I stood outside Dave’s house looking at my belongings on the lawn. It’s clear he hadn’t been home for a few days. Thanks to the weather in the great state of North Carolina, most of it was wet because it had rained at least once since he had moved everything out.
I tried the gym, but shiny new locks contradicted the reddish metal that hadn’t been maintained for years. The rusty double doors that used to seem so welcome now felt impenetrable. Similarly, he had left the contents of my locker outside, but this time the duffel bag had been ripped open and a group of vagrants had helped themselves to the contents.
The message was clear: This is no longer your home.
It’s truly humbling when the accumulated contents of your life can fit in the back seat and trunk of a Honda Civic. However, I had packed what I could, left the rest on Dave’s lawn, and closed the trunk with a metallic thud.
I sat down and started my car. After losing my wallet in California, my accounts were locked out and now the small, well traveled, vehicle would be my bedroom, my kitchen, and my living room for the foreseeable future.
Welp. This is it. I can’t go back to TCS and face Ava. I can’t go home to my Mom and admit I failed. I certainly can’t crawl to my Dad. I’m officially homeless.
How did it come to this? I had such a promising start. I had the training, I had the drive, I had the direction. Now I feel lost… like no matter what I do it’s just not enough.
I wish I could just burn it all down and start over. If I only knew then what I know now.
Time is running out for me, and I’m aware of the pressure. If I don’t right this ship soon, there might not be a tomorrow. Dave used to tell me “You know who comes to watch a nobody? Nobody.”
I guess I can thank him for yet another lesson learned.
I drove up to my favorite hill in the countryside surrounding Charlotte. The evening was setting in and with it the air took on a chill. I pulled into a gravel parking spot near a state park and pulled the emergency brake with a ratcheting grind.
I’m just going to sit here for a bit and turn the heat on. Of course Dave didn’t leave a blanket on the lawn. The cold blooded bastard probably didn’t see the need for one, anyhow.
I pulled out my phone and searched the bookings for ReVival 32. I let out a deep prolonged sigh as I saw the name: Ivan Stanlislav. Looking up at the sky, unsure if the Gods were listening or not, I rolled my eyes.
“Good one.” I said, just in case they could hear me.
I cracked my windows just a bit for fresh air, and hunkered in. I just needed a little nap to settle my nerves and reset. Before long, I fell to exhaustion and the nightmares started.
– – –
Even as a young boy whose curiosity was impossible to contain, he stood head and shoulders above anyone I had met or would meet. He inspired awe. He inspired violence. He inspired fear. Everyone who had ever faced him had a story about their defeat. Legends of the sport like Alan Kreigman, Jeremy Howard, Chris Sloboda, Ed Novak. Even my father. Especially my father.
He blocked out all the lights and his shadow cast down on me with a pall of death. His monstrous white smile was like the great maw of industry come to life and his voice boomed through the hallways as if it were the explosion of the Tsar Bomba.
“DYAHAHAHA” May have sounded jovial to his peers, but to me, it was the snapping teeth of the comrade wolf, and he knew whom to eat.
I thought this mountain in human form was a true terror. He was a great black haired beast. One that could not be stopped. One that could not be beaten. One that could not be fatigued.
The thing is, the nightmares never really went away. They just warped Ivan into something mythical and god-like even with my waking eyes.
Some children have the bogeyman. Some have monsters in the closet. I wasn’t a child with an overactive imagination, my monster was real.
I had Ivan Stanislav.
– – –
I woke with a sudden start and a cold sweat as my car sputtered and coughed.
“No, no, no, no, no!” I said and hung my head as I realized I had been sleeping for hours and ran out of fuel. “I swear Eddie… if it weren’t for bad luck you’d have no luck at all.”
Well, at least the nightmares stopped.
However, it was getting cold and I needed to find a way to stay warm. I scoured through the boxes and found a long sleeve shirt, which helped a little, but I needed a more permanent heat source.
That’s when I saw an old rusty barrel that must have been used for a trash can long ago at the wood edge. Finally! Some luck at last!
I grabbed a pair of work gloves and set about dragging the barrel out into the open. I grabbed some dry brush, bark, and found a book that I ripped apart for kindling. My Honda still had a cigarette lighter and before long, I had a roll of paper and twigs lit ablaze. The barrel was afire soon after. I found a camp chair in my car and sat down next to the barrel, dejected.
What the hell am I going to do? I have no trainer. I have no home. I have no money. I don’t even have gas in my tank.
That’s a real positive way to think.
“Who said that? Oh great, now I am hearing things, too.”
Nah, bruh. It’s me… uh you, or more accurately, your heart. You’re really gonna sit here and feel sorry for yourself? What the hell happened to you? Where is your spirit?
“Apparently you don’t watch the show. It’s somewhere back in Washington D.C. staining the canvas where Dave stomped it out of me.”
