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Chapter 39 - Paul

~CHAMPIONSHIP ROUND – RAGING NERDS VS. PRAETORIANS~

“Mrs. Kasold? Can I be excused?”

All eyes in the room fall on me as I leave. A lot of these kids are supporters – either they were with me from the start, or else they’re supporters of Aaron who decided that they like me more than this strange new kid who clobbered their man. I have no clue what any of them are anticipating. I can only speak for me.

The auditorium is right down the stairs, but it might as well be miles away. It takes every ounce of will I have to keep myself moving forward. I want to run, to hide somewhere that Leon and Ken and everyone else will never find me. But that’s not me. I have to do this. Everyone is waiting on me. Some of them are counting on me.

I’m the first contestant in the auditorium, but it’s not empty, not today. Everyone who assists in Trivia Master is invited to watch the final round, and plenty of them have shown up. Ron Janowski is there, but he’s hardly the only press that’s here. There are journalists – honest–to–God journalists – waiting to take notes for their human interest pieces. There are techs from Jameson Communications setting up the equipment to broadcast this thing. Did I mention this is going out live on local television and radio? Because it is. Which also means they’re going to have video reads, and maybe eve a live stream over the internet. Damn, Leon really is getting exactly what he wants.

There’s someone else here, a young woman just a few years older than me. She grins as I enter the room. “Afternoon, Paul. You ready for the big time?”

“Diana? What are you doing here?”

“Hell of a way to greet your cousin.”

That’s Diana Liston and yes, she is my older cousin. She used to live are here, but she got the hell out as soon as she could. Diana was almost like a big sister to me, but it was mostly because her parents and my parents made her watch me while they hit the town. I always expected her to be pissed for all the free babysitting hours they made her work, but she seems cool about it. Thing is, I never see her anymore – and now she’s here. This is shaping up to be a bigger deal than I thought.

“How’d you get away?” I say. “Don’t you have classes?”

“Hey, class can wait. You are the talk of Paradise Gardens, my friend.”

“Me?”

“Yeah.” Diana looks around. “This is quite a setup. I never knew trivia was such a big deal. I bet there are at least...half a dozen of my friends who plan on watching this, you know. Somehow, this contest has broken out into the world at large.”

“Don’t say that,” I say. “I’m under enough pressure as is.”

“Oh, you’re gonna love this.” She about to break out laughing – here I am dying and she’s laughing. “One of my student teachers has this father who’s a real prominent academic, or businessman – I’ve never been too clear on his official position. Anyway, this guy snuck out of China in the 70′s right under Chairman Mao’s nose. And I just heard that he’s going to be watching you on TV.” I’ve never seen anyone smile that wide. “Isn’t that cool?”

“Diana...”

“I’m making things worse. I’ll just take a seat.” She heads to the back of the room, but not before dropping one last pearl of wisdom. “Just remember, breathe in, breathe out. Whatever happens, happens.”

I wish I could be that cool about it.

All I have now is time – time to watch the audience pour in. Holy shit, I had no idea how big a deal this was going to be. The whole school’s here, of course, but that’s just the start of it. There are family members, tons of them. I can see some people who look like they’re from other schools – maybe scouts, trying to get an early line on the competition? And on top of that I can also make out a lot of strange faces here, no doubt attracted by the increasingly absurd spectacle of the whole thing. Right now, it’s standing room only, and there are still people waiting. I saw them getting a video projector ready for the people outside. I don’t even want to imagine how many cameras are out there right now. How many people are going to see that footage? Fifty thousand? A hundred thousand? Conservative estimates. If Janowski’s little movie got that much attention, then this one will be seen by millions.

It’s too dark and crowded to see much, but I swear I can see people I know out there. If I squint, I can pick out little bits of this absurd drama.

There’s Duncan Washington on the right, up on the edge of his seat, waiting to see if his friend will make the championships. Behind him, it looks like the whole Salamander offensive line – Lenny Vaughn’s friends, no doubt. Lenny’s leaning over the seat and chatting with Duncan. Lenny really is a friendly guy – I feel bad for judging him.

There’s Ed Page, leaning against a wall near the back. As usual, he’s got his memo pad out, ready to channel his journalistic ancestors. I bet he’s already got the opening planned out – a detailed description of the room, the people waiting eagerly for the massacre to begin, and of course the tension which must be palpable even from that far back.

Not far from Ed, I spot Colette Henshaw. From what I can see, she looks pissed. Of course, she generally looks pissed. I bet she’s just here to watch out for improprieties.

Way in the back – past the student and parent sections, in the back rows that are dim even when the lights are up – I can just barely recognize Diana. I swear she gives me a little salute. I’m sure she’s not taking this seriously as everyone else. I wish there were more Dianas out there.

Jane and her team are sitting close to the front on the left side. It looks like she even talked Isabel into coming along. Isabel doesn’t look like she’s enjoying it too much now that she’s not in the running, and I can tell that she’s itching to be out of here. Jane’s not budging, though. She’s going to stick this one out to the bitter end. Maybe I should talk to her once this mess is over. Is that appropriate?

