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Chapter 30 - Paul

Here’s a bit of Northwest High School meta–trivia for you: By this point in the contest, foul play is pretty much gone. There are a few reasons for this – the difficulty in cheating on stage, the increased likelihood of being caught with fewer players around – but I think that the biggest cause is that by this point, the teams that would be inclined to play have all washed out. Most players who cheat come from low–tier teams that need an edge to succeed. Once you’re past the quarterfinals, those teams have been eliminated, leaving only elite teams who have no need to cheat and may not even benefit from tricks anyway.

There is, however, one problem with that logic. It assumes that all players involved are predictable, rational actors with predictable, rational motivations. One thing I’ve learned in the last seventeen years is that people are not all that rational or that predictable. We are prone to going off half–cocked, to sacrificing sure things on wild gambits, to picking fights we can’t win and holding grudges long past the point at which they matter. In a word, we’re kinda stupid. No exceptions – no matter how smart you may be, there’s still a lot of stupid locked away in the gray matter.

Want proof? Take an overhead look at this competition of ours. In an intelligent, rational competition, no contestant would ever cheat because it would fail the first time he faced an opponent who didn’t have to cheat. In an intelligent, rational competition, no contestant would ever try to sabotage her rivals because it would be impossible to do consistently, setting her up for a downfall later.

This is not an intelligent, rational competition. It’s a rumble for dorks. But I realized that much too late. And I don’t think I’m ever going to forget the moment when it crystallized for me.

It was the day after our semifinal match – one day before the championship round. Much to my surprise and delight, it was a normal, boring day. Okay, I don’t normally get greeted by that many people, but after the cavalcade of weirdness that was the past few weeks, it was nice and uneventful. I was walking up the stairs, talking about something or another with Ken – don’t really remember what, just small talk. We bumped into Lenny Vaughn.

“What’s up, Paul!” said Lenny.

“Oh, shit.” Ken looked like he wanted to hide.

“Hey, Lenny!” I turned to Ken. “It’s okay, he’s cool. Seriously.”

I’d spoken with Lenny a few times since we spoke during registration. No matter how many times I explained this to Ken, he never seemed to believe it. Cultural memories die hard.

“I didn’t get a chance to see you after that last match,” said Lenn. “Man, that shit was tense!”

“You’re telling me.” I pointed at Ken. “Oh, this is Ken Greevey.”

“Yeah, you did a good job, too. Championship round, huh? Think you guys can take the heat?”

“I’m feeling pretty good about, it, right?” I looked at Ken, who couldn’t have been more amazed if we’d just bumped into a space alien. “Right, Ken?”

“Oh, right, yeah,” said Ken. “We have a solid chance, but I won’t know the exact odds until this afternoon.”

“He’s kind of our statistician,” I said.

“Oh yeah? Well, I guess every sport needs one right?” Lenny laughed. “Oh, shit. Gotta get to class.”

“Yeah, us too,” I said. “Come on, Ken.”

The three of us climbed the stairs, but as I turned into the hallway, I spotted something very unpleasant. Aaron – whom I had fortunately not seen in person since the quarterfinals – was standing square in the middle of the hall. He didn’t have his shark’s grin on this time. He looked mad. More than mad – enraged, furious, ready to blow, fit to kill. I’d only seen that look once before, one afternoon in middle school years ago.

He didn’t even wait for me to acknowledge him. “All right, you son of a bitch, we’re having it out right now. Have you been talking shit about me behind my back?”

“What the hell are you talking about?” I said. “I haven’t said anything about you, you lunatic!”

“You lying bastard!” he shouted, jabbing his finger in my direction. “I’m onto your little game, badmouthing me to everyone, smearing me, trying to bring me down to your level.”

“Oh, lay off, Aaron!” said Ken.

“Stay out of this, lardass, I’ll get back to you.” By this time, there was a crowd gathered around, watching Aaron lose his mind. “First there was that piece by that dumb hack Page, and don’t even try to tell me that you weren’t his ‘anonymous source.’ And now I hear that you’ve been telling your teammates that I’m obsessed and crazy and shouldn’t be trusted.”

“Well, it’s all true, isn’t it?” I said.

“You bastard.” Aaron was grinding his teeth, hanging on to his last thread of self–control.

And I, in a moment of weakness, decided to push him. “Oh, quit playing like you’re some innocent victim. You’re the one who tried to frame me for cheating and then started a whisper campaign that I was the one who did it. Now that’s just this one year, this one last month. You are beyond crazy, Aaron. You need help.”

Saying that was a mistake. Aaron dropped everything and charged at me, snarling like a rabid animal. Lenny sprang into acting, leaping in between the two of us. Aaron struck the much larger quarterback and bounced off, landing flat on his back.

“What’s you problem, kid? Back off!” said Lenny.

“Oh, I see how it is.” Aaron stood up, a calmer tone in his voice but still red in the face. “You got goons now? How many essays did you have to write for him to get this service?”

