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Chapter 3 - Jane

Trivia Master? It’s this thing I do.

I’m known in these parts as Jane Anders. Jane the Parent’s Dream because I get good grades and never went out and got myself a baby or an addiction. That’s a hell of a low bar to clear, but that’s how it is in these parts. Yeah, I’m exceptional in some ways, but really I’m more of a lucky slacker. Everyone thinks that smart kids are always obsessed with school, but that ain’t me. I do what I have to do to get by. I don’t even really do clubs or activities anymore – well, other than Trivia Master.

So here’s the long version. Trivia Master is this contest that they hold at Northwest High to determine who will be on the school’s Scholar’s Bowl team. I guess they couldn’t come up with a better way to identify the best and brightest other than having their own mini–competition, or maybe the people who run this place thought it would make them famous. But whatever the motivation, Trivia Master is a lot of fun. It gets us out of class, and it gives me a chance to spend some quality time with my friends. Competition is bonding, and there’s nothing that strengthens bonds more than teaming up with your friends and facing down people who really, really want to win.

Yeah, I suppose I should talk about that, too. Ask around Northwest and you’ll hear all sorts of rumors about Trivia Master. Some of them get repeated every year – so–and–so put laxatives in someone’s food right before a match, or some kid and his buddies cornered a competitor after school to shake him up a little. My favorite rumor was the one about the guy who sent his girlfriend to seduce some other girl’s boyfriend, hoping it would break her concentration. They’re just stories, ridiculous little fairy tales that we tell each other.

But here’s the thing – some of those stories really are true. I’ve seen some shit go down with my own two eyes. Every year, someone dreams up some brand new trick, or brings back an old classic. The nastier it is, the more they love it. This kind of thing is bound to happen – put a lot of tightly–wound people in competition and some of them are going to seek out an edge, even if they have to flex their ethics to do it.

There will be a lot of that I’m sure, but I can’t imagine I’ll be seeing too much of it myself – not with my circle. Right now, I’d like to focus on my own Trivia Master experience.

All of this started the week before registration opened, around the time the serious competitors are assembling their super teams. I was hanging out in front of the school with Isabel Morelli. Isabel is an old friend of mine, which has to look very weird to most people. The two of us have nothing at all in common and really don’t even run with the same crowd most of the time. She’s a queen bee, a real heartbreaker type. Behind the glamor, she’s really pretty smart – at least smart enough to know how to get everything she wants. My crowd is a little more reserved. I’m the tagalong, or maybe the project girl that everyone tries to “fix.”

Now that I think about it, Trivia Master is one of the few things we can do together. We’ve been on the same team for three years in a row. Competing with her friends is strange, though, because these are people I do not interact with on a daily basis. Every year, it’s “The Popular Kids And That Jane Girl Who Looks Really Awkward And Out–Of–Place.” It doesn’t bother me, though. Honestly, it is nice to be able to hang with that crowd for a while. Makes me feel important.

This year was different, though. I knew it was going to be different after that Wednesday. Isabel turned to me and said, “You know what’s coming up, right?”

“Sure do. You going to take care of everything this year?”

“Actually, that’s what I wanna talk about. You think we could play with your friends this year?”

“My friends?” It was an unexpected request. I’ve spent a lot of evenings running after Isabel’s friends, pretending that I fit in. I’m not sure that she’s even met any of my friends, or even asked about them.

“Yeah, your friends. You know, try something different. It being the last year and all.”

“Sounds good. Were you thinking of anyone in particular?”

“As a matter of fact, there are a couple people I was thinking of.” Isabel pulled out a list, which is not something I saw coming. Lists are for the kids who build each year around this.

“You’ve been thinking about this?”

“Oh, just jotted down a few names I thought of in chem. I mean, you know them better than me, so you can make the decisions, but I would like to ask...oh, I don’t know how to pronounce the name...”

“Hannah Bae?”

“Yeah yeah, her.” Isabel was getting really animated – can’t remember the last time I saw her that excited over anything, especially anything school–related. “So, you think you can talk to her?”

“Well, I have a class with her this afternoon, so that’s easy enough.”

“Great.” Isabel stood up – not a wrinkle in the perfect little outfit of hers, which never ceased to amaze me. “You know, anyone you think might like to team with us. Hey, maybe we can even make it past the quarters this year, huh?”

