If it had been up to Sung, we would have had the cheerleading squad seeing us off at the airport. I could see it now:

Two-four-six-eight, how do mollusks procreate?

One-two-three-four, name the birthplace of Niels Bohr!

Then before we left, as a special treat, Sung would calculate the mass and volume of their pompoms. Each one of the girls would dream of being the one to wear Sung’s letter jacket when he came back home, because that would make her the most popular girl in the entire sch—

“Alec, we’re boarding,” Damien interrupted my sarcastic reverie. The karma gods had at least seated us next to each other on the plane. Unfortunately, they then swung around (as karma gods tend to do, the bastards) and made him fall asleep the moment after takeoff. It wasn’t until we were well into our descent that he opened his eyes and looked at me.

“Nervous?” he asked.

“It hadn’t even occurred to me to be nervous,” I answered honestly. “I mean, we don’t have to win for it to look good on our transcripts. I’m already concocting this story where I overcome a bad case of consumption, the disapproval of my parents, a terrifying history of crashing in small planes, and a twenty-four-hour speech impediment in order to compete in this tournament. As long as you overcome adversity, they don’t really care if you win. Unless it’s, like, a real sport.”

“Dude,” he said, “you read way too much.”

“But clearly you don’t know your science enough to move across the aisle the minute I reveal my consumptive state.”

“Oh,” he said, leaning a little closer, “I can catch consumption just from sitting next to you?”

“Again,” I said, not leaning away, “medicine is your area of expertise. In novels, you damn well can catch consumption from sitting next to someone. You were doomed from the moment you met me this morning.”

“I’ll say.”

I wasn’t quick enough to keep the conversation going. Damien bent down to take an issue of Men’s Health out of his bag. And he wasn’t even reading it for the pictures.

I pretended to have a hacking cough for the remaining ten minutes of the flight. The other people around me were annoyed, but I could tell that Damien was amused. It was our joke.

We were staying at the Westin in Indianapolis, home to the HeavenlyTM bed and the HeavenlyTM shower.

“How the hell can you trademark the word heavenly?” I asked Wes as we dumped out our stuff. We were only staying two nights, so it hardly seemed necessary to hang anything up.

“I dunno,” he answered.

“And what’s up with the HeavenlyTM shower? Am I really going to have to take showers in heaven? It hardly seems worth the trouble of being good now if you’re going to have to wear deodorant in the afterlife.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Wes said, making an even stack of the comics he’d brought on the bedside table.

“What, you’ve never been dead?”

He sighed.

“It’s time to meet the team,” he said.

Before we left, he made sure every single light in the room was off.

He even unplugged the clock.

The competition didn’t start until the next morning, so the evening was devoted to the Quiz Bowl Social.

“Having a social at a quiz bowl tournament is like having all-you-can-eat ribs and inviting a bunch of vegetarians over,” I told Damien as the rest of us waited for Sung and Mr. Phillips to come down to the lobby.

“I’m sure there are some cool kids here,” he said.

“Yeah. And they’re all in their rooms, drinking.”

Some people had dressed up for the social—meaning that some girls had worn dresses and some boys had worn ties, although none of them could muster enough strength to also wear a jacket. Unless, of course, it was a varsity quiz bowl jacket. I saw at least five of them in the lobby.

“Hey, Sung, you’re not so unique anymore,” I pointed out when he finally showed up, his own jacket looking newly polished.

“I don’t need to be unique,” he scoffed. “I just need to win.”

I pretended to wave a tiny flag. “Go, team.”

“All right, guys,” Gordon said. “Are we ready to rumble?”

I thought he was being sarcastic, but I wasn’t entirely sure. I looked at our group—Sung’s hair was plastered into perfect place, Frances had put on some makeup, Gordon was wearing bright red socks that had nothing to do with anything else he was wearing, Damien looked casually handsome, and Wes looked like he wanted to be back in our room, reading Y: The Last Man.

“Let’s rumble!” Mr. Phillips chimed in, a little too enthusiastically for someone over the age of eleven.

“Our first match is against the team from North Dakota,” Sung reminded us. “If you meet them, scope out their intelligences.”