“Just chill out, shithead.” said Lenny, taking a step towards Aaron. Aaron backed off, but I could tell that he was still ready to take on all three of us.

“Look, Aaron,” I said, “the only time I even mentioned you this week was when Scott and Trevor asked why you hate me so much. I just gave them the background. I didn’t tell them the things you did. Believe me, I don’t talk about you or think about you any more than I have to.”

“Quit lying! Why do you keep lying?” Aaron stepped back to pick up his things, not even pausing his rant. “Like you don’t remember what you did to me.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” I said. “I never did!”

“Fine. You wanna play dumb? I can live with that. But everyone else is gonna know everything!” By this point, he was waving his arms, pacing around, and in general acting like a comic book villain. “I’m gonna tell your fatass friend and your jockstrap bodyguard and the world about a little boy who planned the perfect weekend getaway for his best friend in the world, the great Apollo Liston, and how the great man shook him off!”

“Your name’s Apollo?” said Lenny.

“I don’t go by that,” I said. “The perfect weekend...what are you even –”

“Not your turn to talk,” said Aaron. “It’s always your turn to talk. Well, now it’s my turn to talk! So I’m gonna tell a story about a very lonely kid who had one good friend in this whole messed up world. They were close friends, too, at least until one of them decided that the other was unnecessary. Obsolete. Superfluous. He always had an excuse as to why the two of them couldn’t hang out.”

“Hold on a second!” I said, barely finding a space in his diatribe to break in. “First, we were not that close. Second, I was busy, as were you. Hell, you were busier! You were the one off at some meet two, three weekends out of the month!”

“Oh, kiss my ass, Liston. I always found time.” said Aaron. “You used to talk about how much you just wanted to get away from the extracurriculur crap, get out of town, and have a little fun. What did dear old punching bag Aaron Baines Bellamy do? I set it up for you. I spent two months planning the perfect weekend. Laser tag at the largest arena in the state. Reservations at Ripley’s, that place with the custom gourmet hamburgers. There was even going to be a fireworks display that weekend. I had to beg my parents for a solid week before they’d even consider letting me do this! All for you, Paul. All my way of saying ‘thanks.’ And on that week, I called. I called and I called and you ignored me and you blew me off. I was stuck sitting there with the phone in my hand all weekend while you were laughing over my humiliation.”

Aaron finished his spiel, and it was quiet for about ten seconds. No one knew quite what to say. Aaron stood his ground, pointing at me and grinning like he was in the middle of a psychotic episode. Ken was staring off into the distance, trying to wrap his head around what he’d just heard. The hallway was quiet, save the occasional muted click of a camera capturing Aaron in his moment of madness.

Finally, I spoke up. “You mean the weekend before you came in yelling? Asshole, we were out of town! That Friday, we drove to Chicago to visit my uncle and aunt. I even remember telling you we were going to be gone.”

“Oh really? That’s what you’re going with? Mr. Wonderful and his wonderful family were out of town?” Aaron was still grinning, yet he also looked like he was on the verge of tears. “A liar until the very end, huh? I know you did it to hurt me, and now it’s time to balance the scales. The Flying Brains go on in two hours, and I hope you get a damn good seat. Because I want you to see what goes down. I want you to see what I’m willing to do to someone who hasn’t wronged me.” He pointed one last time, turned and sprinted through the halls, shoving people aside.

Lenny looked at us, a clear look of confusion on his face. “Well, that was weird. You gonna be okay? I can keep an eye on him.”

I shook my head. “...No, we’ll be fine.”

“All right, if you’re sure,” said Lenny. “I’m gonna take off. Good luck on Friday.”

And then it was just Ken and me, trying to figure out exactly what had happened. “That was really messed up,” said Ken.

“There’s an understatement. I can’t believe it. He’s been after me for six years because I went to Chicago.”

“What do you think he meant by that last part? You know, that thing about you getting a good seat?”

Suddenly, it hit me. It was there for me to see and I was so shocked I looked right past it. “You don’t think he’s going to cheat on stage, do you.”

“That’s impossible! There’s hundreds of people watching. It’s being recorded. He wouldn’t risk cheating in a round he’s convinced he’ll win.”

“He will if he wants to teach me a lesson. He wants me to see how powerful he is. He’s gonna destroy that team and he wants me to sweat over it.”

“Oh my God...” Ken suddenly panicked, his eyes darting around. “How long until class starts?”

“Like five minutes. Why?”

“I have to find Leon and warn him about Aaron. I can’t let him get stomped like that!” Before I could say anything, he was gone, running down the stairs faster than I thought his pudgy legs could move.

I couldn’t think about anything else that morning. It was all too much for me to take in. All I ever wanted to do was play a little game with the smart kids. I never signed up for this. Intrigue is not my game.

What I didn’t know then was that there was something wholly new coming. Something that, in some ways, was even worse than anything I had imagined.

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