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Chapter 4 - Aaron

“Trivia.” I hate that word. More precisely, I hate that dismissive little tone people always apply to the word, that trace of a sneer at the end. When people talk about “trivia,” they imply that gaining knowledge for its own sake is a waste of time. “Worthless knowledge,” there’s another one. That one comes from the same little minds that turn their noses up at the space program or research into the fundamental elements of reality. If they can’t use it to make you a fancy phone, it’s no good, huh? There is no “worthless knowledge,” only worthless people who can’t comprehend the true power that knowledge holds. Ungrateful bastards. If I had my way, all of them would be out huddling around a fire in some godforsaken waste until they learned the proper respect.

“Worthless knowledge.” With those two little words, they dismiss my entire being. My whole goddamn life since I was old enough to put two words together has been about achievement in the intellectual realm. Aaron Baines Bellamy, seven years old, taking his first overall win at the science fair. Aaron Baines Bellamy, eleven years old, taking the ACT and outscoring half the college–bound seniors in the room. Aaron Baines Bellamy, fourteen years old, cleaning up at the state forensics festival with his paper on the philosophy of mind. And none of it matters. No matter how much I achieve, I still have to put up with these subliterate couch jockeys who open their noise–holes to utter that phrase “worthless knowledge” right in my face.

That’s why, for all my achievements, the one thing I’ve always really wanted to do was compete in the national Scholar’s Bowl. Picture it – a whole league of people like me, all of them looking to show the world what a superior mind can do. A chance to escape from this festering mire of mediocrity, if only for a short time. But no, I never got a shot, and why? Trivia Master. The pursuit of knowledge turned into a cheap spectacle for the gratification of a braindead mass audience. Question lists bloated up with real trivia about pop culture fluff. They’d let us clear a round or two, then feed some easy queries to the other team and smack us right back down. We never had a fighting chance.

But I’m over that. You see, this year is different. It isn’t about the competition, or Scholar’s Bowl, or the pursuit of knowledge. It’s about justice. It’s about my chance to right a wrong that I’ve lived with for more than six years. It’s about what I owe to one treacherous little worm, a backstabbing bastard whom I was once foolish enough to consider my friend, a scrawny little turd who thinks he can get away with anything because of who he is. Everyone knows what this year’s Trivia Master is about. That’s why they’re all watching us. They’re waiting to see us go head–to–head. They want to see blood. I don’t plan on disappointing them.

And that is the only reason I actually sat down with that weasel Brian Booker.

“Aaron, are you with me?”

“Yeah, Brian.”

“I know you’re skeptical, but I’ve run the numbers on this.”

“You’ve told me.”

Let me set the scene for you. We’re sitting in the library – me and Brian Booker and some kid named Sid Richardson. He’s supposed to be a real hot–shot local musician, one of those garage band heroes that everyone fawns over. Personally, I’ve never heard his work. It all sounds the same to me, anyway. Brian swears up and down that the kid is smart, though. Normally, I might accept his judgment, but I think he really just wants to hang out with a guitarist.

That day, he was still trying to convince me. “I’ve been talking to this guy, and he knows more about music than anyone I’ve ever met. You know how they pack those lists with music questions? Sid here will get us an extra twenty points a round, minimum.”

The rocker piped in. “Yeah, man. And I can cover you on movies, sports, I’m pretty good on geography...”

“All right, Sid.” I waved him off. “You don’t need to sell me on this. Brian vouches for you, that’s good enough for me..”

“Awesome!” said Sid. “Hey, you got a fourth guy yet? ’Cause I met this kid Leon who’s looking for a team.”

“Thanks.” If I wanted your opinion, I’d ask for it. “I think we’re going to pick out our fourth.”

“Cool, man.” The rocker stood up to leave, and not a moment too soon. “Hey, Aaron, want to trade numbers? I got Brian’s but not yours.”

“That’s okay, Sid, I deal with all the team stuff,” said Brian. I don’t know if he sensed that I was getting irritated or if he just wanted another excuse to fawn like some starstruck sixth–grade girl. “I’ll call you later, all right?”

“All right. Talk to you later, my man. And nice to meet you.” Sid shot me some goofy little finger gun, and then he was gone.

Then it was just Brian and me, and I could already sense that he wanted to talk strategy. Brian can’t seem to get it through his head that I don’t care about strategy. That’s his fixation, not mine. It’s not like I enjoy his company, I brought him on board to serve a specific purpose. The whole reason he’s here is so that he can worry about strategy and statistics and all that crap while I focus on the important parts. But no, I have to get daily briefings on what everyone else is doing.

“I’ve been keeping tabs on Jane Anders. Her team’s going to be tougher than I thought.”

