Chapter 5 - Paul
Between covering trivia rule minutiae with Ken and keeping an eye on every corner for Aaron, Wednesday was a long day. Well, longer than normal, anyway – every day is a headache in its own way. It’s this media myth that smart kids must love school, based on the fallacy that if someone is good at something he must really like it. The school–dwelling nerd is a cliche that’s older than me and will probably live to throw dirt on my grave. No, I don’t like school, and not because of anything dramatic like bullying either. Like everyone else, I feel that there are other things that are a better use of my time. And 99% of the time, those things are waiting back in my own little private space.
My family lives in a rental property about eight blocks from school. There’s a bus route that leads there straight from the school, but I usually walk if the weather is decent – it gives me a chance to clear my head. There’s not much to see on the way. I pass a few anachronistic corner stores, some little family restaurants, a few weird little buildings that needed to be torn down a long time ago, and a lot of boring old Solace. Solace is a pretty boring place in general, not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. I’ve known a few people who lived in “interesting” places and I think I actually prefer that every day is pretty much the same here.
My parents both work kind of irregular hours, so either one of them could be home when I turn up. Just my luck, both of them were there that afternoon.
“Hey, Paul!” said Mom as I flew through the front door. “How’d the day go?”
I paused at the bottom of the stairs. “Um...fine.”
“You sure took off early enough this morning,” said Dad. “Is something wrong?”
“Something to do with the competition, was it?” said Mom.
“Yeah, Ken called,” I said. “He wanted me there early for...something or other, I really don’t remember now.”
“The rounds don’t start for, what is it, two weeks?” said Dad. “Why would you need to show up so early?”
“That had to be Kenneth’s idea,” said Mom. “He’s the one who always wants to talk to you about statistics, remember?”
I had to focus to stop from running up the stairs. “Yeah, Ken’s crazy. I’m just gonna hide out upstairs until dinner.”
“You need anything before you go?” said Mom. “If you skipped lunch again, we could make you something real quick.”
“No, I fine, really fine. I’ll be out a little later.”
Just before I made it to the top of the stairs, I heard Dad call out: “Remember, we’re both going to be at your finals!”
He’s telling the truth, you know. They make an effort to show up at everything I do that’s open to the public, and even some things that really aren’t. I guess that should make me feel better, knowing that my family is behind me. But these days, it really doesn’t. When I’m on my own time, I’d rather just forget about Trivia Master.
Once the door closes behind me, I can start to forget. There’s nothing special about my bedroom, and it’s not all that big – pretty cramped, actually – but it’s me, for better or worse. Here’s my little workstation where I do homework and work on all those personal projects that I talk about and then never finish. There are my rickety old bookshelves, packed with classic fantasy and science fiction novels and role–playing supplies. And there’s the refurbished cabinet with my vintage video game consoles, with stacks of discs and cartridges that I buy at Game Raider on the cheap. Best of all, there’s the door, which closes nice and tight and seals out the rest of the world. When I’m in here, I like to pretend that the outside world doesn’t exist, that it’s just me and my hobbies.
Except that I’m never really cut off because of that damn phone of mine. Some kids walk around with their faces glued to their phones, but I don’t have much use for mine. I think I would have been happier if I wasn’t expected to be in constant contact with everyone. By which I mean constant contact with Ken, the only person who ever feels the need to call me. Now most evenings, he gets caught up in his own bullshit and I don’t hear from him at all. But if he gets worked up, he’ll call me every time an idea pops into his head. It can be an enormous pain in the ass, especially during trivia season.
On the other hand, I do have Jane’s number. Jane Anders – a natural beauty, unpretentious, funny, intelligent, everything I’ve ever desired. I can still see her in that simple blue dress with her chestnut hair down, on that night when it finally hit me. Every day I swear I’m going to ask her out, but it never happens. Okay, maybe calling her is a big step for me, but what about a text message? It would be a lot easier, but is it too impersonal? What would I even write? “How are you, do you have a date for the Fall Homecoming?” It just sounds so pathetic, like we’re a couple of twelve year–olds prepping for our first group date. And yet every day I try to psych myself into sending that message, trying to build the strength to hit that little send button.
In fact, that’s exactly what I was doing when the phone rang. Ken’s house. Terrific. “Yeah, Ken.”
“You took off fast.”
“I wanted to get home. It’s been kind of a long day because of your wake up call.”
“Yeah, I guess I get that. Still, I was hoping you could come by and hang out.”
“Yeah. Is there a problem? You have time, right?”
That was Ken’s sly way of getting me to drop by his place and go over more stats, and the last thing I needed was to spend time in his little hovel going over computer models. Ken’s room fits him, too. You see, he collects books – but not like most people collect books, where they look for rare books or works by certain authors. Ken collects any books, books by the box, mostly stuff from library closings and those penny overstock deals you see online. So you can imagine what he has: Decades–old textbooks, trade paperbacks without covers, manifestos from forgotten fringe political candidates, graphic novels by artists I’ve never heard of, self–published novels rejected by publishers for a reason, and (of course) big books of trivia questions. He keeps them all in a weird array of mismatched shelves, most of which look like they’re ready to collapse from the effort of supporting his collection. There’s not much room to move, not that Ken does too much of that. Two people make for an awfully tight fit.
So I wasn’t really eager to spend a few more hours in there going over strategy. “Ken, I’d really just like this evening for myself, okay?”
“Sure, that’s fine.”
“And no early calls tomorrow, all right?”
“Don’t worry, buddy, I won’t call. See you tomorrow.”
The line went quiet and it was just me again, alone in my own private space. I have to keep telling myself not to hold anything against Ken. I don’t, not really, I just wish he could learn to relax.
But I couldn’t relax yet, because there was a message coming in. Ken doesn’t have any kind of cell phone, so that’s not something I’m used to at all. For a moment, I wondered if it might be Jane, as unlikely as that might be. But it wasn’t. It was anonymous, but I knew immediately who had sent it:
Even an Olympian needs his rest. Agree?
And suddenly I knew that he had my number. I don’t know how he got it, if he used his parents’ connections or just bribed someone at school, but he had it. This was Aaron’s way of telling me that he could reach out to me any time he wanted and tap me on the shoulder.
After that, I put the phone in a drawer. Once I knew that I was cut off, my blood pressure dropped about five points. Shame it’s going to go back up.