The backyard flower bed was visible from the kitchen. I could see it every time I went to the sink, or looked out through the sliding doors that led to the deck. Justine and I had planted bulbs there last fall before things between us went sideways. Tulips. Rows of them. Two whole days in late September spent digging little holes in the soil and sowing bulb after bulb for a spring bloom.
In the months spanning our break I had thought about digging them all back up, else I woke up one spring morning to a yard full of vibrant reminders of what I had and what I’d lost. Instead we watched them sprout and blossom into an early April firestorm of colors. For two weeks there were waves of reds, yellows, and oranges to greet us every time we looked through these windows.
Now there was just one, standing proud in defiance of nature’s will.
I wasn’t convinced the flower had actually made the voyage over from Russia. Probably more bullshit from Ivan. It should have never survived the trip back home to Boston. But there it was, alone on a low slope by the fence, daring Mother Nature to strike it down.
She never told me it was coming home. Never said it would be planted with the rest. It was only after the rest started to wilt that Justine came clean about what she’d done.
Another fucking secret from the woman who said we weren’t supposed to keep any.
The idea, she said, was for it to serve as a reminder of what can happen when the wrong person gets you in their sights. I didn’t know if Ivan would be insulted or flattered to know his gift had found a permanent residence in my home, only that if word got out I would never hear the end of it.
Thanks, guys. How wonderful to have a memory of trauma that I can actually touch. It’s so different from the rest that live eternally inside my fucking head.
I thought about cutting it down. Maybe I’d tear it from the earth and throw it in the fire pit. Reduce the little bastard to ash. Those thoughts turned to vapor. Through some miracle of science it had survived this long. Clippers would probably shatter against the stem. The fire would be more likely to burn me than singe the petals.
I heard Jon’s voice in my head again, the same way I had every day since the visit to New Orleans.
“Shweta called your phone. Justine answered and said that it was too hard for you guys to help…”
Once again, for the third time that morning, I opened my phone and scrolled the call history all the way back to October 4th. And once again there was no indicator I had ever received a call from Shweta. No evidence of Justine refusing an offer to help keep Nora away from her monster of a father.
But that didn’t mean I wouldn’t find any.
I just had to commit to looking.
“Larry, I need a favor.”
Lawrence Podehl, Jared’s long-time agent, stared across the desk and wondered whether the first hints of panic were visible on his face. On the list of things his client said that would trigger a heartburn flare-up, this phrase was near the top of the list. Not as scary as hearing, “Larry, we have a problem,” but cause for concern nonetheless. It was part of the reason why he kept a tub of antacids in his desk at all times. The container occupied a permanent spot next to the whiskey.
More than once over the course of their relationship, Larry had joked about adding a gun to this same drawer, only to be used in the most dire of circumstances. Like the days when Jared hit him with the worst thing he could say.
Larry, I have an idea.
The tool would have the same effect as the whiskey, in that they would both kill a large amount of brain cells. The difference being that one would kill many more and much quicker.
“Go on,” Larry said. The drawer was already open. “What is it?”
“Do you still have my phone records from last year?”
Larry’s fingers hovered inches from the bottle of Elijah Craig, his brow furrowing as he tried to process the question that caught him off-guard. It shouldn’t have been a strange request. His clients were all athletes, treated as independent contractors within the different organizations they represented, which meant a tax deduction for mobile phone use was always on the table. Still, the question gave him pause. It was far too adult given the source.
“I still have the file, yeah. I always keep them around for a little bit in case the IRS starts asking questions. Why?”
There was a long pause from the other side of the desk. Something was off, there was no doubt about it. Across from him sat the man who once held up contract negotiations with Hawaiian Island Wrestling because he refused to balk on his demand for a pony. The same man who only a year and a half ago had forced Larry to petition Lindsay Troy to put a mannequin on the roster.
Jared had made those requests – and countless others like them – with a straight face and an unwavering gaze. Now his eyes darted around the room, unable or unwilling to meet Larry’s own.
