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Chapter 35 - Paul

I don’t think I’ve ever experienced any tension like I did in the hours leading up to the championship round. It’s always like that, I suppose. It doesn’t matter how insignificant the contest may be, that last stretch is a real killer. It only gets worse if your odds are bad to start with. When you know you’re expected to lose, your head fills with pictures of all the ways you can screw up at the finish line.

The hour before the match, I made up some excuse to get out of class – another smart kid perk, everyone assumes you have tons of extracurriculars so no one questions you when you ask to leave – and went to the auditorium. Everything was dark except for the stage, illuminated under a single ambient stage light like a display at a museum. Most people find it ominous, but there’s something soothing about it, too. It’s almost like I’m the last man on Earth, free from the torments of other people.

“You’re early.”

I almost bolted at the sound of another voice. With the size of the room and the darkness, it took me a moment to place the source. Finally, I noticed a single figure leaning against the wall near the podium, just outside of the lights. It was Leon.

It was a moment before I felt comfortable to speak. “I was feeling a little anxious, so I got permission to come down here early. I wasn’t planning anything, I swear.”

“Of course not. I understand exactly why you’re here.” He walked towards me, into the pale light coming from the sound booth. “You know how to control the lights? I wanted to get a better look at the room.”

“Uh, yeah, I’ve used the controls before. Give me a minute, I’ll bring the stage lights up.” The door to the sound booth was unlocked in preparation for the round, so I headed up the stairs. Years back, when they installed the new control system for the auditorium, they taught me how to control everything. I guess they thought I could be an asset, but that was the last time I was up there. Sometimes I wish I would have stuck with it. Controlling the lights and sound for Trivia Master would have been a lot less stressful.

After a few seconds, I found the switches for the stage lights and turned them on. The room was suddenly illuminated, revealing hundreds of empty seats and a barren stage.

“It’s nice, isn’t it?” shouted Leon from the stage. “The last calm before the onset of the storm.” He breathed deeply and exhaled. “I love big, quiet rooms. Best places in the world to think. That’s why you’re here, right?”

“Yeah, I suppose it is,” I said.

“Come on down. This is no way to have a conversation.”

“Okay.” I took the stairs slowly, the rows of empty seats coming into view. There was something haunted about it that I had never noticed.

“Sometimes you have to take peace where you can get it,” said Leon. “It’s always so temporary. In another hour, there will be hundreds of people in here, all waiting to watch the big show. All hanging on every word, every moment in between the words...” He had a far–away look in his eyes, like he was remembering something from long ago.

“You’ve done this before?” I said, approaching the stage. “Sorry, silly question. It’s just that I follow the stats, and I don’t remember seeing your name.”

“Nothing silly about it,” said Leon. “I’ve done plenty of competitions, but smaller ones. Little trials and gifted events, that sort of thing. I never had a stage like this. More schools should have these kinds of events.”

“Yeah, well, I’m sure most schools wouldn’t want the drama that comes with it. The backstabbing, the dirty tricks...it’s messy.”

“But that’s exactly why they should do it like this. So that everyone can see what distinguishes real winners from the cheaters and the liars and the saboteurs. There’s plenty of that in the outside world. Kids need to experience the triumph of talent, something to give them back that ambition that they’ve lost.”

“That’s a good point.” Something about the way he spoke was disturbing me. I decided I didn’t really need to hang around the auditorium. “I’m gonna go take care of a few things before the match. Uh, good luck!”

“Don’t need it.”

I stopped. “Of course not, it’s just something you say.”

“Of course” he said. “But one question before you go. You think you’re going to win?”

“Excuse me?”

“Do you think that you are going to win?” Leon said those words slowly and deliberately, as though he didn’t think I was bright enough to understand him.

“Uh...I don’t know. We’ll see.”

“You know. Do you think you’re going to win?” Leon took a seat on the edge of the stage. “Come on, be honest. Because if you don’t think you’re going to win, there’s no need to even be here.”

“Well, of course I think I could win,” I said. “I’m smart enough to win, but there’s no way to know until it starts. That’s what it makes it exciting, right?”

“Thanks. That’s all I needed to know.”

I didn’t feel like leaving anymore. There was something strange going on, and I wanted to figure it out. “Okay, what’s going on here? What do you mean ‘all you needed to know’?”

“It’s just that I’ve heard that a lot. ‘I could win.’ ‘I’m smart enough.’ I bet you’re the fifth...no, the sixth person to tell me that. But it’s a lie. You’re expecting to lose.”

I stepped towards him. “What makes you so sure about that?”

“Come on, Paul, it’s me. I was sitting three feet from you when you found out who we were. I saw the look on your face. That was a look that said to me that you were prepared to lose. To lose big.”

“What kind of mind game is this, Leon?”

“It’s no such thing, but it’s very revealing that you would assume that.” Leon hopped down from the stage and paced over to me, his words echoing through the empty room. “What it is, is a matter of honor. My father always taught me that you should treat your opponent well before you deliver the finishing blow, so to speak.”

“Honor? What the hell are you talking about?”

Leon turned, leaning against the first row of seats. “Play fair, but play to win. The way it’s supposed to be. I know words like ‘honor’ don’t mean much around here, but I thought you might understand it. I guess I was wrong about at least one thing.”

“No, I understand what you’re saying,” I said.

“But? Be honest.”

“The way you’re saying it...it seems strange.”

“Clearly, something’s bothering you,” said Leon. “Don’t be afraid to tell me. We’re fellow travelers, aren’t we?”