Further back, Aaron is sitting with Brian Booker. He’s probably just aching to watch me lose – or is he more angry at Leon now? Either way, I’m surprised he didn’t find a closer seat. This is really right up his alley. I’m surprised he didn’t choke the life out of Brian, though, especially after all of those big predictions of his that have been floating around.

And, of course, my parents are here. They come to everything, and for the first time in my life I wish they hadn’t. Do they really have to watch me fail miserably?

I turn my attention back to my teammates. We only have a few minutes left.

“A lesson in humility? He said that?” Ken is still trying to wrap his head around what his new friend told me.

“Yeah,” I say. “Out of curiosity, what are our odds going into this?”

“About nine–to–one,” says Ken. “You know, when I used to dream about making it to this stage, I never imagined it would be this grim.”

“I’m sorry.” I look around the table. “To all of you, I’m really sorry about all of this.”

“What’s to be sorry about?” says Scott. “I’ve never played in a room like this in my life. I would have killed to have this audience.”

Trevor chimes in as well. “Yeah, man. I never would have made it this far at all without you.”

“Thanks, guys,” I say. “But now, it’s time to face the music.”

The murmurs in the audience grow muted as Mr. Laubhan takes the podium.

“And welcome, everyone, to the final round of Northwest High School’s Trivia Master, between the Praetorians and the Raging Nerds. This round will determine who will represent the school at the state and, hopefully, national levels. There is one new addition to this year, a little experiment we’re trying. Many of you know that, because of the number of people who wish to watch the championship round, Jameson Communications has been broadcasting the event live on all of their stations in Illinois and the surrounding states for the last few years. This year, they are also providing bandwidth so that people outside the viewing area can watch is via the internet.”

I knew it. I’m starting to sweat already. No, Paul, don’t go out like that. Focus. Breathe in, breathe out.

“Now, the rules are standard for this round, and I’m sure you know them by now, so let’s get started. Question one: This painter’s best–known works include The Potato Eaters...”

Deedle–dee.

“Leon, Praetorians.”

“Vincent van Gogh.”

“Correct, for ten points.” Damn it, this is hopeless. Ken was right, he’s way faster than me. How can I compete with this?

“Question two: Known as ‘The Real Deal’...”

Deedle–dee.

“Leon, Praetorians.”

“Evander Holyfield.”

“Correct.” It’s impossible. How can he be getting these all right? He’s buzzing in before the question’s half finished, before...

...Before anyone else would have a shot.

I put it all on the line in every single match.

That’s it. That’s his secret. He’s confident enough to take risks.

“Correct. Question three: What chemical, commonly called a ‘mickey’...”

Doot–de–doot.

“Paul, Nerds.”

“Chloral hydrate.”

“Correct.” My teammates look over at me. Suddenly, they’re confident that we have a shot.

“Question four: What government act was affirmed in the controversial case, Kelo...”

Deedle–dee.

“Eminent domain.” Leon doesn’t even wait to be recognized.

“Correct, but please wait to be recognized before answering. Those points go to the Praetorians. Question five: This traditional poetry form consists of three line of five, seven...”

Doot–de–doot.

I see Leon lunge for his buzzer out of the corner of my eye, but I deny him. “Haiku.”

“Correct. Again, please wait until your are recognized. That’s ten points for the Raging Nerds.”

I glance over at Leon. He looks mad. This is not a man who’s used to losing. Today will be a good day to learn about it.

“Question six: Despite the name of the film that popularized it, the velociraptor actually lived...”

Doot–de–doot.

“Cretaceous.” Both of us yell it out at once. The audience isn’t even murmuring at this point, they’re rumbling. No one’s ever seen anything like this before. This sedate, scholarly competition is on the verge of becoming a war.

Everything around me begins to blur together. The lights and sound and my sense of the passage of time are all merging and fading. My instinct is taking over in a way it never has. I can’t even hear the buzzers anymore – I just hit the button and shout out the answer, hoping against hope that I beat Leon to the punch. By the end of the round, the score stands at 40 to 60 in their favor.

“And now it’s time for the first team question.”

“Ken, bet fifty.”

“You’re the boss, Paul.”

Leon is writing down his wager. I have no doubt what he wrote.

“Here’s the question: This name is given to a mathematical proof which is true despite seeming contradictory.”

I lean over to Ken. “That’s a paradox, right?”

“Right.” He writes it down. Our chances are looking better all the time.

“Time’s up. I’ll take the answer from the Praetorians first...Paradox is correct. What was your wager?...Thirty points to the Praetorians, who now stand at ninety points.” Huh. Guess Leon lost some of his confidence.

“Now the Nerds. What was your answer?...Paradox, correct as well. Your wager?...Fifty points to the Nerds. The game is now tied.”

Again, the audience rumbles with activity. No one expected it would be this close. I certainly didn’t.