“Jared, you okay?”
“Huh? Yeah. Sorry.” There was a long sigh as Jared leaned forward. “If I give you a date, can you tell me if there’s a record of a call from that day? It would be a New Orleans area code that I’m looking for, if that helps.”
“Sure, sure,” Larry said. He shifted in his chair and the hydraulics groaned in response. “I can, but you know you can just login to the carrier’s website and see that data for yourself, right?”
There were a hundred questions Larry wanted to ask. This wasn’t an admission that Jared didn’t know how, or that the website wouldn’t show it to him. Larry couldn’t shake the feeling that this wasn’t something Jared actually wanted to know. Needed? Maybe. But wants and needs aren’t the same animal.
“Can I ask what this is about?”
“You can ask,” Jared said.
But you won’t answer.
“No problem. I can have Rachel take a look later today. Maybe tomorrow at the latest.” Larry slid a pen and a small stack of Post-It notes across the desk. “Just note the date so I can pass it on to her.”
It was only after Jared scribbled down a date and passed the note back did he finally look up.
“Larry, there’s one more thing. Whatever you find… It stays between us.”
I had my best mask on that day. Not the blue, white, and gold number that I’d retired at Colossus last year. The one I wear every day. The one that lets me pretend to be a normal person who goes out in public and interacts with other people.
The one that lets me pretend I’m not aware of a secret that my fiancee had been keeping for six fucking months.
“A little heavy handed, comrade.”
I’d been lost in thought, adrift in my own little world while Cal went on about the New England Wrestling Syndicate’s upcoming relaunch when those five little words snapped me back into reality, and snapped me back hard.
Not much had changed since when I tuned everything out. We were still at Holy Grounds, the church-turned-coffee-shop that had become our haunt over the last year. Same table. Same day. Same everything.
“Sorry, what?” I heard myself say.
Hayley, one of the staff there, was standing by our table chatting with Justine about something. If she detected the sudden anxiety spike I was trying to downplay, she didn’t let on. Neither of them did.
“Oh, I was just telling Justine about something Carlos made earlier. He was trying a new chai blend, but went a little heavy handed on the cardamom.” She grimaced, then stuck her tongue out. All very dramatic. “Made it taste like medicine.”
Cardamom. Of course.
Because there’s no fucking reason for her to say comrade, Jared, you dumbass. Have the last few weeks warped your mind so much that you actually thought Hayley was a Russian plant? She plays the didgeridoo and paints watercolor portraits of her rescue dog Daisy. They’re all over the walls. What, do you think they’re all bugged? A dozen tiny cameras peeking out between brushstrokes?
That’s the problem with intrusive thoughts. You let one cross the threshold and it holds open the door for all the rest of them to storm through.
“And that’s not something you ever acquire a taste for,” I said. Felt like a nice save.
“Oh my god. I know, right? So gross.”
And just like that, she and Justine were back to their sidebar conversation. I took the opportunity to try and clear my head of all the weird shit that had forced its way inside, but it was a losing battle. There were too many thoughts, and I was hopelessly outnumbered.
How long until you bring up that you know about the call with Shweta? How many more trips here until then? How many do you think you’ll have afterwards? One? A hundred?
“Punch him in the face.”
Once more, I was roused from a daydream. I glanced across the table to see Cal looking back at me, sighing as she took a sip from her mug.
“Guess I’m just a little jealous,” she said.
Jealous? Jealous of what? What the hell did I miss now?
This time my confusion must have been easy to read, because she quirked an eyebrow. “You okay? You look a little lost.”
“Sorry, I was looking at one of the, you know…” I gestured towards the wall where three of Hayley’s portraits hung. “Guess I kinda zoned out for a minute.”
“Oh, I was saying how I’m a little jealous, because you’re getting the chance to punch Tom in the face.”
To most people, this is the sort of thing a crazy person says. To us, talk like this comes with the territory of being a pro wrestler.
