Hey Lil Sneak, how’s shit in Sendai?–
–Hungovvvvvvvvver branon. Bxand Quin cleaned out vending machine of booze. I old.
Father Time is undefeated–
–Fathertim cannsux ass
Got a few days to sober up. Ichikawa ain’t a joke–
–Sorry. The Trash got us lost around Miyaga. Dunno how these two manage it, but they’re fuckin ganjhounds. You still up?
–Miss me that bad huh?
House is too quiet–
Cody’s been staying with Melissa a lot lately. He say anything to you about why?–
Cheddar is missing him–
–Think he doesn’t want to jinx himself before the season is over.
–He’s a teenager. The most mysterious of creatures.
Ain’t like him though–
Anyways, just wanted to check in–
Go drink some damn water–
Rev 24 booking came out. Going to invite Jared and Justine up here. Same as I did with Nate–
–No. You caught me on the elliptical.
Cuz if it isn’t…–
–Everything’s been copacetic since we all went to the Clubhouse to celebrate Mini Me’s 5 Star win.
“To Nate! The 5 Star Champion!” A loud roar spurred on by Tom Battaglia. The grip on his Modelo was nearly as intense as the championship that defined him. The chorus of here-here’s from the regulars of the Sawmill were joined by those passing through Evansville for just this occasion. A venerable who’s who of the sport of professional wrestling. The PRIME talent on offer would’ve sold out a stadium. And as the Anglo Luchador slammed his mug into that of the sheepish Nate Colton, in the background, Brandon lingered, eyes cast at back door leading to the Clubhouse’s barbecue pit and patio. Almost an hour. Should he be worried?.
Amy Campbell tagged along for the trip. Her appearance was greeted warmly, despite her fears of being treated a leper. Being by the side of one of the most revered wrestler’s in PRIME might have had a role in that. Nursing a water, he should’ve been celebrating. The Colton’s were the family he always wanted, yet seeing ‘The Next Diamond’ so soon after Colossus ate a hole in his stomach.
They’re going to think you passed the torch not stopping that pinfall on Rezin.
They’re moving on.
They’re going to say he’s better than you.
“I would kill like half the people here to listen in on that conversation right now.” Giddiness lilted Justine Calvin’s voice. Her eyes also were cast towards the door rather than the conquering hero. “Bet you feel the same.”
He took a sip, grunting. “None of my business what she wants to talk about with Jared.” Bayonet through scar tissue. –and I never stopped loving him. “They’ve moved on to bigger and better things…” suddenly, he caught himself. “Sorry. I got Rezin fumes messing with my head. Congrats on beating those Convoy pieces of shit, by the way.”
“Yeah, fuck those guys.” The bottle wavered slightly in her hand as she raised it back to her lips. The conversation happening away from her on the patio only compounded an already-stressful weekend, and the beer provided a welcome and much-needed respite. “But thanks. Means a lot. I’m Justine, by the way. I mean, duh, you knew that. Just haven’t officially met-met. Anyway, friends call me Cal.”
He offered his hand. “Brandon. Most folks knew me as a mean bastard man. Hopefully…that’s started to change.”
Brandon tried to make us feel welcome, but for the entire time we stayed I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t supposed to be in that house. A heretic inside the temple, like the very fact of my presence there somehow tainted the place, made it profane. That feeling clashed with the traditional curiosity someone feels whenever they’re invited to a new place. What’s in the medicine cabinets? Where do they hide the stuff they don’t want guests to see? Is there a secret sex dungeon in the basement?
Given who all lived there I wasn’t really clamoring for an answer to that last one.
What I did find was a door left ajar, so I gave in to the curiosity and poked my head in. The floorplan no doubt had this listed as a bedroom, because the real estate market doesn’t think that listing a space as a “nerd laboratory” is a viable way to sell a house. Still, that’s what this was.
Desks and tables lined the perimeter of the room, each one an altar for a different interest. A computer with a synthesizer and mixing equipment. A 3D printer. A sewing machine and enough materials to rival any Jo-Ann Fabrics.
“My library’s cooler,” Justine said from behind me. I don’t know when she slid into the room, or how long she’d been there. “I was wondering where you’d run off to.”