I didn’t really know what to think, but I wasn’t about to let him go on that point. “All right. You want honesty? The whole truth?”

“The whole truth. Go ahead, Paul, I know there’s something you want to ask. They always do.”

“They always do...” I tried to ignore his last remark. “Okay, I know when people are playing dirty, I’m used to it. I’ve seen every form of ugly competition that they’ve dreamed up. You come along, acting all mild and well–mannered, and I think that maybe we’re on the same page. And then there’s that meeting at your house, and running into me here...you’re honestly telling me that none of this gamesmanship?”

“Not at all, Paul. Just sportsmanship.”

“No, there’s something else missing here. Okay, what about the quarterfinal? You only pulled out an 50–point win against a team that had no hope of winning. You could have landed a blowout easy, but you didn’t.”

“You think I threw the match? Maybe to hide my talents?” He smiled – a cool smile, an expression of absolute confidence. “I call that being polite. Part of being honorable, part of being a good sport, is not showing off. I didn’t feel like I needed to embarrass those kids. That’s another thing I learned from my father: You only use as much talent as you need, never more.”

“Bullshit! What about your semifinal round? You destroyed the Flying Brains. I’ve never seen a match that lopsided.”

“Okay, you got me there.” Leon threw out his arms and took a few steps towards me. “Truth is, I probably would have let the Brains go with the same treatment I gave that first team. And then I started hearing things about their leader. You’ve dealt with him before, right?”

“Aaron Bellamy, yeah.”

“Aaron Bellamy, that’s the one. I heard rumors about what a piece of shit he was, but I didn’t decide to do anything to him until yesterday. That’s when I heard that he was telling everyone that he was going to crush us, and then your friend Ken told me that he was a cheater. That’s when it came together. That’s when I realized that he was the one who’d been causing so much trouble.” Leon laughed to himself. “And I thought he would benefit from a lesson in humility.”

“Humility?” I felt like I was going insane. “All that talk about sportsmanship and you humiliate someone for badmouthing you?”

“Oh, don’t tell me you feel sorry for him,” said Leon. “I know about what he’s done to you.”

“That’s beside the point!” I started to back away. “Holy shit Leon, this is nuts! You’re crazy!”

“And you’re scared!” Leon jabbed his finger towards me. “I can see it in your eyes. Aaron might be a psycho, but you’re a coward, and that’s worse. A coward like the rest of them. You know what? They said they were smart enough, too.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“You don’t know?” Leon crossed behind me, blocking my way out. “Maybe you’re not as smart as I thought.”

“You don’t know anything about me.”

“Because I know exactly what kind of person you are. I know everything about you, Paul. I should, I’ve seen you so many times. I’ve seen your type.” Leon was pacing little circles around me, sizing me up. “Didn’t always look like you. Sometimes, it was a girl. Different skin color. Different accent, dialect. Taller or shorter. But they were all the same.”

“I have things to do.” I stepped around him.

Leon shrugged. “You’re the smart kid, yes? They call you that?”

He was waiting patiently for me to answer, but I had the feeling that he knew everything I was going to say. “Yeah, that’s me. They call me the smart kid.”

“And when you were younger, the probably gave you all sorts of tests, right?”

“Yes, they did.”

“And you scored through the roof, right?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Probably got straight As since elementary school? Riding through life on the gifted program? Maybe even skipped ahead in a few classes?”

“Yes, all right, that’s me! That’s me!”

“Exactly.” Leon shook his head. “God, you people disgust me. All any of you ever do is bitch and moan about how hard it is to be the ‘smart kid.’ ‘The other kids tease me.’ ‘The girl I’m infatuated with won’t go out with me.’ ‘I can’t believe a superior being like me is stuck here.’ Meanwhile, everyone else is just trying to get to the end of the day without flunking out. Not you, though. You don’t have to fight for any of it, you just sail right through.”

“Okay, stop right there!” I got in Leon’s face. “That’s where you’re wrong. I worked damn hard to get where I am.”

“Oh, please, Paul. Did you ever get stuck on a test? Did you ever bust your ass all weekend trying to finish up just your regular homework? Did you ever sweat over your grade card because you honestly didn’t know what you were going to get?”

“Well...” I sighed. “...no.”

“Yeah. You’re the worst kind of smart kid, Paul. I bet you’ve never taken a risk in your life. Why should you? It was always so easy to play it safe. Everything was so easy for you, so you just got used to taking the path of least resistance. You never took any real risks because you didn’t have to.” Leon grabbed me by the shoulder and stared me dead in the eye. There was this look of spite behind those eyes that I had never seen before. “That’s where you and I differ. You see, Paul, your kind plays it safe because you can always afford to. For me, that’s not an option. I put it all on the line in every single match. That’s how I won before, and that’s how I will win today. It all comes down to this, Paul: I’m not smarter than you, I’m just better than you. And very soon, I’m going to prove it to the whole world.”

I was so awestruck that I couldn’t move at first. Leon walked back to the stage, staring wistfully at the stage furniture. “I’ve been waiting a long time for a stage like this. You know, I’ve beaten a lot of people like you, but no one saw me do it. But a high–profile event like this? Word will spread. First to the local press, then to Aukland’s, then to the internet, the country, the planet. I’m going to make you famous, Paul. You’re going to lose today, but please play to win. If you throw the match, I’ll bury you deeper than I buried Aaron.” He turned back to me. “You can leave now.”

That’s where we left off. As I write this, the crowd is already starting to form. And none of them know it, but they’re all going to be witnesses to an execution. They’re all props in some sort of coup.

And I still don’t know how I got here. I just don’t know.

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