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Chapter 27 - Jane

So something happened that really caught me off guard. I’ve been rolling this around in my head and I just can’t believe it. It’s the kind of thing that I might run past Isabel, as this is the kind of thing she might have dealt with. But this time, Isabel is the problem, so who do I talk to? Hannah, who’s afraid to open her mouth? Karen, who’s incapable of keeping hers shut? Damn, what a mess.

Isabel’s new obsession with Trivia Master has really been eating at me. She’s given me various reasons, none of which I ever really bought. Winning contests has never been all that important to Isabel – well, until this year, anyway. All of a sudden, she’s turned into some kind of overachiever. I figured this was her attempt to buff up her college resume, something which shows respectable grades and scores but not much else. It’s a little late to be starting that kind of thing, but it can’t hurt, and if Isabel meets some new people and picks up a new skill or two? Even better. And really, if that is her motivation for winning Trivia Master, why should I care? It works out well for me, too.

At least, that’s what I thought up until a day or two ago. That’s about when I noticed how weird she’s become. Trivia Master has become a fixation of hers, this singular thing that occupies all of her attention. It seems like every conversation is about our team or someone else’s team or the rules or the history of the game...Trivia Master has gone from a nothing little game to the most important thing ever. She’s driven, like I’ve never seen her before.

That concerns me. I know what happens to quiz kids who get obsessed. And on Tuesday, I got wrapped up in it myself.

It all happened right before the fourth quarterfinal round. In case you’re wondering about that, a team of newcomers won 210 to 160, a conservative match by any standard but still decent. But before the match I was at my locker, taking everything I needed so I could split right after the match. Karen was there, too – we were having a little strategy conference of sorts.

“Do you think I’ve been keeping up my end?” she said. “I still feel bad about blowing that question. It could have cost us the match.”

“But it didn’t,” I said. “Everyone botches one at some point, it’s the nature of the game. You move past it.”

“You sure?” She shuddered a little bit. “This is a lot more pressure than I imagined.”

Karen is getting to be more flighty than Hannah – not that I said that to her face, of course. “Well, look at it this way – I’m leading the pack on this. If we lose a round, it’s mostly on me.”

“I guess you have a point, there.”

“And maybe this will help. I’ve been talking to some of my other friends, as of our last round, our odds have gone from 3 to 2 against to straight across.”

“Now that does...” Karen froze while she pondered the implications. “They don’t really bet on this, do they?”

“I...don’t know? There are rumors and all, but no one’s ever...” I slammed the locker door shut. “Forget about the odds. Just go with the flow.”

“All right! Hey, you want me to save any seats?”

“Not sure if I’ll be able to get away from class this time, but go ahead. I’ll keep an eye out.”

Having assuaged Karen’s guilt, my next stop was my final class. We weren’t going to do too much there, really just touch base and then head to the auditorium, but policy is policy. I was just headed out when I bumped into Isabel, looking strangely secretive.

“Can I talk to you for a minute?” she said.

“Of course. What’s up?”

“Let’s not talk here. Someplace a little more private.” She walked over to a little side hallway which was mostly abandoned. “Come on.”

“Listen, passing period’s almost over. If this is serious, we should talk about it later.”

“It’ll only take a minute.” She looked around the hallway. I’ve never seen Isabel this paranoid – I figured she was hiding something, probably something big. “It’s about the contest.”

“You needed privacy to talk about the game?”

“This time? Yeah, we do.” She took one last look around. “You were talking to Karen just now, yeah?”

“Sure.”

“She holding up?”

“I don’t know, I guess? She’s a little tense, but she’ll pull through. She always does.”

“And Hannah’s still doing fine?”

“As good as she ever is.” This is the point where I started to get curious. “What’s going on here, Izzy?”

“I’m just a little tense myself,” she said.

“You too?” I said. “I can’t handle this whole thing myself, you know.”

“Well, you might not have to,” she said. “See, I’ve been thinking it over ever since they started doing the rounds. I don’t think we have much of a chance against these guys. Either of ’em. The Brains or the Nerds.”

“You should talk to my people. Apparently, we have even odds.”

“Yeah, well...there’s something we can do that might tip it in our favor. And by that, I mean you and me. The other two probably shouldn’t know about this.”

That was a real red flag. “You’re not talking about cheating, are you?”

“Absolutely not!” She was absolutely indignant – too much so, I thought. “It’s more like...what do they call it? Gamesmanship.”

“Gamesmanship?”

“Yeah, gamesmanship. Now I don’t want you to shut me down out of hand, okay?”

I didn’t like where this was going, but a part of me wanted to know what Isabel was thinking, so I went along. “What’s your plan?”

“Well, I figure these are two great teams, but it’s Paul Liston and Aaron Bellamy that make them great, right? They’re the big scorers on those teams, yeah?”

“Yeah, I’d have to agree with that.”

“So, if they were distracted – by something other than the game, I mean – then the teams wouldn’t be so great, right?”

“...Where are you going with this?”

Isabel took a deep breath. “I’m saying that you could really give us an edge if you’d...y’know, use your charms.”

“Excuse me, Isabel?” I guess I’m a little slow on the uptake, especially in situations like this. I honestly didn’t catch the subtext at first.

“I’m not talking anything too sleazy, just...be affectionate.”

“You want me to flirt with someone so that we have an advantage?”

“Look, that dweeb is totally hard for you! You talk to him, maybe give him a little phone call, and you could totally convince him to go easy on you. I’m gonna do the same thing to that Aaron freak. That gives us an edge in the semis and the finals. See? No big deal.”

“You’re asking me...” I turned my back on her. “...I’m not having this conversation.”

I walked away, but Isabel kept right up with me. “Oh, come on! It’s not cheating, it’s just playing the game! Tell me you’ve never flirted with a guy to get something!”

“That’s your thing, not mine.”

“Oh yeah? Paul’s been after you for years. Tell me you honestly never used that.”

“I’ve never...I don’t do things like that.” This was getting to be much too much. “I can’t talk about this now.” And that was the end of the conversation.

Can I be honest, though? She may have been a little bit right on that last point. Paul’s feelings have never been much of a secret. Maybe I did lead him on once or twice. Maybe I’ve even done it recently. Then again, does that mean I have to bring sexuality into this? Is this the way of the world – a woman can’t beat a man without manipulating him? Now there’s a bumper sticker for you.

This was something I really needed to think about. Unfortunately, there was no time. I had twenty–two hours to work everything through in my head.

I didn’t see Paul at the quarterfinal match. Thank God for small favors.

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