When Brandon had put the offer out, it was Justine who said we should take him up on it. I tried to protest, but it was obvious this meant something to her. Being trapped on the independent scene for twenty years meant she didn’t get many invitations to hang out coming from world champions or hall-of-famers.
“I wonder if it’s too late to book that AirBNB we were looking at,” I said. “You know, the one in the old grain silo that had the picture of the woman kissing a cow.”
“Jared, it’s only a few more days. When was the last time you did something like this? Honestly, I think it’s kinda cool.”
There was something on one of the tables, an object I didn’t expect to see. Blue and white with a set of golden crests branching out from the blueberry on the forehead. The first mask I’d worn when I joined Sin City almost fifteen years before. I never would have expected that she’d kept it, let alone had it out on display.
I glanced at Justine. She’d seen it, too.
“Hey, can I ask you something?” She got quiet for a moment, and considering where we were I had a feeling I knew exactly where this was going. “Do you ever wish that you’d, you know-”
“No,” I said. “I don’t.”
“Jesus, not even going to let me finish?”
“I know what you’re going to say, and it’s a question you shouldn’t ever need to ask.”
“I just thought that, seeing as we’re here and you’ve got, uhh, ‘history’…” She trailed off, shrugging. “I just remember what it was like seeing the two of you together in person and how it made me feel, and you and I weren’t ever really a couple until now.”
“So, the first actual date that she and I had…”
“I’m not sure this is a story I want to hear.”
“Sin City was running a show in Hawaii, and we’re hanging out trying to do things the right way. Anyway, one of the questions she asked me was whether or not I’d ever been in love before.”
“And you said…?”
“Oh. Definitely sure this is a story I didn’t need to hear.”
I took her hand and stepped into the hall, pulling the door shut behind us.
“I was talking about you.”
Brandon was impressed by Eminence’s ability to grind, perhaps adapting even faster than Nate Colton had weeks earlier. It didn’t surprise him; you don’t hold a championship in PRIME for nearly a year by happenstance. Wisconsin winter offered a warm night. Given the small fire in the burn pit near the back patio, a hoodie and a pair of shorts would do just fine. The soft crackling of oak embers. A cigar and a small glass of bourbon. He’d tried being as hospitable as he could. They seemed to be surprised that he insisted on cooking. Tonight? Cast iron pizzas, personalized. He’d made sure he had fresh meat and vegetables on hand.
“You know, my dad used to have a cigar after every fight.” Justine lingered in the doorway for a moment, drawing the zipper of her own sweatshirt over a tee-shirt that had clearly been pillaged from her partner. She stepped out onto the patio, crossing the short distance over the flagstones before finding a seat of her own. “Didn’t matter if he won or lost. I asked him about it once when I was around sixteen or so. Told me he was celebrating getting to be in the game at all.”
Her voice caught him off guard. Watching her take a seat next to him, he took a drag, nursing the ash around the cherry. “Sounds like a grounded man.” He offered the bottle to her. “Didn’t bring another glass.”
“Nah, it’s okay.” She waved it off with a smile. “You’ve been more than gracious, and the last thing you need is me raiding the liquor cabinet. We were honestly kind of surprised for the invitation given…well…”
“Eh,” he swirled the drink in his hand. “No point being prisoners to their past. Need to prepare regardless. Heard enough rumors about me and Colton…bringing him here…Colossus…”
“It makes sense, right? Kid’s out on his own for the first time with a family lineage to uphold. I think it’s a good thing that someone’s looking out for him, even if the circumstances this week are a little…,” She trailed off, her gaze falling to the fire. “This match is fucking with my brain. Don’t repeat this, but I kind of hate that it’s happening.”
“Because they’re killing off my division and wasting no time in finding other things for my partner to do. Because now I have to wonder what my future looks like right after starting to get comfortable.” She sighed. “But I think the worst part is seeing what it’s doing to the dork snoring away in your guest room. He saw that announcement and was convinced – and I mean convinced – that someone had fucked it up because of the other names involved. He gets put in a match with everybody who’s everybody and can’t fathom the idea that maybe he’s supposed to be there, or that he’s not somehow letting me down by doing it.” She paused, drawing her arms in close to her chest, then added, “I’m sorry. You don’t need to hear this.”
