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Chapter 24 - Aaron

A lot of people get nervous before public competitions like Trivia Master. The crowds are intimidating to them. They’re afraid of embarrassing themselves in front of everyone they know or making some mistake on the public record. But that kind of neurosis is nothing more than a sign of a weak mind. That tension is born of a fear of failure, which itself is nothing more than a fundamental lack of confidence in one’s own skill. I’ve been performing before crowds since I was seven, and not once did I crack under the pressure. I never let the competition see me sweat, never did anything that would give them that kind of satisfaction. So why should I feel nervous before a round of Trivia Master? Especially a quarterfinal round. Competition at this level is a waist–high wall – it doesn’t stop you, it just slows you down.

If anything, what I felt as I walked into that auditorium was joy. As much as I hate what Trivia Master does to the scholastic tradition, I really can’t deny that I get some primeval rush out of it. The rest of the year, I’m nothing to them. Those assholes, my “peers” as some dare call them, treat me like something they scraped off the bottom of their shoes, but now? Now, I’m the man. They’re cheering me on, holding their breath with each question and pumping their fists when I score. They’re my fans, my devoted followers hanging on my every move. For the fifteen minutes that the round lasts, the world as I know it becomes a more just and rational place.

Of course, there’s always something to ruin the moment.

“Aaron, did you read the big writeup?”

There I was, sitting in the wings of the auditorium, watching the seats fill. Brian was there, waving a copy of the Northwest Gazette in my face. What the hell, it’s better than having to endure more of his statistics.

“Yeah, I read it,” I said.

“Even the stuff Edward wrote?”

“Yes, I read what he wrote. I talked with him for that piece.”

“Why did you do that?” Brian was angry – first time I remember hearing any genuine emotion in his voice.

“Did what? All I did was tell him not to listen to those rumors about everyone cheating. Not like he even used any of my quotes.”

“That’s not the point!” I could feel the spray from Brian’s fat mouth as he harangued me with that angry screech of his. “You know how he writes, he tries to turn everything into some big dramatic story. He could have twisted what you said into whatever he wanted.”

“Paul and Ken were talking to him, I wasn’t about to let their side be the only one.”

“You should have run this past me.” Now that wheezy bastard was wagging the paper in my face. “I need to know about anything that might affect team strategy. If you insist on keeping things from me, then I –”

I snatched the paper out of Brian’s doughy fist. “Don’t lecture me. You’re not running this game, Booker, and I don’t need your permission to talk to anyone.”

“Okay, I crossed a line and I’m sorry.” Brian took a step back. “I won’t bring it up again.”

“Good. Just as long as we’re clear.”

“Andrew and Sid are a little late. I think I’ll go look for them.”

“You do that.”

Brian scurried off like a frightened rat while I considered the paper in my hand. Not that I’d ever admit it to him, but Brian may have a point about dealing with a loser like Ed Page. The kid sees himself as something sort of crusading journalist, the Edward Murrow of the “Millenials” or whatever meaningless phrases the talking heads made up to describe young people this week.

In terms of what Ed actually does...it would probably be best if I just showed you. I still have Brian’s paper which I swear is annotated, for my benefits or his I really don’t know.

“I’m seated in the cavernous auditorium of Northwest High, alone in a sea of empty seats. People scurry about on stage, checking equipment, moving furniture into place, testing the sound levels. I glance at my watch. It’s thirty minutes until lunch, four hours until the last bell...” There’s a lot more of this, he’s into that “new journalism” crap where the writer won’t shut up about himself. Here’s the key part: “Two participants, speaking on conditions of anonymity, described some of their experience with dirty tricks.” “Anonymous,” sure. That was sunny boy Paul and that ball of dough that follows him around. They got half the damn column while nothing I said to Ed made it in, not a word. Something they planned out, I’m sure. The three of them must have had a wonderful time ruining this for me.

Oh, but it gets better. Here’s how it ends: “With cheating and backstabbing growing every year towards epidemic proportions, it is only a matter of time before Trivia Master descends into anarchy. If the administration can not or will not contain the dirty tricks, then it falls to we students to police our own behavior. Until that happens, a pall of iniquity will hang over the entire event, and the victor will always be tainted by its association.” Kiss my ass, Ed. As if the overblown imagery wasn’t bad enough, I have to deal with this idiot trying to stain my glory before I’ve even earned it. But no one’s taking this from me – not Ed or Brian or Ken and definitely not Paul. I’ve been working too long for this.

The auditorium was nearly full when Brian returned with our teammates. “You get lost on the way?”

“Sorry, bro, I got caught up in some shit. You know how it is,” said Sid. “Wow, they really packed them in, huh?”

“It’s definitely a bigger crowd than I expected,” said Andrew. “Are there always this many?”

“No. It’s light today.” Mr. Laubhan appeared at the podium behind me. “We’re going on in a minute. Is everyone ready? No one’s feeling the pressure?”

Andrew shook his head. “I’ve done this enough times, it’s no big deal for me.”

“Just like any other show,” said Sid.

“We’ve got an eighty percent chance here, at least,” said Brian. “I’ll save my worrying for a hard round.”

“Good. Very good.”

I glanced back at the other team. Duncan’s team. For the briefest of moments, I considered going easy on them. I don’t have many problems with Duncan, and after what happened the week before last I feel some sympathy for him. But there’s no room for mercy in competition. Besides, this victory is all a part of my greater plan. This is going to be a preview to everyone – and Paul Liston in particular – of what’s coming down the line.

I nodded to my teammates. “All right, let’s go. Everyone in your places.” As I walked to the stage, I allowed a smile to reach my lips, let my hands swing back ever so slightly to embrace the stage lights. I could hear my supporters cheering me on, even over the din of conversation. No one’s going to steal my glory. All of this is mine.

“Drink it in, boys. It doesn’t get more beautiful than this.”

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