A lesson in fours.
Chop four ounces Semi-Sweet Chocolate. Add four cups Whole Milk to an enamel sauce pan. Four tablespoons Cacao Powder. Deeper flavor profile. Pay attention. Bring to a simmer at medium heat.
Less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter. The Chippewa Falls Cardinals held onto a 30 to 21 lead over Eau Claire Memorial, but the Old Abes were deep in the red zone. Cody Covington’s head buzzed, listening for the play call as senior quarterback Daniel Blatiewicz sauntered into the huddle.
“Alright guys, I right, 43 iso, on three. Ready?”
Cody sunk his teeth into his mouth guard, growling. There was no clap, no ‘break’. So close to making it a game again with the Abe’s cross county rival, and even as they heard their home fans cheering them on in Carson Park, there was no sense of urgency. The call was going to the halfback, tiny Andy Faber, one of six sophomores who made varsity. He’d been running hard all day, having scored all three of their touchdowns. As the Abes made their way to the line of scrimmage, he reached up, pulling at Cody’s arm to get his attention.
“I need you on this play, Coco.”
The size disparity was comical; Cody was already as tall as his blood father. “I’m blowing that shit open, dude.” This year, the Battle of the Birds would go differently. Memorial was going to win. Cody believed.
And now, so did Andy. “That’s my Coco.”
Red had always been a Brandon Youngblood color. Tonight, he wore purple.
He drew the hood of his Old Abes hoodie over his scalp, hiding it from the autumn air. Hands in his jean pockets, he stood against the chain link fencing around the field, his eyes trailing his son. Memorial still had three timeouts left. Score here and get the ball back, they could steal the game on a field goal. As he watched the teams line up for the play, he was jarred by the clanging emitting from the concrete stands behind him. He turned towards the noise, finding the two culprits; Amy and Melissa, he saw the two loves of his life. They were wrapped in blankets, making as much noise as possible with their cheering and cowbells. Melissa’s husband, Travis, stood, clapping gloved hands before letting out a piercing whistle.
Youngblood wouldn’t be shown up. Turning his attention back to the field, he roared. “Punch it in Abes!”
As Cody dug his knuckles into the turf, he looked at the defensive end across from him. Big. Strong. Not as tall, but he had a beard and had a few pounds on him. Hatred birthed through rival colors. All night, the two had smashed into each other, tangled up, and tried exerting their dominance.
Cody listened for the cadence, blocking off the sound ebbing from the crowd. He could feel his heartbeat in his throat. Tension built inside his limbs. Sweat stung his eyes. He had to keep his word to Andy.
On the third hut, he drove forward.
Their shoulders met instantly, their helmets clanging together. They were both standing. Cody grabbed hold of the end’s chest plate and churned his legs. Instinct and reaction in milliseconds. It felt like he was pushing air. The end was able to wrestle free of the grip, but it was too late; he was already halfway into the endzone. Andy rushed to the open hole between Cody and the guard, diving into the endzone.
Touchdown, Old Abes.
“Yeah! Kick his ass!” Pardon her French, but Amy Campbell was magnanimous. Melissa swung her cowbells in the air, whooping, as did Travis.
“Let’s go Cody!” Brandon shouted, clapping as he watched the Memorial football team gather to celebrate, watching as, after the rest of the squad had taken to toward the sideline, his son and his friend pounded forearms before doing some handshake routine that made his head swim from how many steps there were to it.
The extra point was good. 30-28, Chippewa Falls.
A minute thirty four remained on the clock. Memorial really could steal this game. Hell, if they did, they’d be over five hundred on the season, and with Big Rivers Conference power Hudson coming for Homecoming, maybe a playoff berth wasn’t out of reach.
“Alright guys, stay in your lanes, let’s get some stops and get that ball back!” Memorial’s coach, Rob Scott, yelled to his players. A young man in his early thirties, Scott had played for the Wisconsin Eau-Claire Blugolds and had stayed local, working in the merchandising office at Menards corporate. It was his idea to get more youth on the varsity team, looking toward developing them so the team would take the next step in the coming years.
It was his idea to make Cody the leader of the sophomore group. His athletic pedigree was undeniable to everyone in the program, and while wrestling was going to be where he focused his attention, he could still be a force on the football field. His charge played practically every down. Left tackle on offense. Linebacker on defense. Special teams.