Smoke flowed from his nostrils before he sipped his glass. “Everybody who’s everybody…Cal…the fucking guy headlined Colossus. He beat Paxton Ray. Strangled him. Nobody else has done that. He’s everybody. Is he just…that dense?” he paused for a moment. “Your thoughts on the future…what it looks like? I feel that a lot more. Like we’re in the same boat.”
“See, you can’t just leave it hanging like that. I can’t be the only one out here oversharing. Hell, I’m not even drinking.”
He sighed. “The most dominant run in PRIME’s new era? It’s not me…it’s you and him. Nate Colton is The Diamond. And Rezin…” a growl. “What if David Fox’s Hail Mary works at 23? What if the Mix win. Everything you’ve done and fought for? Your standard? And the next week…they don’t even give a shit. They bin the fucking things. Those titles…your life’s work…they smear shit and dirt all over them. And you just get to sit there and watch.” Forcefully, he threw the cigar into the flame. “And I say that, and you know what? It’s pity party bullshit. Cal, you’re sitting there asking the questions about yourself…about your future. Reality is…you’re the only one that doesn’t see that its wide open to you. Fuck lost time. You’re here. In this moment. And so is he. That bond ain’t going away. They might take your titles…but they’ll never take away your reign. And if you don’t think you both can stand as tall as anyone who has ever stepped foot in PRIME…honest to fucking God…you can. And you will.”
She didn’t say anything, not at first. Justine sat in the firelight hoping there was still enough darkness to hide the sudden flush that hit her cheeks, or that wetness at the corners of her eyes wasn’t reflecting the flickering flames. Instead, she reached out and wordlessly took the bottle, twisting the cap free and taking a healthy swig. “I genuinely don’t know what to say to that, but thank you” she said at last. She set the bottle back down. “Those things you said… You’re going to be in that ring too. The only one with their name enshrined, right? Nate doesn’t have it. Erik doesn’t have it. So what you just said about us… Shit, sorry, kind of broke my brain there. But you get where I’m going with this, yeah?”
“Yeah…” he finished his glass. “Sometimes we don’t see it for ourselves. Or we try to forget. Stay humble. Keep pushing through. Focus on the work. But people like us…like you…like Jared…if we don’t keep fighting and striving…if we were just there to let the waves of happy wash over us…then we’d be wasting what we can truly be.” His eyes met hers despite the darkness. “Hey…this might seem weird, but Cody’s going to be doing Regionals in wrestling…first step in the state tournament. Would…you guys…you’re invited to come. Don’t have to if you don’t want to…but I wanted–”
“We’d be honored to go,” she said. Her eyes wandered once more to the bottle. After the way the night had gone it seemed only appropriate. “But first, maybe one more before I head back inside.”
“Can drink to that.”
Holmen High’s Gym was packed with folks from all over the Big Rivers and Mississippi Valley Conferences. Loud. Boisterous. For such a small village, so many people. A Youngblood-Covington affair. Melissa had her cowbell. Travis kept cheering, despite not understanding what he was watching. Brandon tried to be even keeled, but as his son darted from the sidelines, he couldn’t help but roar.
Cody took the center of the mat, meeting his opponent in the Regional Finals in the 220 pound weight class, Sparta High’s Austin Fankhauser. The discrepancy between them couldn’t be more stark. Cody was nearly half a foot taller, chiseled, still. Austin was pale with a head of stringy black hair, bouncing on the balls of his feet, unable to stop from moving. On record and appearance, this was a mismatch.
Size wasn’t everything.
Austin was crafty, spending much of the night outpointing and surviving the distance against three other opponents with stamina and sheer determination. A damb escape artist, the perfect potential spoiler for Cody’s undefeated season. The two got into their stances, waiting on the signal from the official.
“Let’s go Cody!” The ferocity of the words surprised Brandon, causing him to look to the source.
Jared, dressed in Old Abe purple, Justine at his side, clapping. Youngblood’s startle turned into a laugh as the two locked eyes, giving each other a nod. Maybe they knew each other better than they thought thanks to the bond of the ring. Words about dealing with the Bayou Butcher. Salvation against another attempted Love Convoy war crime. The look lingered between Diamond and Knight-Errant. In each instance, their murky past didn’t matter. Yet it was Jared who took the step outside the ring, having the guts to come up here. He sat and cheered for family that wasn’t even his own.For all the mannequins and forklifts, for all the silliness and the horrors of rusty nails and gator teeth and perilous falls, just his presence in this moment said all Brandon needed.
