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Chapter 28 - Paul

“...there’s something we can do that might tip it in our favor.”

Ken, my dearest, closest friend, was holding some sort of ridiculous contraption built around a tape recorder, a gadget he had used covertly record a conversation between two other people.

“Oh, you’re bugging people now?” I said. “That sounds more like something Aaron would do.”

Ken clicked the recorder off. “As a matter of fact, I was using this because of Aaron.Oh, did you see Scott?”

“Don’t change the subject!”

“I’m not...oh, there he is. Hey, Scott!” Sure enough, there was Scott, headed our way. “Oh, Scott’s going to be walking you home today. Now, this plan is a little rough because I only had a few minutes to work it through, so bear with me.”

“Excuse me, but what exactly do you think is going on here?”

“...Oh, right.” Ken looked back over his shoulder before he continued. “I’ve been keeping tabs on Aaron and Brian Booker, in case they were cooking up another plan. I left this recorder in an unused locker in this little hallway where Aaron likes to hang out after lunch. I was just giving this one a listen –”

“This one? You have more than one?”

“Okay, beside the point, but yes. I was listening to this one, and I heard Isabel Morelli’s voice. It was just dumb luck that it caught this conversation.”

“I’m not hearing this.” I tried to walk away, but Ken moved to block my path. “Ken, this contest has made you loopy. You’ve gone nuts!”

“Have I? Listen to this.” He started the playback again.

“And by that, I mean you and me. The other two probably shouldn’t know.” It was Isabel Morelli’s voice, all right..

“You’re not talking about cheating, are you?” The other voice was Jane’s. It was muffled, but I could recognize that sweet little chirp anywhere.

“Absolutely not! It’s more like...what do they call it? Gamesmanship.”

Ken hit the fast forward. “This is where it gets ugly.”

Click. “I’m saying that you could really give us an edge if you’d...y’know, use your charms.”

“Excuse me, Isabel?”

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

Click. “Still think I’m loopy?” said Ken. “They’re plotting against you, clear as day!”

I was a little surprised by this. You expect foul play out of certain people, but I never would have suspected that Isabel Morelli would be this crazed.

Still, my first response was denial. “That doesn’t prove anything.”

“Oh no? Let’s keep listening, shall we?” He resumed the playback.

“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.”

For a few seconds, I just stared at the recorder, then back at Ken. “Is that all you got?” I said. “This still proves nothing.”

“Paul...”

“Isabel is a snobby spiteful bitch, for starters, so that’s not too big a shock. Second, Jane never actually agreed to do anything.” Ken stared at me blankly, quietly judging me, questioning my judgment and my very sanity. “I’m sure if you’d picked up more of their conversation, we’d hear Jane say ‘No way.’ I’m sure of it.”

“You may well be right, Paul, but we can’t take any risks.” Ken rested a hand on my shoulder, less a friendly gesture and more a move to stop me from taking off. “I’m taking some precautions so that their tricks don’t work. The round is tomorrow fifth period, and until then one of us from the team will always accompany you on school grounds. I’m busy right now, so Scott here will take you to the bus stop. You got a few bucks?”

“Yeah, but –”

“Good, because you are not walking home today. Scott will wait for you at the bus stop. Once you’re back at your place, don’t leave. If Jane calls you, ignore it. If she emails you, delete it. If she slips a letter under your door, shred it. We have come too far to be compromised now!”

Ken marched off down the hall, leaving me with Scott Carroll and a lot of new problems. Cheating no longer shocks me when it comes from moral mutants like Aaron Bellamy. Even his frame–up attempt was really just the logical extension of what he’s tried before. On the other hand, Jane Anders was a real straight–shooter. If she wasn’t trustworthy, could I trust anyone? Could I even trust myself, if I’m such a terrible judge of character?

Scott tapped me on the shoulder, breaking me out of the stupor. “They’ll be out in a minute. Let’s get going.”

The two of us walked out to the bus stop in silence. There wasn’t a lot to be said, especially since I didn’t know Scott all that well.

It was Scott who finally broke the silence. “I gotta tell you, when your boy Ken talked me into joining the team, I was not expecting this. Seriously, is this sort of thing normal?”

I threw myself down on the bench. “I don’t even know what normal is anymore.”

“I mean, we have some backstabbing in Dramatics, so that I get.”

“Really?” I said. “This happens with other people, too?”

“Oh, sure.” He took a seat next to me. “We only have two major performances a year. For each of those performances, we’re talking maybe three high profile roles. The competition for those openings can get pretty ugly. But it’s always temporary. When it’s all over, we all sit down at a restaurant, a cafe, have a nice chat and we’re friends again.”

“Sounds nice.”

“Yeah, it’s nothing like this. Trivia Master is more like a brawl. Where does all this hostility come from, anyway?”

“I don’t know.” I paused to gather my thoughts. How do you even explain something this insane to an outsider? They must think we’re all lunatics. “I used to believe that all of us in this subculture had a certain unity, like a brotherhood. It was us against the big, bad world, together until the bitter end. But it never turns out that way. We fight and bicker over any stupid little thing and the world keeps on laughing at us.”

“I wouldn’t be too worried about it. Maybe your time hasn’t come yet. The best things in the world take the longest to mature, you know.”

“I guess, but I just get so tired of all of this nonsense. Sometimes, I wish I just had some nice, normal interests that I could discuss with nice, normal people.”

“Eh, normal is overrated. Be exceptional, interesting...hell, be weird.” Scott patted me on the back. “The world has enough normal in it.”

“Maybe you’re right. I just get so, so tired of standing out...”

The bus finally pulled up. “I guess that’s yours. Hey, don’t sweat it. Tomorrow’s another day, right? Catch you later.”

The whole situation was getting to me. As I watched the stops pass, I felt this nasty little fear creep into my thoughts. The crowd on the bus was the typical mix – commuters and a few students heading home – but that day they seemed like a terribly checkered bunch. Every time someone looked at me, I wondered if she was scheming against me, too. It’s a good thing that the ride only takes a few minutes, because I would have gone insane otherwise.

Once I was home, I sprinted to my room and slammed the door. I had eighteen hours until the semifinals began, eighteen hours to avoid someone I’d been chasing for years. Eighteen hours...it’s not that much time unless you’re squirming with agony. I did my best to occupy my mind with roleplaying materials and folk parodies blasted at full volume. Bit by bit, my brain calmed down.

And then it happened.

Bzzz.

I forgot to turn off my phone! I watched it vibrate once, twice, three times, afraid to even check who was calling. Deep down, I knew who it was. Finally, it went quiet. I sighed and muted the thing, then returned to my distractions.

Knock knock.

“Paul? Someone’s calling for you.”

I opened the door cautiously to see my mother holding the handset.

“Who is it?”

“I don’t know. She didn’t give a name.”

“Thanks.” I took the phone and shut the door. “Hello?”

“Hey Paul, it’s Jane Anders...”

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