Chapter 55

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The Showdown

As Dvorak originally predicted, the showdown receives the wholly unoriginal title of "Armageddon: Science versus Superstition." The words greet the scores of spectators, press and gawkers pressing into Stevens Point Area Senior High, or SPASH as the locals call it. That the host venue, an auditorium typically crammed with band recitals and plays, was available in such short notice is not lost on Zandra.

Neither are the locations of the two green rooms behind the stage, each at one end of a hallway. Even with her re-injured ankle, she could cover the distance in 20 seconds. That's little reassurance for protection from Dvorak's miscreants, currently making their presence known with music and loud, inane conversations in the hallway. Zandra counted six plus Dvorak when they met earlier with the evening's master of ceremonies, Zak Sloggins, a local radio DJ with an unusual amount of plastic surgery given his occupation. She also counted a couple knives and a handgun in Dvorak's posse the police conveniently missed. Zandra, on the other hand, received the full pat down upon arrival.

Worried about something, Dvorak?

Zandra requested a police officer to watch the door to her green room while she got ready, but Fred denied it. He claimed every regular and reserve officer was needed for crowd control. From the quake of voices, feet and equipment shaking the mirror in her green room, Zandra almost gives Fred the benefit of the doubt.

Almost.

Sitting alone in the green room, staring into the mirror while the cold cut sandwiches the school provided her warm to ambient temperature and the ice melts into a lazy puddle at the bottom of her cup of soda, she holds out hope that Amanda will knock on her door. It never comes. The only knock she receives is accompanied by a note slipped under the door reminding her of the evening's schedule.

First up is an introduction, including a brief bio of both participants and iterating the goal of the showdown. It's to be a debate to prove "whether the supernatural can offer anything super-technology can't."

Next, the audience will take a poll using classroom clickers the school uses for real-time feedback and surveys. They'll pick a camp they most sympathize with: the supernatural or the super-technical.

What exactly is the choice here? Of course there are things the supernatural can't offer that technology can. Internal combustion engines. The Internet. Airplanes. This isn't a debate. It's Dvorak's infomercial.

Zandra is allotted 15 minutes to offer a demonstration of her psychic powers. That's followed by a 15-minute refutation from Dvorak. Zandra will get 10 minutes to reply or demonstrate another power. Dvorak receives another 10 to counter that point. An intermission marks the halfway point before the process is repeated. The event concludes with an audience Q&A.

And after that? What after that?

Per the rules, created without Zandra's input, she is forbidden from using props. The police made sure of it for "integrity's sake."

"You want to do this right, don't you?" Dvorak had said when they all met with Sloggins.

I will, Dvorak. And for you, too, Gene. I know you'll be here tonight.

They couldn't take her ankle, though. It serves as her reminder and motivation with every swollen, aching step. She wears the pain like a searchlight, shining the reminder of what happened at Soma Falls with clomp-drag footsteps directly into this wretched town's eyes. If she plays it up for the cameras aimed like artillery at the stage, it won't be on accident.

Especially for Chris's cameras. I want him to get every second of it.

The pain in Zandra's ankle is her only source of clarity as she waits for the stagehand to retrieve her for the introduction. Her mind returns to it whenever the creep of anxiety wraps a hand around her throat. It reminds her how little there is left to lose. They took her family. They took her livelihood. They're about to take what few opportunities she has left. They might take her body, too, if she hadn't already scorched the earth.

Zandra lights a cigarette and focuses on the No Smoking sign on the wall. The miniature lighter and cigarette she hid in a loose hemline of her trademark purple gown. There's nothing else up her sleeve except piss and vinegar.

"Sorry, Ms. Zandra, but there's no smoking on school grounds," a voice from behind her says.

It's also weapons-free, but you don't hear me bitching.

Zandra turns to see the stagehand holding her nose.

She looks like a teacher. Poor thing probably volunteered to work this clusterfuck for overtime pay. I'm sorry you'll have to see this.

"Would you like me to leave?" Zandra says, flicking ash onto the note containing the schedule.

"Uh, no, but it is time to get going to the stage. Put that thing out first, though," the stagehand says.

Zandra nods and walks over to the door. She gently takes the woman's hand and turns it over. The stagehand looks bewildered.

"If you're interested in a free palm reading, you're in luck," Zandra says. She closes the soft flesh of the stagehand's palm around the cigarette's cherry until the ember is extinguished. "Would you look at that? You're going to get into the tobacco business."

The stagehand winces and jerks her hand away. She says, "Why would you do that?"

"Just get me to the fucking stage," Zandra says and hacks into her sleeve.

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