Challenge (PG)

Wade Martin had been watchingChallengefor as long as he could remember. From the time he was in sixth grade he had been telling friends that he was going to be on the national high school quiz show hosted by Barney Roberts some day.

The syndicated show was America's longest-running high school quiz show and Barney had been the Host for the past fifteen years, a quirky and funny emcee who made the show even more fun to watch.

The game show's format was simple. Three teenaged contestants competed in a trivia and academic knowledge competition. The defending champ from the previous show continued to appear until he or she was defeated by a challenger. A point value from the game board is assigned to each category: Arts & Entertainment, Literature, Math & Science, General Knowledge, Social Studies, and World Events. In each category, there are four questions, worth 100, 75, 50, and 25 points respectively. In the last two minutes of the show, there was a lightning round that could make or break close contests.

Whoever rang in first was allowed to answer the question but the two other players were allowed to "challenge" the answer if they believe it was incorrect (except in the lightning round). If the challenger was wrong, he or she lost fifty points but if they were correct in their challenge and could answer the question correctly they were awarded 150 points.

There was also a "Meet the Contestant" segment when Host Barney Roberts interviewed the players and asked general questions such as what activities the players participated in or what interests he or she had. Roberts was fast, funny, and irrelevant in an eccentric and unpredictable way and he was able to make the teenaged players laugh with his unexpected and unusual mannerisms. His favorite sayings during the game were "Do I hear a Challenge?" "Are You Sure?" and "Well, I'll be a Monkey's Uncle."

Challenge was, without a doubt, Wade's most favorite show of all time. He never missed it, skipping family activities and hanging out with friends to make sure he was in front of the television set each night at 7:30 to watch the show. On those occasions when he absolutely couldn't be in front of the tube he was sure to tape record it and he'd watch when he got home.

His friends razzed him about his obsession but Wade didn't care. He loved the show and he loved playing along. Ironically, Wade was hardly the smartest kid in his class. But he was well read and he was sharp when it came to pop culture so he usually did pretty well when he played the game at home. His sisters stopped playing with him because he got to be too good for them by the time he got to eighth grade.

Wade had been talking about auditioning for Challenge for so long that his friends stopped listening to him. There was no way in hell a goofy kid from Hillsboro was going to get on a national television show taped in Hollywood and they were convinced that Wade's talk was nothing more than a pipe dream.

One night, Wade was hanging out with the guys. Pyatt got his driver's license a few weeks earlier and they stopped at the Applebees in Greenville on their way back from watching a girl's basketball game. The only reason Wade allowed them to do that was because he knew the restaurant had several wide flat screen television and he'd be able to catch Challenge there (although he had to ask one of the waitresses to turn the nearest one to their booth from ESPN to the Challenge station!).

Wade was sitting with his good pals Jazz and Pyatt who was with his girlfriend Emily who had brought along her friend Shana. Jazz had been hitting on her for months but she didn't seem interested and Wade, of course, was to shy to say much to the girl. Shana was pretty with long brown hair and dancing eyes but Wade didn't know her very well and this was really the first time he actually hung out with her.

Wade was too busy watching Challenge on the televisions screen above Shana's head to pay much attention to her or listen to what the others were talking about.

"Oh, you like Challenge?" Shana asked when she finally figured out what Wade was staring at behind her.

"Yeah," Wade replied. "You?"

"It's fun," Shana replied with a smile. "Are you any good at it?"

Jazz burst out in laughter. "Is the Pope Catholic?" he asked.

"Does a bear shit in the woods?" Pyatt added.

"I do okay," Wade said modestly.

"Wade's a genius when it comes to Challenge," Jazz bragged.

"Too bad he's a moron at everything else," Pyatt joked.

"Switch places with me," Shana told Jazz who was sitting next to Wade opposite Pyatt, Emily and Shana.

"Huh?" Jazz asked with confusion.

"Move!" Shana ordered as she slid out of her booth seat and motioned for Jazz to get out.

Jazz finally did what she asked and Shana sat in the bench next to Wade so she could see the television screen above. Jazz took Shana's original seat next to Emily, a perky girl with a shag haircut and Wade could tell that Jazz was miffed by the Shana's apparent rejection of him.

Shana played Challenge along with Wade for the rest of the show much to the chagrin of Pyatt and the annoyance of Jazz.

"Oh God, this is going to be true love!" Emily joked as she watched her friend play along with Wade and the show.

Shana only challenged Wade once and they both did pretty well answering that night's questions. When the show was over, Wade glanced at Shana and smiled shyly.

"Not bad," he said, impressed.

"You either," she replied with a smirk.