Taking the field and lining up for the kickoff, Cody looked towards the Chippewa Falls sideline, enthralled by how mum they all were. The tide had shifted. Now, he was going to put the nail in their coffin. In truth, he didn’t trust any of his older teammates to take the lead. They lacked the passion, the killer instinct. Most of the senior class didn’t even attend the offseason conditioning program. Mediocre loser heading up a team that was, year to year, middle of the pack at best.
He was getting that ball back.
As the kicker booted the ball, he took off in a dead sprint, following the trajectory, his mind only on punching the ball free from the returner.
As the Abes kicked off, Brandon’s cellphone vibrated in his pocket. He’d avoided answering it all night; after all, he hadn’t been to many of his son’s games due to the PRIME schedule. Tonight, he was focused on family. But in the background noise, he thought he heard a different tone, a chime he’d given for Shweta’s number, just in case she texted about how Jonathan was doing at Sunrise. He might have made it through surgery, but spinal injuries were awful things.
At any moment, he could take a turn for the worse.
It wasn’t Shweta. It was from Tom. Anglo Luchador. They’d exchanged numbers after their match in the Almasy, keeping in contact, save for when the Son Of The Shogun was campaigning for the Intense Championship. They bonded over Romeo y Julieta cigars and tequila, as well as disdain for Jace Parker Davidson. He’d asked him to let him know if he was booked for the next ReVival.
‘They got you against Tact.’
It wasn’t Luchador’s fault; he’d done as asked, even getting the information before it was public. Brandon just knew what it meant; from that moment on, his focus would be consumed by the opponent before him. Larry Tact. He wasn’t someone he’d envisioned facing off with, not with how the divisions worked within PRIME. Even still, it wasn’t like he was being booked to face off with the departed and gladly forgotten Pete Whealdon. Tact might’ve had a rough record, but he’d faced a murderers row, and the bastard had made quite an impact with his whole bullshit crusade against Dusk in trying to make the PRIME legend’s retirement all about him. Tact had nearly become Intense Champion. He was a World Champion elsewhere in the wrestling world.
Brandon had to take him seriously. Anything less would be at his own peril.
Doing so meant a stop to being Dad.
He could imagine that mutton chopped prick trying to give a eulogy over his career, but that would have to wait. He had a son to cheer on. If what had happened to Jonathan Rhine had taught him anything, it was you couldn’t take for granted the time spent with your loved ones.
After all, the shadows could conspire to rob them from you at any moment.
Whisk to combine. Steady. Ensures no clumps. Add sweetener of choice. Honey. Not too much. Once Milk is at low simmer, add chopped chocolate. Watch for four minutes. Perfect reduction.
Cody saw the catch. The Cardinals scrambled for their blocking assignments. He managed to shrug off whoever tried engaging him, giving chase for the return man who was cutting across the field toward an opening. Cody pivoted, changed his angle, watched as his target sped from the thirty to the thirty five to the forty, nearing midfield. Kick coverage had been a weakness of the Abes all season. The return man would cross the fifty before he could get there. Suddenly, it wasn’t about punching the ball free.
It was about saving the game.
With each stride, he drew closer. Just past the fifty yard line. He didn’t know if there was anyone playing contain. It was all on him. He stretched his arms out. He was so close, fingertips tickling the return man’s collar.
The shadows can strike from nowhere.
The blindside block hit him with enough force to send him to the turf, rolling over onto his helmet. The pop was jarring, but even still, he was able to scramble to his feet, sprinting up field toward the return man who was now deep in scoring territory.
There were some Abes standing in his way. However, the return man cut through them, breaking toward the opposite sideline before striding into the endzone.
36-28. Chippewa Falls.
Even with three time outs, game over.
Brandon winced as he saw the hit on his son. The Chippewa Falls sideline and fans went wild. They’d held serve in this rivalry.
All he could do was spit.
His eyes remained locked on his son, watching him run as fast as he could in pursuit. The return man from Chippewa Falls had broken the plane and started celebrating. Brandon’s eyes grew wide, realizing his son made no effort to stop his sprint.
With all his might, Cody launched himself into the back of the return man. Penalty flags were instant. And as he got back to his feet, an army of Cardinals came for him, pushing him back. The Abes joined the fray. Someone grabbed at his helmet and jerked it off his head. At that moment, he took a wild swing.
All it found was air.