Isabel isn’t as subtle as she thinks she is. I don’t know why, but this year she definitely wants to win. It was strange because she never really cared before, but I really didn’t care why she cared. My friends ask to be on my team all the time, but they always lose out to Isabel’s people. It’s hard to overlook her motives, whatever they are, but I was willing to do it.

And then, she said something that made it extra hard to overlook her motives: “Maybe you’d even like to bring Paul on board?”

“You’re kidding.”

I haven’t mentioned Paul Liston yet, have I? Oh, God. He’s this kid who’s been following me around like a lost puppy for years, ever since...well, I have a theory, but that’s a story for another time. He can barely bring himself to open his mouth around, and I’m sure he thinks he’s being real subtle and that I don’t know what’s on his mind. A lot of people think it’s sweet, but then again they don’t have to put up with it. Look, if he would just ask me out on a date, I’d probably agree to it if only so that he could move on, but he seems to prefer this weird, dodgy little game. I just don’t get it.

Here’s the thing, though: Isabel can’t stand Paul. I don’t think a day has gone by that she hasn’t called him a loser or an asshole or something in that vein.

“Seriously, Isabel, you want to be on a team with Paul Liston?”

Isabel laughed. “Oh no, I was just kidding. Who wants that asshole around, right? Just pick whoever you like.”

It was a weird conversation, but I did what Isabel asked anyway. Call me a sucker.

You might be wondering why a popular, charismatic type like Isabel would send me to recruit the team. To understand that, you need to understand Hannah Bae. She was a year behind us when her family transferred in two years ago, but she was also so far ahead of the game that we wound up in a bunch of classes together. Quintessential overachiever, you know how it is. She’s also the most painfully shy person I’ve ever met in my life. I think she had all of one friend – me. In three semesters, I never saw Hannah talk to anyone else. So the hard part wasn’t going to be getting Hannah on the team, but rather getting her on stage.

But one step at a time. We had a chem lab during third hour, and as usual Hannah was my partner. It was a perfect opportunity. I waited until near the end of the hour, when we had a little bit of downtime, and then I slowly broached the subject.

“You hear about the trivia competition?”

“Yeah, I saw it last year.” She kept her eyes down, like she usually does.

“I guess you did. We’re putting together a team – Isabel and me, I mean.”

“Okay.”

“She’s letting me pick the team this time.”

“Good.”

If that sounds awkward, it’s because it was. I am not good at asking for what I want. Normally, I just hint at things until the other person figures it out. Obviously, that wasn’t going to work with the most reserved person in the world.

So I just said it. “Okay, I’ve been talking with Isabel and she really wants you on the team. Honestly, I do too. It’s a lot of fun and I think it would be a great opportunity for you. What do you say?”

Hannah just kept on looking down at her feet. Neither of us said anything for a good ten seconds after that. That’s ten seconds of dead silence with someone I’ve been handling with kid gloves for the better part of two years. Really, I just wanted to apologize for the imposition and bolt for the door.

But eventually, the poor girl managed to force out a few words. “I really don’t do so well in front of crowds.”

“Well, I don’t either.” Pause. “Let me put it this way: Yes, it’s a large crowd, but it’s not like you’re out there all alone. You’re in a group, there’s a buffer between you and everyone else. Plus it’s dark in the auditorium. You can’t even see the audience from the stage.”

She stopped to think for a moment. “Isabel asked for me?”

“Asked for you by name. She said, ‘Jane, I want you to get Hannah Bae on our team.’”

“She got my name right?”

“Absolutely.” I’m not sure, but I think I had a big, ridiculous grin as I said that.

“Well, I guess if I’m needed, I can give it a shot.”

“Terrific! You’re gonna have a lot of fun.”

“But, um...I’ve heard some stories about some of the things that kids have done to win.”

“Oh, they’re all exaggerating.” There was that grin again. “It’s just a game, there’s no pressure at all.”

I am really a terrible liar, but Hannah bought it all the way. Was she really that naïve, or just playing along for my benefit? Or maybe it’s self–delusion? In any case, I had her on the team. That made three members on our real–deal competitive team, and I still had several days to fill out that last slot. It was all turning out so easy.

Too easy, really. Nothing ever goes this smooth. I have a terrible feeling about this.

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