"Oh, he's the undisputed champion around here," Jazz laughed sarcastically, getting his digs in at his friend for stealing his potential date.

"Tell her how you're going to audition one day, Wade!" Pyatt said.

"Well actually, there's an audition test at Disneyworld in Orlando in April," Wade revealed.

"That's a good place to start," Shana remarked.

The entire table stared at Shana with surprise. It was the first time Wade recalled anybody being supportive or encouraging of his dream and he wanted to lean over and kiss her on the spot.

"You're not serious?" Jazz said. "No way Wade could do something like that."

"Why not?" Shana asked with a shrug. "He's pretty good."

Wade felt himself blushing and he saw Jazz getting even more pissed off.

"Did you apply yet?" Shana asked Wade with interest.

"On line," he confirmed.

"Well, I hope you hear back," Shana said with sincerity and Wade knew he liked the girl (although he would never tell Jazz that!).

Over the course of the next few days, Shana would stop Wade in the halls of Hillsboro High and ask if he had heard from the Challenge show yet. He was surprised at her curiosity and couldn't understand why she cared what he was doing. He also found himself glancing around to see if Jazz was watching.

Finally, to his joy and amazement, Wade received an e-mail confirmation from the producers of the show inviting him to audition at Disneyworld.

"That's great!" Shana said with a smile when she asked him if he'd heard anything a few days later. Wade felt awkward when she gave him a hug. "Congratulations!"

"I'm not sure if I'm going," he mumbled.

"Why not?" Shana asked, grabbing him by the arm and pulling him into an empty classroom for further discussion.

"Florida?" He asked, rolling his eyes. "How the hell am I going to get there?"

"I don't know," Shana admitted. "Take a bus?"

"My parents will never let me go to Disneyworld alone," Wade remarked.

"I'll go with you!" Shana replied.

He laughed, embarrassed by the very suggestion. "Yeah, as if that would ever happen."

"What?" She asked, sounding offended. "Wouldn't you want me to?"

He turned red in the face. "Well, yeah, ah….of course….I…"

"Just tell your parents what's going on," Shana said. "See what they say."

Wade decided that Shana was right and that night at the dinner table he told his folks about the audition.

"In Florida?" His father asked with disbelief.

"He's been applying to be a contestant on this show for years, Dear," Wade's mother said.

"In April," his father frowned.

"During school vacation week," Wade confirmed.

Two days later, Wade's parents dropped a unexpected but amazing bomb shell: the family was going to Disneyworld on vacation! For a family that never went further than Summer's Beach this was big news and Wade couldn't believe the sacrifice his parents were making on his behalf.

Shana was thrilled to learn the news and she spent the next few weeks "coaching" Wade as they played the Challenge game every night in front of the television.

"You need to know what this is all about," Shana advised. "You need to be prepared when you audition."

"I'm feeling pretty good about my knowledge base," Wade said.

"I'm not talking about that," Shana replied. "You need to focus on the audition process."

Shana went on line and read blogs from former Challenge contestants and she surfed the web for as much information as she could find about the entire process. Then she coached him on what to expect and how to react.

"Remember that Challenge attracts a certain intellectual crowd but it is still first and foremost a TV show that is attempting to appeal to as many people as possible," Shana told him. "This is important because your brains alone won't win you a match."

"It won't?" Wade asked with worry.

"The vast majority of the people who make it to the show are smart," she pointed out. "They can answer the questions. But what sets contestants apart is if they're fun to watch and if they can play the game."

"Am I fun?" Wade wondered.

"I don't know yet," Shana deadpanned. "But the point I'm trying to make here is that you need to have fun! It's completely understandable to be stressed going to an audition for a nationally televised game show but don't let nerves get the best of you. Relax and pretend you are sitting in your living room playing the game with me."

"Okay," he agreed.

"You need to stand out from the rest of the brains in the room," Shana said. "Try to wear something that stands out - bright colors maybe - but dress casual because you want to look good but you also want to be comfortable. Don't dress zany or over the top. Black slacks with a polo shirt maybe. You want to stand out."

"Okay," he said again.

"So, stand out and have fun," Shana smiled. "Remember, it is a game and you'll get to play it during your audition. Don't be shy."

"But I am shy," he worried.

"Smile. Have fun with the categories. Most people never get this far so enjoy yourself. Not only will it make the experience better but you'll be making a mark on the producers."

Wade rubbed his chin. "What if they don't like me?"

"When you participate in the short interview with the producers after the mock game, be prepared for a few likely scenarios," Shana advised him. "Have a few short anecdotes ready. Be ready to provide interesting bits of information about you to be used during a potential on-camera interview. Know those stories well enough that you can instantly recite them. Remember to keep them short and to the point. Be funny. Be interesting."