Coach Scott ran onto the field, but by the time he got close, Cody was already returning to his own sideline, scowling. Clutching his helmet by the facemask, he took exaggerated strides and threw his arms in the air, trying to goad the crowd into cheers. He couldn’t hear what his coach was barking at him.
He felt good about what he’d done. Why wouldn’t he? The Eau Claire Memorial Old Abes might have just lost the game, but they were cheering him on as though he was a conquering hero.
The final score was 37-28.
Brandon was sick. Cody had been raised better than that, hadn’t he? Suddenly, he was questioning what sort of father he was. Poor sportsmanship was one thing. But to get cheered for it? It felt eerily prescient.
Most of the crowd had left, save some of the parents lingering near the home team’s locker room. It was there where he waited alongside Amy, Melissa, and Travis, silent as the three of them talked.
Amy was chuckling. “You guys are welcome to come over. Going to make hot chocolate. Figure it might hit the spot with how cold it is tonight.”
Melissa smiled. “Sounds like a plan. I mean, Cody’s going out with some of the team to a movie and–”
Travis was looking to engage. “Hey, Brandon, I have some cigars I’ve been meaning to try. Acid Toasts. Have a nice sweetness.”
Brandon heard him, but was focused on what Melissa said. “We going to let him out? After the shit at the end of the game?”
There was a brief silence before she spoke up. “He’s just wound up. He takes the losses hard. You know that.”
“He’s got a point, Melissa,” Travis started. “That was wrong.”
“I know, I know…” she trailed off pensively.
“He gets it from his old man,” Amy chided, but the sneer she received from Brandon turned her joking tone serious. “Look, they’ll make him run some extra laps at practice. He’s not going to get off scot free. Besides, you want him punished? Melissa and Travis can wake him up early. I’m sure they could figure out some chores for him to do.”
Cody was staying with Melissa and Travis this week. As much as Brandon wanted a say, it would be them who made the final decision. “At least make him clean the gutters.”
Travis chuckled. Melissa shook her head. “I’ll even make sure he doesn’t use gloves.”
“See, there you go.” Even if things felt defused between the pair of couples, there was still something gnawing in Brandon’s mind. The cheering. He couldn’t get over the parents and fans cheering. As he thought about it, Cody came out of the locker room, his bag slung over his shoulder. There was no joy in his manner, his steps trudging across the grass, all as he drew close to the tailgate of Travis’s truck, opening it and sliding his bag inside the bed.
“Sorry about the game,” Amy tried to reassure him.
All he managed was a shrug. “Whatever.”
Melissa was up next. “You’re going to give us a call when you need picked up from the theater, right? We’re not going to be far, just at–”
“Tommy’s giving me a ride.”
Being cut off so sharply annoyed his mother. “Okay. Well, can you at least call us when you’re on your way home?”
Everything about his son’s attitude was a burr in Brandon’s ass. He folded his arms across his chest, glowering toward him. His kid paid him no mind, not even as only the two of them remained after everyone made their way to their own vehicles. They burned holes through the other. Brandon finally spoke up. “Just what the fuck was that?”
Having to entertain his father’s question annoyed him, causing him to groan and roll his eyes.
Youngblood’s glare narrowed. “A word of advice–”
Many feared the Tower of Babel, especially when he was angry. His own son? He could care less. As Tommy pulled up, the car filled with teammates, Cody cut his father off. “Look, when I want loser advice from a loser? I’ll ask you for it.”
Brandon didn’t have a chance to answer. His son had already made the clean break, getting into the back of the car, jostling inside as best as he could before it sped off, leaving him there in wounded silence.
Have mugs ready. Leave a little room at the top to prevent overflow. Homemade whipped cream is perfect compliment. Light dusting of cacao powder to finish. Color similar to espresso. Perfect for fall and winter nights.
Brandon sat in his living room, the fire in the fireplace helping shake off the cold. Amy, Melissa, and Travis joked and carried on, having themselves a good time, each of them nursing mugs of hot chocolate. Amy even sported a mustache of whipped cream.
He didn’t pay attention to the din of noise; his eyes were on the television, on ReVival, having gotten home just before the main event. He didn’t know Paxton Ray had been fired, hadn’t heard FLAMBERGE’s scathing words and references toward his son. He’d been spared the rage of seeing the COOLossus graphic.
All that would come the next day.