“If we see them on the dance floor, I’ll be sure to mosey over and ask them to quote Virginia Woolf,” I assured him.

The social was in one of the Westin’s ballrooms. There was a semi-big dance floor at the center, which nobody was coming close to. The punch was as unspiked as the haircuts, the lights dim to hide everyone’s embarrassment.

“Wow,” I said to Damien as we walked in and scoped it out. “This is hot.”

I almost laughed, because Damien had such a look of social distress on his face. I could imagine him reassuring himself that none of his other friends from home were ever going to see this.

“The adults are worse than the kids,” Wes observed from over my shoulder.

“You’re right,” I said. Because while the quiz bowlers were mawkish and awkward, the faculty advisors were downright weird, wearing their best suits from 1970 and beaming like they’d finally gone from zero to hero in their own massively revised high school years.

Either out of cruelty or obliviousness (probably the former), the DJ decided to unpack Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl.” A lot of the quiz bowlers looked like they were hearing it for the first time. From the moment the beat started, it was only a question of whose resolve would dissolve first. Would the team captain from Montana start break dancing? Would the alternate from Connecticut let down her hair and flail it around?

In the end, it was a whole squad that took the floor. (Later I would learn it was the home-state Indiana team, who may have felt more comfortable at the Westin.) As a group, they started to bust out the moves—something I could never imagine our team doing. They laughed at themselves while they danced, and it was clear they were having a good time. Other kids started to join them. And then Sung, Frances, and Gordon plunged in.

“Check it out,” Wes mumbled.

Gordon was doing a strut that looked like something he’d practiced at home; I had no doubt it went over better in his bedroom mirror than it did in public. Frances did a slight sway, which was in keeping with her personality. And Sung—well, Sung looked like someone’s grandfather trying to dance to “Hollaback Girl.”

“This shit really is bananas,” I said to Damien. “B-A-N-A-N-A-S. Look at that varsity jacket go!”

“Enough with the jacket,” Damien replied. “Let him have his fun. He’s stressed enough as it is. I want a drink. You want to get a drink?”

At first I thought he meant breaking into the nearest minibar. But, no, he just wanted to head over to the punch bowl. The punch was übersweet—like Kool-Aid that had been cut with Sprite—and as I drank glass after glass, it almost gave me a Robitussin high.

“Do you see anyone who looks like he’s from North Dakota?” I asked. “Tall hat? Presence of cattle? If so, we can go spy. If you distract them, I’ll steal the laminated copies of their SAT scores from their fanny packs.”

But he wasn’t into it. He kept checking texts on his phone.

“Who’s texting?” I finally asked.

“Just Julie,” he said. “I wish she’d stop.”

I assumed Just Julie was Julie Swain, who was also on cross-country. I didn’t think they’d been going out. Maybe she’d wanted to and he hadn’t. That would explain why he wasn’t texting back.

Clearly, Damien and I weren’t ever going to get into the social part of the social. He had something on his mind and I had nothing but him on my own. We’d lost Wes, and Sung, Frances, and Gordon were still on the dance floor. Sung looked like it was a job being there, while Gordon was in his own little world. It was Frances who fascinated me the most.

“She almost looks happy,” I said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen her happy.”

Damien nodded and drank some more punch. “She’s always so serious,” he agreed.

The punch was turning our lips cherry-red.

“Let’s get out of here,” I said.


We were alone together in an unknown hotel in an unknown city. So we did the natural thing.

We went to his room.

And we watched TV.

It was his room, so he got to choose. We ended up watching The Departed on basic cable. It was, I realized, the most time we had ever spent alone together. He lay back on his bed and I sat on Sung’s, making sure the angle was such that I could watch Damien as much as I watched the TV.

During the first commercial break, I asked, “Is something wrong?”

He looked at me strangely. “No. Does it seem like something’s wrong?”

I shook my head. “No. Just asking.”

During the second commercial break, I asked, “Were you and Julie going out?”

He put his head back on his pillow and closed his eyes.

“No.” And then, about a minute later, right before the movie started again, “It wasn’t anything, really.”

During the third commercial break, I asked, “Does she know that?”


“Does Julie know it wasn’t anything?”

“No,” he said. “It looks like she doesn’t know that.”