"Is that possible?" Wade groaned.

"You'll be fine," Shana assured him. "You know how to play the game. Remember, don't answer until you are called on. Be competitive, but not cocky. Smile. Be likeable. And don't guess. A string of wrong answers will doom your chances. You need to prove that you can handle being on stage when the lights are bright and the cameras are rolling. They won't tolerate not playing by the rules even during the auditions."

"Anything else?" Wade asked sarcastically.

Shana laughed. "Oh, I'm sure I'll think of something!"

They continued watching Challenge every night, playing on the computer, and even having a few mock games down cellar with a reluctant Jazz playing Barney Roberts. Jazz had given Wade the cold shoulder for a few weeks for 'stealing my girl' but now that Wade was heading for actual auditions Jazz had forgiven him.

"You've really been an invaluable asset through all of this," an appreciative Wade told Shana when it was time for him to leave for the Florida audition.

She gave Wade a kiss on the cheek. "You kick their asses down there," she said. "You can do this!"

"You really think so?" He asked, starting to feel panicked.

"Look, you watch the show every night and you're good," she told him when they were saying goodbye that Friday. "You're on the computer playing the on-line game all the time and you beat me when we watch together. You're going to do great."

"But I have huge gaps in my knowledge," Wade worried. "I mean, I'm just an average sophomore in an average school. There's stuff I just haven't been exposed to yet."

"What you don't know is what you don't know," Shana advised with a shrug. "Just try your hardest and do you're best and you'll be okay."

"I'm really glad I met you!" Wade grinned.

Shana was his biggest fan and supporter and he loved her for it.

The family left Hillsboro at 5:00 on a Friday afternoon and they arrived in Orlando twenty two hours later. Wade's dad did most of the driving with some fill in from his wife. Wade's older sister Diane was allowed to drive through South Carolina! It was a long and sometimes boring trip but it was the first time that Wade had bonded with his family in the confines of a car in a real long time.

Wade was surprised to realize that he was feeling a little homesick on the road, missing Shana more than anything. They had become good friends in a short time and she was the closest thing to a girlfriend he ever had even though it really wasn't that kind of a relationship.

The family stayed at a hotel on Disneyland and the five Martins had a blast enjoying the various parks, attractions, activities, and adventures. The place was non-stop fun and the people were friendly, cheerful, helpful and positive. Wade was too busy having fun to worry about the Challenge audition and when the day and time finally arrived for him to show up for the audition he was actually feeling pretty confident, helped by remembering the belief and confidence Shana had in him.

On the day the audition was scheduled, Wade checked in with the Challenge production staff at the appointed time and place and he was guided into what looked like a large classroom where he took the test. He met a seventeen year old kid auditioning from Memphis Tennessee while they waited.

"I tried out before when I was fourteen but I didn't make the cut," the kid reported. "I decided that I'd keep trying so here I am again."

"Well, good luck," Wade replied, starting to feel nervous now but then he thought of Shana's smile and he knew he was going to be okay.

A friendly but serious producer entered the room with a written test for the potential contestants to take. The test was forty eight questions, eight from each category. Those who scored well enough would be invited to meet with the producers, get interviewed and participate in a mock game.

Twenty four questions into the test, Wade was feeling pretty good. He was pretty sure he only got one or two questions wrong and he breezed his way through the rest of it. He and the others returned to a waiting room while their tests were reviewed and out of the one hundred or so teens who had participated in the event, only thirty were asked to stay. Wade was thrilled when he was one of them.

Three or four personable and positive producers came into the waiting room and congratulated those who had survived the first round. They were asked a few general questions and then Wade had to awkwardly wait around with strange kids from all over the eastern part of the country until he was finally called into another room and asked about ten questions about his likes and interests, his hometown and family, his grades and school achievements.

Then he and two other kids were shown into a small room which was a mock set of the Challenge game complete with cameras and similar podiums to the real show. Wade felt as if he had walked into an alternate universe! Ten questions were all he got in the mock game. Ten questions to prove that he had what it took to make it to the real Challenge stage.

He felt confident about his chances even though there was a fake Barney Roberts at the host podium. Much to Wade's relief, the audition went well. He got eight out of his ten questions correct and he was successful on two challenges. He thought he was funny and charming in the mock interview with the fake Barney Roberts.