I see. So what? You’re done now? Just going to quit and prove everyone right?
“Bruh, they put me against Ivan next show.”
Damn. Well, it sucks to be us, I guess.
“I guess. Just another match.”
Is it? It doesn’t seem like you really feel that way.
“No shit, Sherlock. I feel like I’m on my last legs here, bruh. Like I am running up a hill and when I hit the top, there’s no peak, just another hill.”
So stop running.
Stop. Running. Look, you’ve been running your whole life. Turn around and just go for it. What have you got to lose?
“I guess… nothing.”
Damn right. The way I see it, you can sit here like a sad sack of shit and whine and say poor me… or you go out there next week, take Ivan to the limit, and show everyone who the hell you are.
“Well, that’s easier said than done.”
So are all things worth doing.
He’s always going to be your monster until you realize he’s just a man. Look, I can only tell you that deep down, I got your back. The rest is up to you. But you’re always going to be paralyzed by thought if you don’t get over your fears. Quit thinking and start doing.
“Right. But it’s just…”
Burn the ships, bruh.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
Well, back in the day, if you burned the ships, you got no way home and no other option but to succeed.
No shit. Burn the ships. Let’s go get that Russian motherfucker.
– – –
I opened my car door and started rifling through my belongings. I made a small stack of items that I associated with my past. For a moment I even considered that I could sell this stuff on the quick to a fan that would pay top dollar for real memorabilia. I sure could use the money. But that was something I wanted to do. This is something I needed to do.
I pulled out my phone to do a quick search for the time in Moscow.
6 a.m. Good, he’ll be up by now.
I started a stream on my cell and looked through the screen to my followers, trying to speak to them all, but specifically to one person. For the first time in a while, I had a plan that was completely my own.
“Alexei, I know you’re listening. I made sure of it on Jabber this week.”
No response. He would never tip his hand, even if he were following my broadcast.
“I know you think this is a formality. I know you think that Ivan is just going to walk over me like he has done to all his competition so far, and maybe you’re right. But you know something about me, about my family. We don’t lay down, we don’t give up, no matter how hard it gets.”
I thought about the odds I’ve been at with my father for so many years; and that maybe we are more alike than I care to admit.
“I want you to understand who you’re dealing with, where I’m at in my life, right now.”
I grabbed the first item from my pile, the bandages that I had used to wrap my feet and tore off the night that I felt the Siva Tau in the desert before facing Tyler Best. They had been laying on the floor of my back seat after all this time. I threw them in the barrel and watched the flames take them.
“I lost to Tyler Best. I let confliction get the better of me and let my guard down. I tried to mimic my father, and I’m not him. I know I need to be my own man. I lost, and I’m letting go.”
I pulled out the next piece, a printed report of the match with Coral Avalon. I had come into that one cocky to the point of complete and utter disrespect. I am glad he is a better man than I was the day I said those awful things. The barrel greedily ate the report.
“I lost to Coral Avalon. I let my own ego guide me and underestimated his spirit. I discovered the need to be humble and respectful. I lost, and I’m letting go.”
The next item was a bill for the repair of my car. I had been steadily paying off the very real reminder of my altercation with Grant Hampton that happened right around the time of Culture Shock.
“I had a goal to make the top fifty percent in the Culture Shock Battle Royal. I missed that goal by the slightest of margins. I was meek and afraid of Grant and his goons, and I learned that I need to stand up for myself. I lost, and I’m letting go.”
I pulled a skipping stone that I carried around with me out of my pocket. I stopped for a moment and thought about that day, maybe the best day I’ve had in months, and I threw the stone in the burn barrel.
“I lost to Jonathan-Christopher Hall and Rocky De Leon. I didn’t have the guts to do what I needed to do and I found that sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith and go with your heart no matter what your brain tells you. I lost, and I’m letting go.”
Next was a stack of faded pictures and postcards. I hesitated and thought about what these meant to me, and the fallout of the decision I made that day… and then threw them into the barrel. They smoked and cracked before igniting and burning into ashes.
“I lost to Morty. I also lost sight of what was important to me and was seduced by the chance to win a title. I paid for my lapse and hurt someone very close to me. I’ll never give up my convictions for opportunity again. I lost, and I’m letting go.”
I unfolded a jersey with my gamertag and old team name on the back. I thought about the night I left the team behind and what it probably cost me. I will almost certainly never get another chance to be on a pro team.
“I lost to Tony Gamble. I had everything in my favor, one on one, youth, and righteousness. Yet he used his veteran skill and won. I put all the cards in my favor and lost sight of the fact that he is a Hall of Famer for a reason. I underestimated Tony Gamble. I lost, and I’m letting go.”
I revealed a piece of cardboard with a stick man drawn on it. I let out the tiniest of smirks and looked at my left hand where the bite had indeed healed up nicely before I threw it in the fire. The beaten chunk of corrugated paper turned my “ID” into smoke.
