Chapter 25 - Paul
CHAPTER 25 – PAUL
I love watching Trivia Master rounds. It’s not as viscerally thrilling as contact sports, but it has its own special appeal, something that resonates far more deeply with me. Sitting in the crowd, everyone fixated on the answers, makes me feel like I’m in touch with the brotherhood of all nerds. I realize that sounds absurd, but it’s the truth. I get this feeling of unity that’s tragically uncommon, and I always appreciate it.
There are times when it’s less enjoyable, though. Like when one of the teams is headed by a self–obsessed, backbiting, degenerate asshole. Or, when that asshole’s opponent is a fundamentally decent guy who’s probably going to lose.
“Good morning, and welcome to the third quarter–final round of Trivia Master between the the Flying Brains and the Specials.”
There were scattered cheers the crowd. Much as I’d rather not believe it, Aaron does have supporters. In fact, Ken tells me he probably has as many supporters as me. Aaron pretends that he doesn’t care, but I know he relishes in the attention – it’s just one more way that he proves his dominance. He always struts a little as he takes to the stage, throwing a little flourish or a gesture as he takes his seat. Of course, once he’s seated, it’s all business...or so I thought until that very moment. Just the slightest trace of a smile came across his face, and for a moment I could swear he was looking directly at me. Of course, it’s pretty dark in the house, and the audience is pretty far back. You really can’t see anyone from the stage. I guess all of this competition is making me paranoid.
“Question one: This inventors creations included alternating current...”
“Correct. Ten points to the Flying Brains.” His grin grows just the slightest bit larger every time he gets a question right. I wondered if the rest of his team knew what kind of person they were dealing with. Maybe they don’t care.
“Question two: In what year did the Battle of the Bulge conclude?”
Aaron glanced over at Brian, his right–hand man. It was time to crack the whip.
“Question three: The reciprocal of the sine of an angle...”
“Incorrect. I will repeat the question for the other team...”
I turned to Ken. “I can’t watch this,” I whispered.
“Yeah, I don’t blame you. You slip out, I’ll cover you.”
I ducked out of the auditorium, accompanied the sounds of the Flying Brains scoring points. I spent the time in the hallway, recalling everything that had happened and pondering just how things had gotten to this point. It was only ten minutes, but it felt like a lot longer. Finally, Ken walked through the doors.
“It’s over,” he said. “270 to 150.”
“A 120–point win? They’re gonna be crowing about this.”
“We’d better get out of here. Don’t want to run into Aaron.”
The two of us walked through the silent halls. Behind us, the rest of the student body was filtering out, chattering about the massacre they’d just witnessed. I had no interest in discussing it further, any more than I want to recount it now.
Eventually, Ken turned to me. “Oh, before you take off, I was wondering if you’d mind skipping this afternoon’s round.”
“Why? I like watching the rounds.”
“Team meeting. I cleared us a room, got permission and everything.”
“Team meeting? Are you joking?”
“Hey, these next two rounds are going to be brutal. If we don’t hone our skill, we might lose.”
“Yeah, well, that’s a risk I’m willing to take. You know I never miss a round.”
“Yeah, yeah, ‘brotherhood of all nerds’ and all that. You’ve told me.” Ken could be a snarky bastard when he needed to. “What’s there to even see? It’s not a major round. We know that the Brains will beat whoever wins this afternoon.”
“You don’t even watch your new friend compete?”
“Oh, shit.” Ken stopped and lapsed into a brief period of personal conflict. “...No, this is more important. We need to have this meeting.”
You know, the one you hang out in.”
“You know about that?”
“Yeah.” He said that like I should have known better. “Gotta go, I’ve got some people to talk to.” And he was off yet again, huffing through the halls on his way to meet with some contact.
I wasn’t exactly pleased to miss a round, but Ken had a point. No one was going to stand much of a chance against the Flying Brains, let alone the underdogs competing in the upcoming round. Still, I have a hard time believing that Ken wouldn’t want to support one of his fellow competitors. Maybe he didn’t want to get too close, knowing what would unfold in the semifinal round.