When it was over, the cheerful producers thanked Wade for his time and efforts. He was told that his name went into a contestant pool for eighteen months. Being in the pool didn't mean he would be on the show but not getting called wouldn't mean that he failed the audition either. For each season, the producers found a thousand potential contestants to fill four hundred slots. If Wade didn't get selected within the eighteen month period, he was free to audition again. As that kid from Memphis reminded him, many contestants went to two or three auditions before making it on the show.

Wade felt pretty good about himself and his chances when he left the audition hall and caught up with his family in the park.

"I killed it," he bragged even though he had no idea how he really did despite the praises and compliments from the producers.

Wade had a feeling that they were nice to all the teen contestants because they didn't want any scenes. Wade texted Shana right away: "It was a Challenge and I felt challenged but I think I'm Challenged!" he wrote.

She texted back. "You are such a Challenge!"

Now that it was over, Wade was extremely appreciative of his parents for being willing to make the trip mostly so he could do this. And he was truly moved by Shana's interest and support. All the way home all Wade could think about was seeing Shana again.

They left at 8:00 on Friday morning and pulled into their driveway in Hillsboro at about eight o'clock on Saturday morning. Wade beamed when he saw that Shana was sitting on the steps of their front porch waiting for him.

Wade was grinning as he jumped from the car and greeted her on the front lawn

"My challenge hero," Shana said with a smile as she gave him a welcome home hug.

###

Wade tried to get back into a normal routine. He finished his sophomore year at Hillsboro High and it seemed that he and Shana were some sort of item now even though they really talked about it or acted out on it. She just showed up at his house to watch Challenge with him and they hung out together at school a lot.

Summer arrived and Wade worked a summer job picking cucumbers. Occasionally, he and Shana got together for a movie or an ice cream and to watch Challenge, although it was summer rerun season and they remembered most of the questions asked from the originally airing.

Junior year started in September and Wade had all but forgotten about his Challenge audition in April, that is until the day he got a phone call from the producers.

"Wade, some lady named Jessica Jefferson is on the phone for you," his sister Mary said with annoyance late one afternoon.

Wade had no idea who Jessica Jefferson was, of course, and he grabbed the phone from Mary's hand.

"Hello?"

"Wade Martin?" A professional voice asked from the other end.

"Yes?"

"Wade, my name is Jessica Jefferson. I'm a producer with the Challenge television show."
"You're kidding!" Wade remarked.

"You auditioned for us….."

Wade heard some papers rattling on her end.

"…In April at Disneyworld, is that correct?"

"Yes, it is, I did," he replied.

"Wade, we would like you to come out to Los Angeles and be a contestant on Challenge!" The producer told him.

Wade nearly dropped the phone and he actually slumped down onto the floor in a heap.

"Are you okay, jerk?" Mary asked, glancing at him sitting on the kitchen floor.

"Wade, do you think you can make it out here in November?" It was Jessica Jefferson's voice still on the phone.

Wade's mind was racing. "Ah, yeah, yes, I …."

"I have your e-mail address here so I will send you and your parents all the information, release forms, rules, requirements, expectations, and responsibilities, okay?"

"Yes, that would be fine."

"Okay, Wade, thank you," Jessica Jefferson said. "I look forward to meeting you."

"Thank you very much!" Wade exclaimed.

He hopped up off the floor and hung up the phone receiver before he started dancing around the kitchen.

"What's going on?" A confused Mary wanted to know.

"I'm going to be on Challenge!" Wade yelled before he bolted out the back door.

Shana lived a mile and a half away in a complete different neighborhood but Wade didn't stop running until he reached her front door and buzzed the doorbell.

Shana opened the door after a few moments delay.

"Wade?" She asked with surprise. "What are you doing here? We're eating. Why are you out of breath and all sweaty? Are you having a heart attack?"

"I got the call!" He announced.

"What call?" Shana wondered.

"The Challenge call!"

Shana put her hand to her mouth. "Oh My God!" She screamed.

"I know!" Wade laughed.

She gave him a hug and they danced around the front porch together.

"Now the work really begins," Shana said when they were done celebrating.

"What do you mean?"

"We have to start preparing you for the actual show," she said.

"I'm going to be on the show!" He laughed.

"That's amazing!"

"I've waited my entire life for this!" Wade said with happiness.

"I know!" She said, hugging him again. "Go home. I'll be over later."

Sure enough, Shana arrived fifteen minutes before Challenge was due to air. Wade answered the door and she plowed into the house.

"Okay, be prepared to hear from the local media," Shana announced.

"Why?"

"The producers call so you may be interviewed for the newspaper," she answered. "You will definitely be interviewed by the local news on the channel that carries Challenge in our market so be ready for a lot of attention."

"Oh no," Wade grumbled. "I hate that stuff."

"Where are you parents?" Shana demanded.

