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Chapter 8 - Paul

When it comes to competition, I’m really of two minds. Done right, competitive events can be a lot of fun – you get to work on your skills, show off your talents, and get in some time with peers you wouldn’t otherwise interact with. I used to do a lot of these things – math club, debate team, science fairs, student journalism, you name it. I sank hundreds and hundreds of hours into my activities, for which I was awarded a scrapbook full of commendations and a few little trophies that are now sitting on a shelf in my closet.

So why did I quit? Different reasons, I suppose.

There’s the time demand, for one. Clubs and competitions really cut into one’s free time. There’s weeks of practice to be balanced with homework, then months of tooling around the state to other schools or – God help us – cleaning, rearranging and stocking our school to host a competition. After a while, you start to miss the little things – getting up late on a Saturday, playing video games, reading a book that wasn’t printed by a scholarly press.

There’s also the pressure to consider. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I loved these events when I was a kid and came to hate them only recently. In elementary school, competitions are nothing more than an excuse to give children something constructive to do. They’re supposed to be fun little pastimes, a chance for the parents to fawn over their kids and take pictures. Then you hit your teens, and competition becomes deadly serious. Why shouldn’t it? There’s a lot more at stake. You’ve got ambitious students hoping to earn some awards so that they can list them on their college transcripts. There are the advisers, praying for a high–profile win so that the administrators don’t slash their clubs during the inevitable next round of budget cuts. And the administrators are looking for something they can use to prove to the parents and the school board and the governor the everything’s fine. Go down to a school that’s hosting one of these events sometime. You can smell the nervous sweat from a block away and feel the tension right down to your bones. It’s deeply unpleasant, and I finally decided that I just couldn’t put up with it.

Trivia Master is different. I don’t mind the time commitment and I’ve never felt any serious pressure. My problem here is wholly different. It all comes down to the behavior of the contestants. I mentioned this before, but I think some examples may be in order.

1993. The family of a student on a favored team received numerous hang–up calls in the middle of the night. The calls are eventually traced to competitors on three different teams who independently decided to harass their rival.

1997. A competitor, nervous over her team’s chances, sends in a bomb threat in hopes of delaying the event long enough for her to thoroughly prepare.

2005. A competitor threatens to post details about a rival’s sexual history on his blog unless she declines to participate.

Obviously, dirty tricks are not new, but the kids who pulled these stunts are nothing. I’m dealing with someone with a boundless penchant for designing novel cruelties.

I’ve known that this year was going to be unpleasant ever since Ken and I ran into Aaron. Aaron Bellamy might require a bit of explanation. He’s another perennial contender, and is probably my greatest personal competition. That much everyone knows. What few people understand is that he actually hates me on a personal level. What no one but Aaron himself understands is why. I’ve known Aaron for years – he didn’t always despise me. Hell, we were friendly when we were kids. The hatred started six or seven years ago, when something happened that turned him against me. Having an enemy is always disconcerting, but having this kid as an enemy is downright scary. Aaron is one of these obsessively ambitious types who doesn’t believe that the rules apply to him. Add to that the fact that this is final chance to humiliate me in front of everyone, and I’d rather not think about what elaborate little schemes he must be cooking up.

You take the good with the bad, though. I did have an excuse to speak with Jane Anders. What a rare and wonderful opportunity to have such an excuse.

It was a Thursday afternoon when it all came to a head. I waiting outside the school, taking notes on some meaningless project – just something to occupy my thoughts and break up the tension. But I must have gotten lost in whatever I was doing, because next thing I knew Jane was looking over my shoulder.

“Paul? What, you spending your free time outside of the school now?”

“Oh, Jane!” I crammed my things back into my bag – nothing worse than letting her see what a dork I really am. “Sorry, you caught me off guard.”

“So I see.” She has such a wonderful way of speaking – casual yet controlled, and always with a hint of levity. “You waiting for someone?”

I’m not quite so casual. In fact, my mind shut down for a second. “...No, I just had to do something for Ken.”

“Uh huh.” She looked distracted. “Some scheme from the trivia masters, huh?”

“Yeah, yeah.” My thought were racing – You’re blowing it, Liston. Say what you want to say. “Actually, as long as...um...you doing the competition this year?”

“Always do. Isabel’s got me setting up the team this year. I guess she thinks we have a shot.”

Damn it. “Well, if anyone’s got a shot, it’s you.”

“Not like you guys. With you two and Trevor, it’s really your year.”

I was kicking myself so much over my failure that I didn’t catch what Jane had said right away. “Trevor? Which Trevor?”

“Trevor Galloway. I saw Ken talking to him when I came in this morning. He didn’t say anything?”

“...No.”

“Uh...” Jane sounded nervous. “...That’s not something he’d tell you about?”

“I, uh...Well, I’d think he would. Are you sure?”

“Oh...I guess maybe not? It’s hard to say. Well, I got things to do, but I suppose I’ll be seeing you around. Oh, did you want to ask me something?”

“Ask? Um...no, nothing to ask.”

“Okay. Well, see you.”

“Yeah.”

Let me make this perfectly clear: What I feel for Jane is not a “crush.” A crush is based on nothing more than youthful exuberance and inexperience with the opposite sex. I have considered and dismissed the possibility. The fact is that by any objective measure, the two of us would be perfect together. All I have to do is have to ask her out. It sounds like such a simple proposition, but it’s not so easy for me.