Amy hunched over from the couch, snapping her fingers before waving her hand in front of his face. Her words sounded as if they were an echo. “Earth to Brandon. We got company…”
‘Dad mode’ was over. Not because of a text, but because of his son. Being called a loser might hurt, but he’d get over it. It was the shove. The cheapshot. The cheers from the crowd. It was witnessing it all and to sets of parents making excuses for it. ‘Oh, he takes losses hard. You of all people can understand that.’ He did, but in trying to make himself a better person, being a sore loser wasn’t an admirable quality. There wasn’t an excuse to handwave the way defeat could consume everything, turn everything sour. A hot mug of bitter chocolate with a sting no amount of sugar could salve. All the dark and terrible places the mind could dwell. It made for awful company.
Hayes Hanlon’s eyes glanced toward Jiles, perched up in his skybox, eating his grapes. Commodus. Perhaps Amy’s jovial nature and attempts to deflect attention from the television had to do with Hanlon’s opponent, Jared Sykes. Even under the Blueberry mask, she refused to acknowledge him as anything else. Brandon noticed she made herself scarce whenever he wrestled, always leaving the room. He didn’t press the matter, just told her if she ever wanted to talk about it, he was all ears. The success of the Kings of Popsicles, and Jared in particular, made for a murky future.
Someday soon, these feelings were going to escape from storage when they crossed paths.
The young stallion and the old warhorse. When Lindsay Troy said PRIME was returning, this was what he envisioned. Battles like this. It made his blood pump, made him want to test himself against the best. The last few months, that zeal had begun to melt away. After UltraViolence, after losing in dramatic fashion to Nova? Perhaps it was time to call a spade a spade.
Maybe he’d lost a step. The decline into a nostalgia act.
Maybe he was a loser.
Complicated emotions in regards to home. But was this really home? He thought PRIME would be Camelot. But after Hanlon hit the Epoch, he learnt the truth.
It was Westeros.
Hooded assailants cloaked in black. A disqualification. One became two became three. Like rabid animals, they attacked Jared, attacked his partner, Justine Calvin. A brutal pounding. Shot after shot. When security tried to intervene, it wasn’t Wade Elliott and Dametreyus. No, they had to babysit the Queen’s newly minted crown jewel and promotional centerpiece. Brandon’s fingernails dug into the armrests of his chair. He wasn’t the only one watching the maelstrom of violence; Melissa, Travis, Amy, all of them stopped mid-sentence, eyes transfixed on the screen. Travis was genuinely shocked, given he had no link to the sport, but even Melissa couldn’t help herself from gasping as one of the hoods threatened to take Justine’s eye out with a nail. Amy sneered after she watched her former love get brained by a steering wheel, the culprit honking it wildly like a jackass.
Nothing could prepare them for the one in pink, though, or her gas canisters. The hoods wrestled Jared onto his back, covering his face with a rag.
“Oh Jesus!” Travis yelled.
Military personnel were tried and jailed for waterboarding inmates in Iraqi prisons. The stain of such torture methods lingers to this day, regardless of attempts at justification through ‘ The War on Terror’. Yet, here, on Ace Network, the world was witness to a sick terrorism all its own, watching as a man was beaten within an inch of his life and then drowned to death with chocolate. His limbs helplessly flailed against the hands pinning him to the canvas, sudden jerks and a shaking panic rattling through his body.
That was one canister.
Before they could get the cap off the second, Amy shouted in raw terror. “Turn it off!”
Brandon trembled. Thousands of miles away and all he had was impotent rage. The gang began pouring the second canister over Jared’s face.
And then, black.
Amy had enough, storming to the television and turned it off herself. She stood there, seething, shaking, her hands balled into fists. She struggled to catch her breath. Her fingers reached for her lips.
Melissa was aghast at what she’d just seen. “What the fuck was–”
Amy’s voice broke. Quaking, tears began falling from her eyes. “I’m sorry guys. I…I…I think I’m about to…a panic…a panic attack…I dunno…I…okay…I’m sorry…” Her hands fumbled for the mug of chocolate, grabbing it before power walking out of the room. They could hear the faucet running from the kitchen.
Brandon’s concerned tone quivered as he stood up, his eyes locked on Amy’s trail. “I’m going to go check up on her.”
Travis nodded his head as Youngblood stood up from his seat. He turned to follow Amy, but before he could get too far, Melissa spoke up. “Tell her it’s okay. Just…what the hell was that?”
A lie I wish I’d never come back for.
“I don’t know anymore.”