"In the kitchen doing the dishes," he said.

"Did you tell them yet?"

"Well, yeah."

Shana marched into the kitchen. "Okay, folks, you do know that you guys will need to make the travel arrangements, right?" Shana asked. "Challenge doesn't fly Wade to LA or pay for the accommodations. That's why you're guaranteed to win at least $2500 even if you finish dead last. They do give a special rate at the Radisson in Culver City not far from the airport and the studio. You can stay there. There's an airport shuttle included in the rate, complimentary breakfast, and a shuttle that takes you to the studio."

Wade's parents stood by the sink with their mouths hanging open listening to Coach turned agent Shana!

Shana was right. During the next few days, Wade was interviewed by the local Greenville News and Dispatch newspaper. He was also tapped for the local news on Channel 32. And he called in to the two local radio station morning shows and was interviewed by them too. He was an instant mini-celebrity at school and the talk of the town.

"We need to start getting serious," Shana warned about a week later. "It's time to prepare for your appearance."

"What do we do?" Wade asked as they sat in his living room one night.

"Well, there are three things you need to do in the time leading up to your taping," Shana quickly answered.

"What are they?"

"Number one. Read. Everything and anything. Have you been to the library lately? If not, why not? You need to read as much as you can get your hands on. Refresh yourself on basic science, geography, art, religion, and history. Get a current almanac. Pour over lists of presidents, world leaders, Nobel Prize winners, Academy Award nominees, scientists, artists, and composers. Get a book of detailed Shakespeare summaries. Read, read, read. Go talk to your teachers everyday. Ask questions. Review lesson plans. Surf the web. Read newspapers. Magazines. On line blogs. Read TV Guide and People Magazine. Watch PBS. And Entertainment Tonight. And CSPAN."

"Geez, really?" Wade wondered.

"Keep watching the show, of course. We should have been taping them ever since the audition," she sighed. "This is your game tape, your film study so keep watching and keep cramming."

"Man, I'm not sure if I can do all of this," Wade admitted.

"I'll help you," she said with a wave of her hand. "Don't worry. You're not alone in this."

"Thanks, Coach!"

For the next few weeks, Shana made Wade watch Challenge while standing behind a music stand she swiped from school to simulate the podium and she gave him a thick pen with a click on the end so he could practice buzzing.

"The buzzer is the key to success and failure on Challenge," she told him. "Most of the questions can be answered most of the time by the contestants so what separates the winners and losers is not necessarily knowledge but hand eye coordination."

"Okay," Wade said, giving his thumb a work out.

"Now remember, you can't buzz in to answer a clue until Barney finishes reading the question," she explained. "If you click too quickly, your buzzer will be locked out for a fraction of a second and that's enough for your competitors to get in first. You need to beat the other players on the buzzer, even when you're challenging."

"Understood," Wade replied.

"So let's be clear," Shana continued. "If you're going to buzz in, you need to know the answer before Barney finishes the clue and be ready to buzz the second he finishes speaking, okay?"

"Okay," Wade said.

"Same with the challenge," she said. "If you think the other person answered incorrectly, be quick to respond before your other competitor beats you to it."

"Right."

"But don't challenge if you're not sure!" Shana warned. "That can be disastrous."

"I know."

"There's a kill switch so your buzz doesn't work until Barney is done asking the question," Shana reminded him. "Keep your eyes on the light on his podium out of camera range. When that goes on, buzz."

For the next three weeks, Wade (along with his Coach Shana) was on a Challenge overload. They practiced every night, before, during and after the actual show. Sometimes Jazz and Pyatt would come over and be fellow contestants and sometimes Wade's sisters and parents would play roles too. Wade went through three different click pens approximating the buzzer. Eventually, he got in sync with the flow of the game as he watched at home.

He was also reading everything he could when he wasn't watching the show as a contestant instead of a regular viewer. He was reading late into the night and at the breakfast table. He was reading during breaks at school and during lunch. Shana was always quizzing him on subjects, categories and issues.

"I'm starting to feel pretty good about this," Wade said with confidence a few weeks into the crash course cramming for his appearance.

"Yeah, but you're still going to lose," Shana remarked as they sat together in the school library going over material.

"What?" He asked, trying not to sound hurt.

"You will lose, Wade," Shana told him. "Everyone loses. Remember that Tam Dietz guy who set the record for most matches won? Even he eventually lost. That doesn't mean you won't win but every champion eventually is defeated."

"Man, that's kind of depressing to think about," Wade sighed.

A few nights later, Shana was at Wade's house playing Trivial Pursuit with him and his two sisters. Shana thought the game contained plenty of factual information that would help prepare Wade for his Challenge appearance.