Tom, who most people knew as The Anglo Luchador, was my next opponent, the two of us scheduled to throw down in a few days. The winner would go on to Tropical Turmoil and take part in its namesake match for a crack at the Universal Championship.
A casual observer might look at Tom and I and see two guys with a lot in common. We had mutual friends, spent a good chunk of our careers under a mask, and dealt with way more insecurities than either of us would ever admit to in public, but that was where most of the similarities ended.
Cal couldn’t stand the guy.
“Wonder how he’ll take it if you beat him this week. Wonder if he’ll do something to earn himself another fine.”
It was a fact she made sure to hammer home at every available chance.
The fine she joked about came after Tom lost the Intense Championship to Paxton Ray at the start of the year. He’d flown off to pick a fight in Mexico when the match was over, and then a few days later the news broke that he’d been fined half a million dollars. I saw the number and I laughed. How could I not? If you added the fines levied against Julian Bathory and the Asshole In Sunglasses for what happened to Phil Atken to the fines that the Love Convoy had to pay for what they did to us, it still wouldn’t equal the amount of money that Thomas Battaglia was supposed to cough up just for making an unscheduled trip.
I chalked it up to a clerical error on the part of the news desk. It’s the only way that number made any sense to me.
“Today’s public tantrum is sponsored by Modelo,” she said, taking on the tone of a commercial. “Modelo: the official cerveza of piss-baby bitch fits everywhere.”
Like I said, she’s not a fan.
“Damn. Maybe they should have given you the match. Could finally work some of this out.”
“Do you know why he bothers me so much?”
“Was it the thing where he tried to convince everyone that his uncle was an actual video game character, and then put that weird rock in the middle of the MGM lobby?”
She furrowed her brow and stared at me like I was in the process of actively growing a second head. This was new information to her, and based on her expression she was having a hell of a time trying to process it. I’d forgotten she’d missed some of his more colorful exploits in the months before she joined PRIME.
“No,” she said after a long minute. “My issue is that he acts like an idiot while he’s got two kids at home.”
“That feels a little extreme.”
“Is it? Do you remember when he was campaigning for the Intense title as if he was a fucking senator? He said he was going to take one of Ria’s eyes. One of her eyes, Jared. He was going to do this to someone he said was his friend over a wrestling championship, and he said it knowing that it might get back to his kids. What kind of man sets this example? How do you sleep at night with thoughts like that in your head? This is the same guy who got on Jabber after the Mexico thing this year and told everyone that ‘what he does is the right thing’ whether or not any of us thinks so.”
I had no counter to this. No argument to make in his defense. I remembered the incident with Ria all too well; it’s what triggered my own animosity towards Tom last year, back when he was calling me “birdbrain” at every opportunity while at the same time doing everything he could to get in on the berry business with talk of an imaginary “Mister Mango.”
Justine wasn’t done.
“How does someone who said they were going to blind their friend then get to try and be the hero against someone like Paxton? He wants to call himself the ‘Paladin of PRIME’, but you and I both know paladins don’t go around picking fights with everything with a pulse. That man is chaos, Jared. No amount of cheesesteak fundraisers are going to bring him back from the dead when he pisses off the wrong person or goes too far with this deathmatch shit.”
She picked her mug up off the table, then set it right back down. I wanted to interject, to say something in defense of a man who wasn’t there to defend himself, but no words would come.
“I know you both have a knack for attracting unwanted attention,” she said. “But what would you do if we found out tomorrow that I was pregnant?”
I froze. My brain spun into overdrive, as a new wave of thoughts crashed into the forefront of my mind. I felt a strange calm settle over me as all of the intrusive thoughts I’d been experiencing found their voices silenced. Suddenly there were questions that I needed answers to, chief of which was whether or not we were dealing in hypotheticals.
She must have read it on my face, because she quickly waved a hand. “I’m just asking,” she said.
The bottom fell out of my stomach. I swallowed hard.
