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Chapter 34 - Ken

The average reaction time of a championship–level quiz bowl competitor is around 325 milliseconds. This is defined as the time elapsed between solving the question and buzzing in. This can obviously be a subjective determination, but brain scans prove that it can be gauged to a reasonable degree of accuracy using a modified buzzer system and the right software. When this is not available, it can be estimated by timing the on–stage response and then running the data through the Declan–Huang formula to account for human error. In real terms, each 18 millisecond advantage over a competitor translates to about 10% more successful buzzes.

I’m sorry, my heart’s not in this today. Oh, there’s plenty more to discuss, but I am really not in the mood. Maybe it’s time for me to be perfectly honest.

I’m a little scared. From the second I saw Leon on stage, I just knew that we were going to lose. I just knew that everything I’ve put into this – the studying, the planning, the hours of analysis, the late nights training myself – was going to amount to nothing. I’m a hornet trying to kill a giant, a fool trying to bust through a concrete wall with my forehead.

I tried to be good and wait for a call or email, but I was going crazy sitting in my room. So I went out for a walk and ended up outside of Paul’s building. Okay, I didn’t “end up” there, that’s where I was headed. I needed the face–to–face communication.

It was around 7:00 when the bus pulled up. The sun was setting, and everyone else was headed home, hoping to get some rest before their weekend plans.

“Were you waiting for me?” said Paul as he walked up the street.

“Yeah, sorry for showing up. I was a little restless at home.”

“I guess I can understand that.”

“So you’re not mad?”

“No, I’m not mad.”

“Okay. So what did you find out? Is he cheating?”

Paul shook his head. “No, he’s not cheating. He’s just that good.”

“How? Does he have some sort of trick?”

“A trick?” Paul chuckled. “Did you realize who his father is?”

“No, how would I...” It all hit me at once. Somehow, I failed to make the connection. “Holy shit. He’s Jerry Mara’s kid, isn’t he?”

“Yep. I met him, you know.”

“That explains everything! Listen, I know it’s late, but we need to talk strategy. I’ve been running the numbers and –”

“Ken, please,” interrupted Paul. “I think you need to come to grips with the fact that we’re probably going to lose tomorrow.”

“What, you’re giving up? Throwing in the towel?”

“That’s not what I’m saying. I’ll give it all I have, okay? One hundred percent. But I don’t think that’s going to be enough. We’re going to lose, and you really need to accept that.”

I almost slapped him across the face. Instead, I just yelled. “No! I don’t accept that! I do not accept that we could get this far only to drop at the finish line!”

“You think I’m happy with this?” I could tell that Paul was as frustrated as me. “I don’t want to lose, I’m being realistic!”

“You’re being fatalistic! Look, Paul, I get where you’re coming from. I’m worried, too. I am freaking out. But I am going to try and salvage a win from this thing. I’ve put too much into this to give up now when everything is finally within arm’s reach!”

“Do you ever listen to yourself? You’re losing your mind over a game! That’s all it is, Ken. That’s all it’s ever been – not a battle of the wills, not a triumph of the oppressed, a game.” Paul buried his face in his hands. “I am so sick of this Ken. This behavior? It’s a sickness, and it’s spreading through the school. It’s not just Aaron. It’s Isabel Morelli and Colette Henshaw and crazy Christine Hekkler and all those assholes who came before us. It’s hereditary in the Mara family. And it’s you too, Ken. I wasn’t willing to admit it until now, but you’re no different.”

That one hurt. “So you think I’m like Aaron?”

“No, I’m sorry, that was too far. It’s just...” Paul paused. “It’s just that I’ve been putting up with this weird behavior of yours for a long time, with your obsessions, and your drills, and strategy sessions. After all this time, I still don’t get it. Why? Why do you take this so seriously?”

“Because I don’t have anything else!” I sputtered. “This game is all I’ve ever had.”

“What are you talking about? You have plenty going for you.”

“Do I?” I said. Then I told him a little story.


I was seven years old when I first discovered trivia.

It was just another fall afternoon. Doesn’t really matter what afternoon – it was always the same. I was in our apartment, doing homework and advance homework and extra credit and whatever else it took to keep those As rolling in. That was my whole life back then. I didn’t play with other kids, never had a pet, never had any hobbies. The only thing that mattered to me was a column of letters on a report card. It was the only thing I knew to judge myself, the only thing that made me feel good.

But there was one afternoon that was different. The elementary school was out for the day, and my parents didn’t want to leave me home alone. So they got my sister to take me to watch a competition they were holding over in the high school auditorium. At first, I didn’t want to go – the big kids made me nervous.

“Really, you’ll like it,” she said. “It’s a game for kids like you.”

So I went. I sat in the front row by myself, not really knowing what was going on. And then I heard it, for the first time ever:

“Good afternoon, and welcome to Northwest High School’s Trivia Master.”

Everyone applauded. I didn’t understand why – it was just some kids on a stage answering questions. But each time one of the kids buzzed in, everyone got real excited. Everyone was whispering, trying to guess the answers before the smart kids on stage. And when the round ended, everyone cheered.

I’d never seen anything like it in my life. I always thought that my life was boring, that there was nothing I could do to excite people. This changed everything. For the first time, I realized that there was something I could do that other people wanted to see. There was something I could do that was actually exciting.

For the first time in my life, I thought that maybe I could be the winner for a change.

Every year after that, I found some excuse to watch the matches. I skipped class or lied about being sick so I could sit in and witness the excitement. It was exhilarating. But the best part was that I knew that one day, it would be me up there. I’d be the one in the champion’s circle, with everyone cheering me on. I wouldn’t have to be a loser anymore.


“You’re not a loser, okay?” said Paul. “In another year, you’ll be out of here. You’ll have your own life.”

“No, you’ll have your own life,” I said. “That’s how we’re different, Paul. You have talents, and skills and hobbies outside of academics. After this, you’ll go off and meet new people, have new experiences, fall in love, have a family, do great things. Not me, though. Maybe I will be successful, but I’ll never be a winner. Do you know that I’ve never won anything? Not once in my entire life. This just feels like my last real chance at doing something that people will actually remember.” I sighed. “That must sound really small and stupid, but it’s how it is.”

“This isn’t the end of your life, Ken.”

“Sure.” I swallowed back a lump. “Maybe this was supposed to happen.”

Paul patted me on the shoulder. “I’m sorry I said you were sick. I think I understand where you’re coming from. Hell, I’m probably no different. And who knows? We could still win. We’ll give ’em hell, right?”

“Thanks.”

“Leon Mara’s just another guy, right? I mean, who are the Maras? They’re not gods.”

“Yeah, that’s true.”

As he headed into his building, he looked over his shoulder. “Don’t get up too early. You need eight and a half hours of sleep and three hours of wakefulness to maximize your reflexes.”

“You’re a good man, Paul.”

Back at home, I tried to settle into my training routine, but I just couldn’t concentrate. I needed rest. I settled back into bed and tried my best to sleep. It came slowly.

I had a dream that night. It was the final round, and Paul was kicking ass and taking names. All of a sudden, I realized that I wasn’t on stage with him. I was sitting on a hill way off in the distance with Trevor and Scott and Jane and Aaron and everyone else. Paul was completely alone, just him and Leon sitting across from each other, going blow for blow.

Dreams are strange.

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