"I'm very proud of you," Shana said out of the blue in the middle of the game.

"I've achieved a lifelong dream being on Challenge," Wade replied. "This is very exciting."

"You are well prepared," Shana told him. "You've studied everything you could get your hands on. You're confident you can win. You are ready!"

"And I'm excited!" Wade realized.

Wade's mother had been working on the travel arrangements. Having already gone to Disneyworld, Wade's dad said the whole family couldn't go out to LA to watch the taping so it was decided that just Wade and his mom would go. However, if she could pay her own way, Wade's mom told him that Shana was welcome to come too!

"Oh my God, really?" Shana asked with disbelief.

"You've worked just as hard as Wade has getting ready for this," Wade's mother replied. "You deserve to go."

Shana's parents agreed and she was allowed to go.

"Luckily, I'm a spendthrift so I have plenty of money saved up," Shana laughed.

Wade was happy to have Shana along on the trip and as departure day got closer he felt that he was honestly ready to compete. He was excited but the night before the flight, he couldn't sleep a wink. He laid in bed for eight excruciating hours and when he finally dragged himself out of bed in the morning he was a nervous wreck.

His mother and Shana both tried to be calming and soothing for him once they said their goodbyes to the family and left Hillsboro for the airport. Once they were checked in and through security Wade started to relax some but the nerves were definitely there to stay.

Shana spent most of the flight quizzing him with questions from material she had brought with her. Wade was still wired when they got to LA and now he was beginning to feel exhausted too. They checked into the hotel and went out to dinner, although Wade's mother forced Shana to stop asking him questions.

"If he doesn't know it now, he never will," Wade's mom pointed out. "You're in LA. Enjoy it."

Shana giggled. "You're right, Mrs. Martin. Let's see if we can spot some celebrities."

"I'm a celebrity!" Wade joked.

Wade's Mom and Shana shared one queen sized bed and Wade took the other one. It felt strange but comforting to be sleeping in the same room of Shana, a girl he had come to respect, admire, enjoy, and depend upon during these past several months. He might not have made it this far without her and he needed to be sure that she knew that before he taped the show.

Once again, Wade couldn't sleep even with the time change and jet lag. It took him hours before he finally settled into six hours of restless sleep but that didn't matter when he woke up the next day because he was ready to go.

So was Shana who was already up and dressed when he awoke.

"Big day, big day!" She smiled with excitement when he opened his eyes and saw her staring at him.

He could hear the shower running and he realized his mother was in there.

"No matter what happens today, I want to thank you for everything you've done for me," Wade said as he sat up, wearing gym shorts and a tee shirt.

She moved from her bed to his and sat next to him, wrapping her arm around her shoulders. "This is a once in a life time experience and opportunity," she said. "Thank you for sharing it with me."

An entire week's worth of Challenge episodes were taped in one day, twice a week, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Mrs. Martin had book their flight back for Thursday morning just to cover all scenarios. Wade had brought five outfits with him on Shana's advice.

"You could be a five day champ," she remarked before he packed for the trip.

Wade ate a light breakfast so his nerves wouldn't get the best of him and when it was time for him to leave he hugged his mother goodbye and was about to do the same with Shana when she leaned up and kissed him right on the mouth!

"You can do it!" She said forcefully and happily. "I know you can."

"Thanks," Wade said sheepishly.

He took the shuttle for the studios. His mom and Shana would arrive later as audience members. He sat in the shuttle seat waving goodbye to them out the window and he thought he saw some tears in Shana's eyes as the shuttle pulled away.

The other contestants were there when Wade was escorted into the "green room" and he sized them up. A few seemed nervous but most of them looked calm and ready. The returning Champion was Marie White, a high school Senior from Richmond, Virginia. She was humble, sweet, and pretty and Wade had a hard time rooting against her. But he knew he couldn't let Marie's niceness affect him. She was a champ and if he played against her he knew he'd need to be on his game to beat her.

The contestants spent a few hours getting briefed on the rules, asking questions of the producers, getting make-up, and practicing their anecdotes for Barney. They weren't allowed to meet Barney before the taping because he had access to all of the questions and there could be no chance of tampering with the validity of the game. Marie assured the others that he was really a nice guy and that they would like him. She wore her black hair straight down her back with thick bangs across her forehead.

Wade found it fun being in the green room surrounded by likeminded people and once the nerves wore off, the group of teens got along well realizing that they were all in it together and he enjoyed his time with his soon to be competitors.