As bad as I felt over missing yet another good opportunity, I couldn’t think about Jane. I was too angry. I couldn’t show it around Jane, but I immediately knew why Ken had been so evasive about our fourth member. He knew that I would be obliged to kill him as soon as I figured it out, and his only recourse was to hide it from me until it was too late.

Trevor Galloway and Duncan Washington are more like brothers than friends. I heard some rumor that they were born ten minutes apart in the same hospital in adjoining rooms. It’s probably bullshit, but the truth of the matter isn’t much less incredible. They were neighbors whose families went through some terrible shit together. They leaned on each other through the bad times, so Trevor and Duncan were basically raised together. It’s rare to see them apart when they’re on their own time. It does get a little weird at times, like last year at winter homecoming when they showed up with the Cashill twins. But they put up with the jokes about that. They put up with the cheap gay gags everyone makes at their expense. And that other rumor? The one where some asshole suggested that Duncan’s skin was a shade too light, so their parents must have been swingers and they both had the same father? They put up with that, too.

The point is that they did everything together – road trips, athletics, and of course Trivia Master. I couldn’t imagine that Ken could drive a wedge between them, but he probably tried and he was going to answer for it either way. Fortunately, he wasn’t hard to find. I knew he was trying to con Scott Carroll into joining the team, so the auditorium was a safe bet.

I caught him just as he was coming out. “You son of a bitch! What did you do?”

It was clear from his expression that Ken was pondering whether to play dumb or start in with the excuses. He attempted the former. “Paul, what’s wrong?”

“You know damn well what’s wrong, Ken, so don’t even try it.”

“It’s not a big deal. All I did was extend an invitation to one of our peers who knows a lot about literature. Where’s the harm?” Ken smiled at me – he couldn’t be that oblivious, could he?

“The harm?” I’d been struggling to keep my cool, as it was too early in the game to lose my shit. “First of all, you’re getting in between friends, and that’s not cool. Did you even mention this to Duncan?”

“Mention what? That they won’t be able to do this one thing together? It’s not like they have to stop being friends, Paul. It’s two weeks. Seriously, I thought this through very carefully.”

“No, you didn’t. You never think things through, Ken.” I was getting another headache – Ken can have that effect. “You compile data and run calculations, and that’s not the same thing as ‘thinking.’ Here’s a thought, Ken: We had two slots. Why couldn’t we take them both?”

Ken shook his head. “Duncan’s only good with history, and we didn’t need that. Paul, you’re being irrational. It’s just one little event. Duncan will get over it, and so will you.”

I could have smacked him across his “rational” face, but I kept myself in check. “So what, you were going to hide this from me until the sign–up? ‘Oh by the way, Paul, I split up two very good friends to fill out the roster.’ How could you keep that from me?”

“You may not believe this, but it was for your protection. I wanted you to stay hands–off so that if anyone got upset, they’d be mad at me and not you. See? I had it all planned out.”

“You’re full of shit, Ken. I gotta go talk to them about this.”

“Are you sure that’s such a good idea?”

“Duncan deserves to hear about this from someone other than you.”

This is my problem with Trivia Master. In theory, it’s the game that you play however you want. One one side, the people scrambling desperately for a victory; on the other, people having some fun with their friends. If that were how it actually played out, it would be a wonderful diversion. Unfortunately, it is inevitable that the fanatics and the fun–lovers will wind up in conflict. This never ends well, not for anyone involved in any way.

I tracked down Trevor and Duncan outside of the school. They’re easy enough to find – any downtime during the day, they plant themselves on the steps and watch the world pass by. That’s exactly where they were that afternoon.

Duncan greeted me first. “Paul Liston! Been a while since we’ve seen you hanging around here.”

“Have a seat, man.” said Trevor.

“Maybe for a minute.” I took a seat. “I just wanted to talk to you guys about Trivia Master.”

“Yeah? Well, what I’ve heard, this is gonna be a hell of a year,” said Duncan.

“Yeah, I’ve been hearing that too,” I said.

“I’m sure that friend of yours is putting together some kind of super team,” said Duncan. “Well, we’ll be waiting for them.” Suddenly, I realized that he didn’t know.

“Oh, shit, I didn’t tell you?” said Trevor. “Ken Greevey wants me on their team.”

“That’s what I wanted to talk about,” I said. “Ken...well, he’s not really a people person. He really doesn’t mean to interfere, it’s just that he doesn’t always consider what other people want.”

“Don’t sweat it, man,” said Duncan.

“Yeah, it’s not like we’re not attached at the hip or anything,” said Trevor. We can play on separate teams this one time, right?”

Duncan looked awe–struck. “So, you’re actually gonna be on their team?”

“Well, that’s okay, right?” said Trevor. “I mean, if you have a problem, I can always call it off.”

“No, it’s not a big thing,” said Duncan. He was lying, trying not to start an incident.

“Cool. Well, I’m just gonna go find Ken and tell him that we’re good to go.” The two of them stood up, but Trevor gestured for Duncan to stay. “Hold on, this’ll just take a minute. I’ll be right back.”

Trevor walked away, leaving Duncan and I standing alone. Up until that moment, I really didn’t think it could get any more awkward than that meeting with Jane. I was horribly wrong.

“I’m sorry,” I said, and I walked away, with as much calmness as I could muster.

This was a turning point for me. A lot of people had told me that it was going to be a “big year.” At that moment, I realized just how big. It was bigger than I could handle, and too big to stop.

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