A few hours later, I found myself breaking off from my last–period class and walking to the third floor. Scott, who was in the same class, came with me.
“It was a mistake having any sort of meeting up here,” he said.
“I’m sure he wanted the gifted room, but they watch that place really close during the tournament.”
“I just hope there’s no one smoking up here.”
Scott grinned. “You never noticed the smell?”
“Uh, I noticed an odor.”
“God, you’re so innocent.”
Trevor was waiting in the hall when we got there. Ken was conspicuously absent.
“So where’s Ken?” I asked Trevor.
“Said he had something to do and took off.” he replied.
“How long you been waiting?” said Scott.
“I don’t know, eight minutes?” said Trevor.
Scott sighed. “Really glad I hitched my wagon to Ken Greevey’s star.” He leaned back against the wall and looked at me. “What’s his deal, anyway? Why’s he do stuff like this?”
“I don’t know.” Not a lie – I really don’t. “He gets a thought in his head and it gives him tunnel vision.”
“Makes sense to me,” said Trevor. “You two see this morning’s match?”
“I couldn’t watch,” I said. “I skipped out.”
“Duncan blames himself, you know,” said Trevor.
“It’s not his fault,” I said. “No one stood a chance. I mean, if there’s anyone who takes this more seriously than Ken, it’s Aaron Baines Bellamy.”
“You know, I’ve been wanting to ask you about him,” said Scott. “I always knew you two had a rivalry or something, but it seems like it’s way beyond that. That kid hates you, and I don’t get why.”
“I’ve always wondered about that myself,” added Trevor. “I can’t imagine you doing anything bad enough to make someone hate you, so what’s the story?”
“I don’t know what to tell you,” I said. “I’ve never really understood it myself.”
“Tell us what you know,” said Trevor. “Maybe we can help you figure it out.”
“Well, I don’t know much, and what I know doesn’t make any sense, but here goes...”
It occurs to me that many of you may have been wondering the exact same thing. So let me break away from the narrative for just a moment to give you some background information. I don’t expect this to make sense to anyone, but here goes:
I think I was eight when I first met Aaron. I really don’t have a great recollection of it. The first time I heard his name was at a science fair where we both won in our categories. I remember that I saw him walking down the street after that, and that he was a mess. He might have been crying, I’m not really sure, but we invited him in and that’s when it started. We were friends, but mostly by physical proximity. That’s pretty much all friendship is based on at that age, if you think about it. It seems like it meant more to Aaron than that, though. I don’t think he had any other friends.
It’s not like we had nothing in common. We were both geeks, we had geek things in common – science fiction novels, role–playing games, plus we were in a fair number of clubs together. Every so often, he’d wander by our place and hang out for a while. There was nothing wrong with that, although it could get a bit awkward when he chose to extend his visits until it was dark.
I only went to Aaron’s house a couple times. His parents were kind of a big deal in Solace – his dad was a chemist with Jameson Enterprises and his mother was on the business end of the same company. Both of them had personal relationships with Joshua Jameson, one of the wealthiest men in the country. At the time, I was too young to appreciate how powerful he truly was, but I sure heard the way my parents talked about him.
For all of that, though, the Bellamys were pretty normal. Actually, I didn’t see Aaron’s parents all that much – he pretty much had the run of the house. We had a sitter once, this Chinese girl who was the daughter of another of Jameson’s people, but other that it was just Aaron and me. It’s not like he ever did anything crazy with his freedom. Mostly he showed off his trophies, an ever–growing collection of accolades that occupies a pretty significant portion of his room. He took care of those things like they were his pets.
That was our relationship for many years – a loose friendship based principally on the fact that we could walk to each others’ houses without getting a ride. Then, one day, it all changed.
“Sorry to keep you guys waiting!”