Finally, the group was escorted out onto the set which was surprisingly cold to keep the audience alert and active during the taping. For Wade, walking on the set for the first time was like being a baseball player walking onto the field for the first time. It was a dream come true and it took all he had to suppress a big "Holy Shit!"

Words couldn't express how happy that moment was for him but he did find himself missing Shana who deserved to be a part of this too. Even with that excitement, of course, Wane knew that he was there to win. He focused on the producers as they went over the height adjustments of the podiums (so all three players were even in height on camera) to the use of the buzzers. By now, Wade had his game face on and soon they were playing in mock games, taking turns getting used to the board and the buzzers.

Wade was anxious for his turn to practice and when he finally did, he could tell that his three weeks of studying, cramming and practicing had paid off because he answered several clues in a row and he was accurately quick with the buzzer. He was suddenly feeling very confident but he knew he couldn't get cocky.

After the practice, the players were shuffled back to the green room just as the studio audience was allowed in. The audience was instructed that they could not to call out to the players or make any gestures because it could be construed as cheating and get players kicked off the show.

The waiting players could watch the taping from the green room. Marie's first two challengers were Ray Vose, a tall, stringy junior from Dallas, Texas and Amber Burns, a quiet auburn-haired Senior from Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania. While Amber did well in the beginning, Marie controlled the game almost from the start, scored on two Challenge take aways, and ran away with the game to successfully defend her title. Wade noticed that Marie was comfortable (having played before) but that Ray seemed stiff and Amber timid.

Wade was starting to get restless because he was ready to play. He felt like he knew nearly every answer in that first game and he had made a fast friend with another contestant, Vince Henderson, a Sophomore from Baltimore, Maryland and the two struggled not to blurt out answers as they watched the taping.

As it turned out, Wade won the draw for the second game taping! He'd be playing against Marie and the other contestant, Annie Jacque, a Junior from Benningham Alabama. Like Marie, Annie was polite and sweet and at first Wade had a hard time getting his competitive juices flowing but then he heard Shana's voice in his head.

"You're not here to get a date, you jerk, focus on the game!"

Annie and Wade drew numbers to select their podiums and then underwent a final make up freshening up before their big moment.

"Good luck," Wade said to Annie, a freckled faced redhead with a lovely smile.

"Yeah, thanks, you too," she said with her southern drawl.

Before they knew what was happening, it was time to take their places on the podium. They were escorted by the stage mangers from the green room and down the hallway. Wade could feel his heart thumping in his chest.

Suddenly, he stepped out of the dim hallway and into the light of the hot stage and the field of competition, the cold crispness of the air doing nothing to stop the hotness of his blood or stop the sudden sweat on his palms.

Wade was in the middle podium, with Marie on his right and Annie on his left. He traded good natured conversation with his fellow players knowing that when the time came it would be every competitor for themselves, winner take all.

Wade had waited his entire life for this opportunity and he wanted to enjoy every second of it. Shana said that he had a 67% chance of defeat before an audience of millions.

"All of the preparation, all of the determination, all of it boils down to 22 minutes of intense competition," Shana had said that morning. "This is not a game. This is not a sport. This is Challenge!"

Wade heard Announcer Johnny Gerber introduce the show and his adrenaline rose like a volcano exploding.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and Girls, are you ready for a CHALLENGE!?" Gerber yelled "Welcome to Challenge!"

Gerber paused while the studio audience applauded.

"Please say hello to today's players," Gerber continued. "First, greet Annie Jacque, a sophomore from Bemmingham Alabama who likes to volunteer at her local nursing home."

Wade glanced at the monitor and saw Annie enjoying her close up.

"And, a high school junior from Hillsboro, Massachusetts who enjoys sports, please welcome Wade Martin."

Wade tried to smile without looking goofy as the audience applauded.

"And, our returning four day champ, a high school Senior from Richmond, Virginia, Marie White!"

Loud applause for Marie's success.

"And now," the announcer continued. "Please welcome our Host for Challenge, Barney Martin!"

More applause as the popular host entered the stage and Wade got to see Barney Martin in person for the first time. He wasn't as tall as he appeared on television but he was just as handsome! This was it! Wade had made the big times!

And the Challenge began!

A combination of nerves and sudden stage fright froze Wade who didn't say a word through the first five questions. He hadn't even tried to buzz in and he felt like an idiot and a fool. He realized that he needed to get his head in the game or it would be all over. Finally, he buzzed in on the sixth question and got on the board with a correct answer which generated polite applause from the audience but then Annie beat him and Marie on the buzzer for the next four questions.

The first commercial break mercifully came. Wade turned to Annie and groaned.

"I'm getting killed."

"You'll be okay," she said.

