken was interrupted when an all–too–familiar face appeared from around a corner. “Hello, boys. Up to no good?” It was Aaron, having regained his composure after what was no doubt a long weekend of cackling at our expense.

“What do you want?” I said.

Aaron was sporting what I can only describe as a sarcastically innocent look. “What makes you think I want something?”

“Cut the crap, Bellamy,” I said. “Your prelim match was yesterday. There’s no reason for you to be here now.”

There was that smile of his again. “I always like to hang around the auditorium during the preliminary rounds, get an early lead on the field. You won, I take it?”

“Yeah, we won.”

“Good, good.” Aaron stroked his chin. “Hey, tell me if this sounds weird. The round we had yesterday? We were up against some dead–end team, no chance of winning, you know the type. But these guys were so confident, like nothing I’d ever seen. They were buzzing in early on everything, absolutely everything. And they were always wrong. They actually ended the round negative. I could have sat there and done nothing and we still would have won.”

I nodded. “That is weird, Aaron.”

“Wait a second, that’s not the best part,” said Aaron. “So I ask around a little bit, and it turns out that over the weekend, some people received emails with an early copy of the question sheet. The text messages start flying, and next thing you know half the school has a copy of the thing.”

“I’m surprised that something like that would happen here.”

“Yes, genuinely shocking. But here’s the catch: It turns out that the scan of the sheet was altered. Every single question had the wrong answer. So it looks like someone tried to sabotage the contest.” Aaron rested his chin in his hand. “Messed up, isn’t it? Now who would have the ability to pull that off?”

“Well, Aaron,” I said, smiling back at him, “I actually heard about that myself. My understanding is that this cheat sheet was really authentic looking because it was typed up on the office stationery. No one would doubt that it was the real thing, because it’s not easy to get that stuff. It’s the kind of thing used on internal documents that don’t circulate outside of the office. It’s beyond me how one would get one of those unless someone else made a special delivery. Weird, huh?”

Aaron chuckled. “Yeah, I guess that’s right. You checked out the bracket? Looks like we won’t have a chance to face each other until the final round. Please don’t lose before then.” He walked away, laughing quietly to himself as he went.

Ken turned to me. “Mind games, dude. He’s pulling out all the stops.”

I’d forgotten that Ed was there, watching the whole thing. “Um...That statement?”

I was having a change of heart already. “You know what? I think I would like to talk to you. Join us in the library?”

“Really?” said Ed. “You going to tell me about what I just heard? I can keep it anonymous.”

“I think the people here could figure out that it was me,” I said. “But I think I can make it interesting for you. Story of the year.”

So that was the preliminary – relatively uneventful, fairly civil, more or less free from drama. It may be a boring week, but boring’s not always a bad thing, especially around here. I don’t think it’ll last, especially after Aaron sees what Ed is going to write.

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