That was Ken, who had finally decided to grace us with his presence. He was carrying a computer bag and waving a flash drive. “I was just picking this up: Raw footage of our quarter–final round, courtesy of Ron Janowski. Who, by the way, will also be filling me in on the details of the current match. By watching ourselves in action, we can pinpoint our weaknesses. Hey, if it’s good enough for football players, right?”
“So Paul, what happened next?” said Scott, completely ignoring Ken.
“They wanted to know about Aaron,” I said.
“Well, here we go. ” Ken sat the bag down and took a seat. “Hey, if you guys can figure out what the hell happened I’ll be pleased to hear it.”
“So like I said, we were cool until middle school...”
It all changed when I was eleven. I was more independent, which meant that I could hang out with people other than the neighbors’ kids. While I didn’t have a wide circle of friends, I did meet some new people in middle school. Over time, I drifted away from Aaron. But Aaron was still there, following me around, showing up at the worst times. I guess he never found any new friends, or maybe he just fixated on me for some other reason.
Aaron and I had very different schedules, different lunch breaks, and our lockers weren’t near each other. I didn’t even see him on a daily basis. Over time, I guess I just forgot about him.
He didn’t forget about me.
To this day, I do not know what I did that set Aaron on his path of revenge. All I know is that one afternoon, as I was leaving school with some of my new friends, Aaron caught up to me.
“Real good, Paul!” he shouted.
“Aaron? What’s wrong?”
“You think you can screw me over? You think that’s cool?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Playing dumb, huh? Well fine. Be that way. But you will never get away with this, Apollo Liston!”
“Apollo?” Trevor and Scott both stared at me, dumbstruck.
I nodded. “Yeah, Paul Liston might not be the name on my birth certificate.”
“Wait, so your official recognized–by–the–government name is ‘Apollo’?” asked Trevor, clearly holding back a grin.
“He comes from a weird family,” said Ken.
“I made the mistake of telling Aaron,” I said. “That was his first attempt to hurt me.”
“Hold it, I’m lost,” said Scott. “I must have missed something somewhere. What exactly did you do?”
“Like I said earlier, I have no idea,” I said.
Ken climbed to his feet. “Look, we’ve been mulling over this for years. Neither of us has any clue what Aaron was talking about.”
Trevor was back in deep thought. “He said you screwed him over? As competitive as he is, maybe you won some award he wanted. You remember winning anything around that time?”
“I was taking a break from competitions that year,” I said. “I think I won a basket of cookies in a raffle. Is that worth holding a grudge?”
“No, no, no,” said Scott. “His reaction was way too emotional. At that age, the only thing that would get a kid that emotional is a crush. Maybe he thought you stole a girl from him?”
“Me?” It wasn’t a thought that had ever occurred to me, for obvious reasons.
“I’m not saying it’s logical,” continued Scott. “If he saw you talking to a girl he liked, that could be enough.”
“Who does he even like?” said Trevor.
“Besides himself, you mean?” said Ken.
“Pretty sure he has a thing for Isabel Morelli,” I said. “She’s always hated me, so I doubt it’s that.”
“Quite the mystery, indeed.” Trevor picked up his things. “Look, is it all right with you guys if I just take off? I have some things to do today.”
“But we haven’t watched the video yet!” said Ken.
“Yeah, I have some things to take care of before I head home,” said Scott. “See you guys tomorrow, right?” Both of them walked off, leaving Ken looking hurt.
“Face it, Ken, they just don’t take it as seriously as you do,” I said.
“Yeah. I guess you can cut out too, if you want.”
“I don’t feel like going home yet. You wanna do something?”
“I’ve got some things to take care of. I’ll talk to you tomorrow morning.” He wandered off in a seemingly random direction. Ken does not take changes of plan well.
I headed back to my locker to collect a few things. Just as I was leaving, Ken ran up, short of breath.
“Paul! We need to talk. It’s important.”
“What is it? Did Aaron pull something?”
“It’s not Aaron this time. It’s Jane.”