Barney Martin strolled across the stage to get ready for the tiny chat section.

"Wade, you're drowning over here," he joked.

"I know, Barney," Wade sighed.

"Just relax, kid," Barney advised. "You'll be okay."

They came back for commercial break and Barney briefly chatted with the three players, getting easy laughs as usual and getting Wade to admit that his 'girlfriend' was watching from the audience.

Marie finally blocked Annie on a successful challenge while Wade found himself becoming frustrated as the game progressed. He had done so well on the buzzer in rehearsals and with the pen clicker at home but he hadn't faced Annie then and he was paying for it now.

Wade started to panic and then he committed the ultimate Challenge sin and he was pretty sure he heard Shana groan when he buzzed in on a question before he knew if he knew the answer. He didn't and Marie successfully challenged and Wade knew he was in serious danger of being totally blown out of the game. How could he embarrass himself on national television? What would the folks back home think?

Thankfully, Wade got on a small roll and answered four consecutive questions and then successfully challenged Annie and suddenly he was back in the game just as the second commercial break arrived.

"Wow, nice comeback," Marie said with sincerity during the break.
"You guys are really good," Wade replied. "This is tough."
Marie laughed. "I've had ulcers since I first got out here."
Barney spent the break chatting with a producer near the edge of the set. Wade was disappointed he didn't come and chat with the players again. They came out of the commercial break and, unfortunately for Wade, he utterly failed coming down the stretch. He couldn't get the buzzer on the next four questions and as he fell further behind his chances were looking bleak. But he didn't give up, answering the next two questions correctly and then pulling of a successful challenge and at the two minute warning he was 80 points behind Ann and 100 points behind Marie.

Wade knew he was cooked but he wanted to go out swinging in the two minute lightning round final when players earned 10 points for each correct answer but lost 10 points for every incorrect answer. Wade picked up fifty points while Ann lost twenty and Marie stayed even so when the final buzzer went off Marie had retained her championship while Annie finished second and Wade ended up third ($2500 prize money which he hoped covered his parents expenses')and party gifts.

Wade was happy for Marie who got to come back again and he envied Annie ($5,000 for second place) but it was hard to describe the feelings rushing through his head as Barney Roberts rapped the show up. It was gut wrenching to realize that a life time dream was over in a flash and that he let himself and Shana down so miserably. Even worse, it was November but the episode wouldn't air until February and he would have to keep the results under wraps for three months knowing the guys back home were going to be riding him every day for the inside scoop.

When Barney was done saying goodbye to the audience at home, the three players stepped in front of the podiums and stood with him while the final credits rolled. This is when they had to fake small talk and look cheerful while the camera was on them behind the credits even though Wade wanted to cry. Marie was as gracious as ever and Annie congratulated him for a game well played. Barney made a joke to try to make him feel better and Wade smiled gamely but he was really crushed.

And then just like that it was over.

"That's a wrap!" The Stage Manager called for off stage.

"See you again in a few minutes, Marie," Barney told the champ. "Annie, Wade, well done, and good luck to you."

Wade's hero walked off the stage while the players were led to the green room to have their make up removed and so they could gather their personal effects.

"It was really nice to meet you, Wade," Marie said sincerely.

"Congratulations, Marie," Wade said bravely. "I hope you keep winning."

"It can't last forever," she said with a shrug. "To tell you the truth, I'm getting kind of fatigued. The longer you play, the more stressful it becomes."

"Yeah, but it beats the alternative," Wade sighed.

"See you," Annie said with a polite smile before she left the green room.

Wade knew he'd never see any of them again.

He collected his wardrobe and exited the green room while Marie was taken by the crew to be freshened up for her next taping. Wade's mother and Shana were waiting for him in front of the stage and he tried not to look crushed as he approached. His mother smiled bravely but he could tell that Shana was shaken. She fell into him in a hug when he arrived and he wrapped his arms around her.

"Sorry I let you down, Coach."

"The first five minutes was the killer," she analyzed. "But you made a hell of a comeback."

"You looked great up there, sweetie," his mother said. "I'm so proud of you."

"I lost, Mom."

"Hey, everybody loses eventually," Shana reminded him.

Then she leaned up and kissed him on the lips again. "Besides, I think you're a winner."

Wade smiled and kissed her back. "I accept the Challenge," he said.

"Of what?" She asked.

"Of dating you!" He laughed

She smiled and wrapped her arm around his waist. "Come on," she said. "Let's go try to spot some celebrities while we're out here in la-la land."

Wade nodded but as they walked up the aisle toward the back of the auditorium, he glanced back at the Challenge set one last time.

"I could have been a champion," he said to himself.