Mr. Laubhan tries to regain control. “All right, let’s have quiet, please. Before we begin the second round, I would like to remind all contestants that you must wait until your name and team are called before answering. I understand that you are eager, but this will make scorekeeping easier and quicker. All right, question one: Once known as Constantinople...”

Deedle–dee.

“Istanbul.”

Doot–de–doot.

Deedle–dee.

Doot–de–doot.

Deedle–dee.

“Howard Taft...Vladimir Putin...The Sun Also Rises...Event horizon...Gobi Desert...”

That’s what it’s like now – just questions and answers and motion. We’re ignoring the rules but Mr. Laubhan isn’t even bothering to reign us in. Leon and I keep throwing out answers while the crew does their best to keep up. The Praetorians would take the lead, then we’d tie and overtake. That’s how it’s, back and forth, for the whole round.

“Well, after that very intense round, the score is tied, and we go into the second team question.”

I nudge Ken. “Bet a hundred.”

“Are you crazy? No one bets a hundred!”

I grab him by his collar. “Do you want to win, Ken?” He meekly writes down the number.

“All right, here is your question. What is the one physical action that a human being can not perform with open eyes?”

“Gotta be blinking,” I say. “You guys agree?” Everyone nods.

“Definitely blinking,” says Ken as he writes it down. “How sweet it is...”

“Time’s up. Okay, I’ll start with the Nerds this time. Your answer, please?...Blinking is incorrect.”

What?

What?

“How much did you wager?...One hundred points, leaving the Raging Nerds with 90.”

I feel like I could die right here. The audience is so active that I can barely hear anything else. No one expected that we’d bring it this close and then fail so hard.

“That’s it, I blew it.”

“Maybe not,” says Ken. “Look!”

He points at the other table. All the color is gone from Leon’s face. He’s downright paralyzed, his mouth hanging open. This is not his moment of triumph.

“What is your answer?...Blinking, again incorrect. The correct answer was ‘sneezing.’ What did you wager?” Leon freezes up. He looks downright scared at this point. “Please, let’s see your wager.” I swear I can see his hand tremble as he turns over the card. “One hundred points.”

Ken turns to me. “We’re still tied...We’re still tied, Paul! We still have a shot!”

“And we proceed to the lightning round with the score 90 to 90.” The audience explodes into applause. “Is everyone ready?”

I grab my buzzer and hunch over the table. Leon takes up the same position. It’s all down to this.

“Okay, timekeeper, start the stopwatch now. Question...”

Beoooow.

For a second, I swear I passed out, or maybe died. Then I see pinpricks of light in the auditorium – the glow of cell phone screens. The power went out.

“Sorry, we appear to be experiencing some technical difficulties,” says Mr. Laubhan from somewhere in the darkness.

“What just happened?” says Ken.

“I think we got a reprieve,” I say.

“Wait, do the rules address power outages?”

“I think we just wait and resume when the lights come back on.”

“Well, they’d better hurry up and turn the juice on. Class is out soon.”

The emergency lights come on, and someone throws open the main doors to let in some natural light. It’s just bright enough to see, but without power to the buzzer system and microphones, the game can’t continue.

The minutes tick by – I suppose they do, anyway, I don’t actually know what time it is. In any case, the darkness gives me plenty of time to think. I realize that I haven’t slept well since the tournament started. I realize that I haven’t had a good day, either. I realize that I’m on the verge of lapsing into obsession, just like Aaron and Leon and all the ones who came before them. This is no way to live.

Woooom. The power comes back on.

“It looks like we’re back. We don’t have much time, so we’ll get right into it. Timekeeper, one minute starting...”

Riiiiiing.

“Okay, it looks like class is over. Unfortunately, the rules don’t allow us to run the competition when we’re not on school time.”

Ken jumps up. “Well who won, then?”

“Well, let’s see...” Mr. Laubhan flips through the rules notebook. “Since the game never officially ended, we mark the score from the last question. It’s a tie. Now, as for the team...If the tournament isn’t completed, we pick the most valuable players for the champion team. This year...” He pulls a loose sheet of paper out of the notebook. “...that would be Jane Anders, Aaron Bellamy, Kenneth Greevey, Paul Liston and Leon Mara.”

Leon and Aaron both shoot to their feet. “No!”

“You can’t expect me to play with those pricks!” shouts Aaron from the crowd.

“Shut up Aaron!” says Ken. “Those two tried to sabotage us.”

“I didn’t try to sabotage anyone!” interrupts Leon. “But all three of them have been slandering me since I started.”

“Hey, it’s not slander if it’s true,” says Aaron.

Ken laughs. “Like you’d know anything about the truth.”

The three of them are obviously going to be bickering for a while. I don’t need this, though. Class is over. The tournament is over. Nothing keeps me here. I just walk out of the auditorium with the crowd, and keep on walking until I’m back in my nice, quiet room.

And that’s what happened. Don’t believe me? Find the video yourself. I’m taking a nap.

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