I thought about Gabriel Simon, an old rival-turned-friend of mine who had the world in his hands at the start of his wrestling career. He’d lost both of his parents when he was very young. Car accident took them both in one night. But at the age of twenty-five he learned his girlfriend Jamie was pregnant and left the sport forever. He was weeks removed from his second world championship run and a tryout with the National Wrestling Council, and he gave it all up so he could have the time with his baby that his parents didn’t get with him.
“I’d walk away,” I said. “Put the sport behind me forever.”
“I know you would.”
She squeezed my hand, and suddenly I was kicking myself for ever thinking she was someone who would hide the important stuff from me.
“So I need to ask you a favor,” she said. “Beat his ass next week. You turn yourself into a wall between him and a chance at the Universal Championship, because the way he acts does not deserve to be validated.”
What would you do if we found out tomorrow that I was pregnant?
It was all I could think about. For the last few weeks my imagination had used up all of its energy thinking about whether or not Justine had actually hid that conversation from me, and from there it spiraled. One thought spawned another, then that one split into two more, until there were a thousand different worst-case scenarios living in my head. My therapist calls this “catastrophizing,” but there’s little comfort in knowing that the feeling is so common that medicine invented a word for it.
Then Justine put her thought experiment out into the universe and the gears started to slow down, to spin in a different direction. It was refreshing, a welcome and necessary change. Like stepping in front of a fan after a day in the sun.
Holding a tiny hand on the walk to school.
Splashing and laughter on summer days spent by the pool.
Coloring, and soccer games, and make-believe. I’d be great at make-believe.
Jon was wrong. It was that simple. He’d misunderstood, or misheard, or maybe the injury had affected his memory somehow. And me? I’d simply overreacted. My brain had taken a tiny piece of data and let it germinate into an abomination; a version of Ivan’s flower designed to make me insane. After all, no one is going to drive me crazy the way that I can. I have too much practice. I know all the buttons to press.
I could feel myself smiling.
Then my phone vibrated in my pocket, and it all turned to dust.
Found what you asked about.
Call on October 4th. Afternoon. Lasted about 5 minutes.
Hope this helps!
No, Larry. It doesn’t.
It really fucking doesn’t.
A moment ago Jared had been smiling. It was a genuine smile, not the stage grins he’d been putting on for the last few weeks. Most people might not be able to spot the difference, but there was a glow that came with the real thing, one he couldn’t fake no matter how hard he tried. As far as she knew, Jared wasn’t even aware of the difference. Still, she never called him on it. The issues with Ivan and Alexei had been hard on them both, and Justine wasn’t naive enough to think it wouldn’t get worse before it got better. All they needed to do was get out from under the shadow of the Russian threat and the smiles would return. There was a wedding to plan, a guest list to finalize, and seating arrangements to debate.
But now the smile was gone, replaced by an expression she couldn’t read. One minute they had been joking, laughing the way they had over the winter before the seasons changed and brought with it the looming storm clouds of the Red Army. Then he checked his phone and his demeanor shifted like someone flipped a switch.
He said it was from his agent, and it surprised her that he used the man’s real name. Until she met Larry Podehl in person, Justine had only ever heard him referred to as “Spider-man.” She never understood why, and Jared never explained it, only that the nickname went back two decades. Now he represented them both on their journey through PRIME.
“Hey, is everything okay?” She reached across the table for his hand, taking it in hers. His fingers stayed still, motionless; the gesture not returned.
“I don’t know.”
“What is it? Anything I need to be concerned with?”
He didn’t answer. For a moment they sat in silence. The phone was on the table now, face down and at arms length as if it had been put in timeout. But Jared’s eyes never left it.
“Jared?” She tried to meet his eyes, leaning down and craning her neck, but he didn’t look up. Still, the prompt seemed to startle him back to a base level of awareness that he was, in fact, in public with another person. “What’s going on?”
“Just…” He paused, cursing under his breath. “Something I’m going to have to deal with.”