I got you.
The whistle blew. All focus was on the wrestling mat. Cody stooped, his hands reaching out, but Austin was lower. He snagged Cody’s leg and began to lift. Covington’s run through the tournament was shorter, punctuated by quick slams and pins. Maybe the long breaks had gotten the best of him. Nobody throughout the entire season had ever as much as gotten his feet to leave the mat. Melissa gasped. “Oh no!”
But Brandon knew. His son’s heel hooked around the back of Austin’s calf, his arms latching together on his opponent’s thigh. Dead weight. Roll on through. Spladle. Cody cranked on the leg, pushing downward with the hold. Picture perfect technique. A Regional Title won within seconds.
On this night, there was no backsliding before taking the universe.
For the second time that trip I felt like an outsider, an alien watching a family ritual unfold with no context for what was happening. It had been decades since the last time my own had seen me compete. I was still in high school, playing right wing for the Lynnfield Pioneers and getting around twelve minutes of ice time on the varsity squad. My mom never missed one, but my dad, Kevin, didn’t show up very often. Another frayed thread on an already strained relationship. When I told him years later that I was dropping out of college to start training to be a wrestler, the conversation didn’t go very well.
“Throwing my life away.” Those were the words he used.
In the years between when I started wrestling and when he passed away he never once came to a match. I guess it was his way of protesting what I’d chosen to do with my life, a decision he never fully understood no matter how many times I tried to explain it.
And in the aftermath of Cody’s victory, standing in the frigid late-winter air outside a gas station in a town I didn’t even know existed until that week, the thought that ‘ol Kev was right had the hamster in my brain spinning to death in his wheel.
Justine crossed the parking lot, steam rising off a cup of coffee large enough to fuel a low-orbit rocket launch. The one she held in her other hand was bigger still. “Okay, it’s cold as hell and we’ve got an hour in the car before we get back to Eau Claire, so you’d better start talking.”
She propped one arm on the roof and set her eyes on me. It was the same look I’d seen dozens of times before, the We Both Know You’re Trying To Hide Something And It’s Not Fucking Working stare that never failed in getting the information she wanted. I’ve worn many masks in my life, and she’s one of the few people to see through all of them. Especially the ones I tell myself are invisible.
A finger prodded me in the ribs.
“Don’t make me say it again,” she said.
“Alright, so being around the family tonight and watching their reaction to everything… Just thinking about something my dad said a long time ago, that’s all.” I tried to focus on the pump and watched the numbers tick higher and higher, anything to distract me from the tractor beam standing two feet away. “Cal, I’m going to ask you something, but I want you to tell me the absolute truth.”
“Sure.” There was a playfulness to her voice that almost took the edge off. Damn, she was good at this. “I’ll even ignore the casual implication that you think I’ve been lying so far.”
“Have I wasted my life?”
The sound that came out of her mouth wasn’t a word, not in the traditional sense. I took it as a sign that I had disconnected her brain.
“We’re thirteen-hundred miles away from home,” I continued. “Sitting with people I barely know, one of which is arguably one of the most respected people in the job I never wanted, and I’m cheering on their son from the bleachers. Did I miss my chance at all this? A career full of people trying to take me out. Ten years away from everything. Is what my dad said true? Have I thrown my life away?”
Her response was measured, the words chosen carefully. “You did what you needed to do to protect yourself.”
“Cal, please. You promised me the truth.”
“That is the truth,” she said. “I can’t answer that, Jared. I can’t. You did what you needed to. I believe that. But I can’t speak to the rest of it.”
The pump clicked to a stop.
“You know it’s funny the things you remember,” she said.
“About a year ago we flew to New Orleans for a fundraiser. We were still just friends, but I could feel the direction things were heading in. I think if you’re honest with yourself about it you’d say the same.” She moved away from the car and took the pump from my hand, setting it back in its holster before closing the distance between us. “Do you remember what I said then?”
The window isn’t closed.
“So then maybe there’s your answer.”
The last few inches of space between us evaporated. We stayed that way for a while, until a set of headlights came up behind our car and a cheer from the same vehicle followed. Justine pulled away, grinning.
“C’mon,” she said. “We can finish this conversation back at the house.”
She opened the passenger door.