“I’m not too worried.” Brian seems to think that I should be scared of Jane. Why? I’m faster than her. I have a greater breadth of knowledge. I’m smarter in general. Why should I worry?

“You should be worried. Word is that she recruited Chong!”

“You mean Hannah Bae?”

“Well, yeah.”

Scholar’s Bowl participants love to give each other nicknames, but they’re usually not this racist. Hannah and her brother were on a team when they were in middle school that swept the regionals. Some of the idiots on the other teams – who had evidently never seen Asian people before – started calling them “Ching” and “Chong” and it stuck. Small minded pricks. The two of them aren’t even of Chinese descent.

I wasn’t about to start a fight over this, so I played it off. “What’s your point, Brian?”

“We should get the brother...uh...”

“Andrew. His name is Andrew.” Our strategist can’t even remember the names of the people he wants to recruit. Racist little troll, I can’t believe I’m going to share a stage with him. “I’ll talk to him. There must be something he wants that I can get for him.”

“Great! Let me know if he’ll do it, because we don’t have much time and all the good candidates will be taken soon.”

“I’ll tell you this afternoon.”

I hate this. Competitions like this aren’t supposed to be about gamesmanship or strategy. They’re supposed to be a meeting of the minds, a contest of wills. In a just world, we wouldn’t have to put up with any of this. It would just be me and Paul, mano e mano before the entire world. That’s the only thing I’m interested in planning – just what I’m going to do to that backbiting pecker. It’s not enough to beat him, not by a long shot. He has to be humiliated. I want him to limp off the stage in shame. I want him to hide the clippings from his children because it still stings him.

Damn it, I’m getting off track again. You’re going to have to forgive me, this is all I can think about this time of year.

Andrew Bae was not an easy man to find. I heard he used to be a serious overachiever – enrolled in a half–dozen clubs at any one time, competitions most weekends, the whole nine yards. Then he moved here, and just faded right into the background. No more clubs, no more meets, nothing. It’s such a waste, but not everyone can handle the pressure. Hell, this guy – the king of the Junior Scholar’s Bowl – didn’t even enter Trivia Master last year. People asked him, but he always turned them down.

But he said yes to me. It’s just like I told Brian – everyone wants something. It’s just a matter of figuring out what it is.

The only time I have to talk to Andrew is between classes. That meant staking out his locker, something I don’t like doing but which is necessary at times. It gave me just five minutes to bring him around to my way of thinking. It took me a few tries before I ran into him, and once he did I didn’t waste time with long introductions, I went right into my pitch

“Andrew? Aaron Bellamy. I don’t want to waste your time, so I’ll get right to it. I’m putting together a trivia team, and I need you on my side.”

He just shrugged me off. “Sorry, I’m really not into that sort of thing.”

“You used to be into it.”

“I got tired of it.” He didn’t even look at me.

It took every ounce of willpower at my disposal to keep my frustration in check. “It’s different here. I think you’d enjoy it.”

He slammed the locker shut. “I watched it last year. No thanks.”

There’s no way I’m letting this bastard walk away from me. Immediately, I jump into his path. He’s got a few inches on me, but I really don’t care. He’s staying put until he gets my full pitch.

“If it’s about going out on the road, I understand. I just need to finish this school’s competition. We get through four rounds here, I’ll request an alternate when we go to Scholar’s Bowl. Does that sound better?”

He sighed right in my face. “Maybe, I don’t know.”

I didn’t have time for this non–committal crap, so I went for the closer. “All right, enough of this. This year’s competition is deeply important to me. I don’t have the time to explain why just now. All you have to know is that I’m willing to do damn near anything to get the team I want, so name your price. Want me to do your homework for the rest of the year? Help you cheat on a test? Get someone else in trouble for cheating on a test? I’ll do it.”

“I don’t think you can do what I need done.”

“Try me, Andrew. I have ways.”

I could see the wheels turning in his head. Clearly, he had something in mind. “Can you get everyone to stop calling me ‘Ching’?”

“I think I can manage that.”

He put on this weird grin, like he thought I was crazy. “And how would you do that?”

“Simple.” An idea was already taking form in my head. “I can do something horrible to the next person who calls you ‘Ching’. Word will get around.”

“Uh...” He scratched his head. “Something horrible?”

“The less you know, the better.”

He played it off like he’s still chewing it over, but I know I’ve got the guy. “All right, I’m game.”

And with that, we were ready. The team is assembled, the die is cast. In another week, the tournament begins. That’s just one week to put everything in place. Brian is already dealing with the mind–numbing daily aspects, the kind of thing he’s crazy enough to enjoy. That frees me up to deal with the part I enjoy – the personal touch, the part of the game that everyone else swears they hate even as they tackle it with such aplomb.

Damn. I’m going to enjoy this.

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