“I lost to Sage Pontiff. I had no focus before our match and had no plan. I should have been able to scout his moves, but instead I spent my time partying and feeling sorry for myself. I lost, and I’m letting go.”
Finally, I pulled out the last item in my pile. A vintage Soviet era flag that I had stolen from my dad’s trophy case months ago when Dave and I were training at The Asylum. Ivan had given it to him as a gift when they were in PCW together. I thought that should this day ever come, I could use it somehow to antagonize or hurt the Russian.
“Alexei, I know that Ivan loves what this relic stands for. All I have to do is throw this piece of cloth into the fire and it will wound him in a way that maybe nobody else ever has. I’m sure others have attacked his belief and I am sure that others have pushed him into a fit of rage… but nothing will hurt quite like destroying a piece of Soviet history.”
I looked at the flag for a moment taking in the beauty of the red, and the simple yet effective design. It was made of a heavy material, maybe woolen, and quite old. I folded it over my arm and looked sternly at the phone.
“I’ve spent my entire life terrified of Ivan. I’ve had waking nightmares of him, of what he had done to people I met and my family. I know deep down this would hurt him and he might never recover from the pain of seeing this beautiful gift, one of the true last vestiges of his belief, to be burned into nothing…”
“And I’m not going to hurt him like that.”
I paused and gently put the flag back in my car.
“See, I think, sitting here with nothing left but my will to put one foot in front of the other and face my own failing, I finally understand him: Ivan Stanislav has a heart. He has compassion. He knows all the terrible things he has done to make the ends justify the means and it eats him alive.”
I watched the screen light up with comments, but I could not make them out at this distance.
“He’s not like you, Alexei. What’s that you like to say? He is unstoppable, he is unbeatable, he is indefatigable? I don’t see it. He’s a sixty-two year old man who is tired of this world and the wounds that he has both given and taken. Everywhere he goes he sees remnants of his past, his mistakes, ghosts of a life he can’t take back… and he feels the pressure of being a relic of the Cold War in a world that he doesn’t belong in anymore.”
Pangs of my own mistakes echoed in my statement. I knew very well what it was like to feel like I didn’t belong.
“Maybe you’re sitting there right now and you don’t want to believe me. But look at the facts: He could have destroyed Jared Sykes once and for all at Tropical Turmoil, but he chose to leave him once Justine Calvine intervened. Would a man that was unstoppable do that?”
I shifted my weight and started instinctively rolling my shoulders and wringing my hands, just as Dave had taught me.
“His chosen champion Lindsay Troy failed to win for the honor of Russia. Did he lash out and destroy her? A man who is unbeatable surely would not let that stand.”
I pointed my finger and drove it down into the air to enunciate my point.
“His legs failed him when it mattered most at Culture Shock, and he lost his chance to win the Universal Title. This isn’t the mark of a man who is indefatigable.”
I shrugged and shook my head.
“No, he’s nothing like you Alexei. He would never outright lie to his best friend. He isn’t truly cold hearted and never has been.”
I took a deep breath and picked up the phone from the perch on the roof of my car. I looked through the lens, hopefully straight to Alexei.
“He’s just a complicated and deeply conflicted man out of time. He’s never going to have kids. He is never going to have a normal life. He is always going to be pulled in whatever direction your government wants to pull him in; and he thinks reclaiming the glory is all he can do now for his country. I think, above all else, he wants to know that everything he has done, all the horrible things… it was worth it.”
“Honestly, I kinda feel like I understand what he is going through. It’s a hell of a thing to feel so truly and horribly alone.”
You got this, Eddie. I’m proud of you, no matter what.
Thanks. But there’s still one thing I have to do.
I looked deep into the camera once again and leveled with the viewers and myself. I was so close to finishing the journey, climbing the hill once and for all, and now all that was left was one final summit.
I had to let go of the fear I’ve carried since I was a child.
“Alexei, can you do me a favor before this match? Let Ivan know that I remember him, not as a monster, but as the kind man who just tried to make me smile when I was young. I want to wish him good luck. I know it was a dream of my father’s to face Ivan one on one, and vice versa. While that dream never happened, I hope that I can be a worthy challenge in my father’s place.”
I watched as my fire was slowly burning down and I grabbed the flag once more.
“And let him know that tonight at least one person will benefit thanks to his efforts.”
I breathed deep and felt an immense weight relieved from my shoulders. I’m done running up the hill.
I flicked off the stream and surveyed the situation. I had a gas can, but the nearest station was a two hour walk, at least. I would have to wait out the night and get an early start in the morning.
I adjusted the seat in my car and climbed in. I tried my best to get comfortable even though compact cars are not a replacement for beds and I am not a short man. Before I settled in fully I draped the flag over myself and used it as a makeshift blanket. I fell asleep rapidly and deeply under the weight of the hammer and sickle.
There were no more nightmares.