Rule Number Seven:
You never fight the same person twice.
# # #
A steady routine is very important.
6am–Arrive at the Asylum
But sometimes, it’s also important to break that routine. Shake things up.
Nate Colton didn’t usually sleep in. However, the ACE Network people wanted him early for a meeting, where Alexa Van Horne would help set up his first sponsorship deal. The meeting was scheduled for the morning–too early to squeeze in a proper workout beforehand.
Instead, he enjoyed an extra hour and a half of sleep, a long shower, and a nice leisurely breakfast. Didn’t even set off the smoke alarm this time. After that, he made himself presentable, grabbed some books that were due back at the library, and drove to the ACE Network office.
While in the waiting room, his eyes were drawn to a large poster promoting ReV22. Most of the event’s advertising featured the participants of the main event, Hayes Hanlon and Rezin. This one, and thousands of others distributed across the country by the ACE Network, instead showed Nate himself in Rezin’s place. He and Hanlon stood back-to-back, their newly won title belts displayed over their shoulders.
Nate smiled as he thought back to that shoot; it was the first time he’d actually spent more than ten seconds with the Universal Champion. They were barraged by constant instructions from the photographers, questions from interviewers, and bombastic excitement from the marketers, so they barely had a chance to talk. But afterwards, Colton couldn’t deny that Hanlon had a presence, a natural star quality that almost every wrestler claims but very few actually possess.
He also had the Universal Championship, which is bound to draw anyone’s eye. And as proud as he was of being the Five Star Champion, he couldn’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy. It felt like his junior prom, when his best friend showed up with the head cheerleader from another school. At least this time he didn’t get caught staring by his own date.
“Impressive sight, isn’t it?”
Nate turned around and found himself looking at Alexa Van Horne, ACE’s Vice Director of Marketing & Public Relations. “Gives me chills to look at it. It says, ‘the future is already here.’”
Nate extended a hand to Ms. Van Horne, which she accepted. “Follow me, Mister Colton,” she said, and led the way to her office.
He expected the meeting to be a long and soul-crushingly dull lecture about demographics, metrics, and trends–the kind that made him fall asleep in college. Instead, Alexa started with a question.
“Mister Colton…Nathan…what are your goals?”
“Right now, it’s defending the Five Star at the next show. Anna Daniels is a great wrestler, and–”
She cut him off with a chuckle. “I was thinking more…long term.”
“There’s so many directions you can go from PRIME. Do you have any acting experience?”
“I was a shepherd a few times in Sunday School.”
“Hmm. Well, acting’s not the only option. There are limitless other avenues you can take.”
Nate shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “To be honest,..I haven’t really thought about it. I’ve never wanted to be anything other than a wrestler.”
“Of course,” Alexa said, holding out her hand in a reassuring manner. “I just want to find the best ways to present you to a mass audience. Your numbers are excellent so far, especially with pre-teens and parents…” She clicked a few times on her mouse, probably cycling through various data reports. “Lower with males 18 to 35 and minority audiences, unfortunately. We’ll have to find a solution for that soon, but for now let’s shore up those other demographics. What does your schedule look like next…Wednesday? I’d like to bring you in for another photo shoot.”
“Another one? We just did one, like, two weeks ago.”
Alexa looked at him like he was a disobedient puppy; frustrated, but she couldn’t get mad because he was just so precious. “Nathan…I thought you understood what we’re trying to do here. You led me to believe that you want to be one of the faces of PRIME, yes?”
“Good. We want that too, but you need to realize that this will take time and energy on your part. The world has already changed in a thousand different ways since the last show…honestly, probably since you went to bed last night.”
He nodded, and shrunk back in his seat a little. The more she talked, the more he felt like a little kid getting a lecture from his mother.
“The audience needs a constant stream of content, or they’ll move on to the next thing. That’s why we have these shoots, and why I’ve asked you to work on your social media presence. Being a great wrestler, a champion…that’s all well and good, but it means nothing if you can’t draw in the audience. You can’t get complacent, or you’ll fall behind.”
Nate gave a heavy sigh. As much as he hated to admit it, Van Horne had a point. “I guess you’re right. So what’s this photo shoot going to be?”
Alexa pursed her lips in thought. “I’m thinking…action shots of your workouts. It can show how much hard work you put in on a daily basis…plus it’ll add a little bit of sex appeal.”
There was something about the way she said “sex appeal” that Nate found troubling. Like it was just another number, a data point. She found a way to make sex sound…not sexy.
“Now let’s turn to merchandise,” she continued. “We’ve gotten very good early reports from your Wrestling Buddy doll, and the t-shirts will be–”
Alexa was cut off by a sudden beeping from Nate’s phone. As he dug it out of his pocket, he saw an alarm going off–it was already 10 o’clock. “Sorry, Ms. Van Horne, I have to go,” he said.
She frowned in protest as he stood up. “Mister Colton, we still have several other matters to go over!”
“I know,” he said, “and all the stuff you’re telling me is very important. But I’ve got a title defense coming up, and I plan on being ready for it.”
“I told you, Nathan, that’s a short-term goal.”
“True. But my job, my actual job, is to defend the Five Star Championship against the best PRIME has to offer. I’ve been in the ring with Anna Daniels before, and I promise you that they definitely qualify.”
“I have every confidence that you’ll succeed, Mister Colton.”
“Well, that makes one of us. I know some folks don’t think I should be worried about this match, but Anna and I both know the truth. I barely pulled off the win last time, and they’ll be fighting a lot harder now that there’s something at stake. That means I gotta push myself even more, ‘cause the effort that got me that first win won’t be enough this time. Look, I appreciate all you’re doing for me. But holding that title says I’m one of the best…and all the sales and ratings and followers in the world don’t mean a thing if I can’t prove it.”
The ACE executive didn’t seem ready to let the matter go, but Nate stopped her with a simple shrug.
“You said it yourself, Ms. Van Horne. I can’t get complacent, or I’ll fall behind.”
He shook her hand again, and left the office.
Once she was alone in the room, Alexa smiled. Nate Colton was everything she could hope for in a star–earnest, driven, handsome, and best of all, honest. Honest people always assume everyone else is honest, too.
They were going to make so much money off of Nate Colton…and he’d accept whatever share they offered.
# # #
Next on the schedule was…
6pm–Dinner at home
…but as he got in his car, Nate spotted the books still sitting in the back seat.
It’s not far from here, he thought. I’ll just swing through real quick. I’ll need something new for the flight to Orlando anyway.
# # #
Josie Ramos didn’t usually work on Tuesdays. However, she had to switch shifts because she could only get a vet appointment on Friday, and no mere routine was more important than her King Charles Spaniel’s health.
On the bright side, the reschedule allowed her to spend another day with her work besties, Brandi and Chayden. Josie and Chayden started at the same time, and Brandi–who’d been there for a year–immediately took them under her wing. Thanks to her guidance, they knew which regulars they could be sassy with, how to call out people looking at porn on the computers, and all the best places to hide from each supervisor when you didn’t feel like working. When they were together, even the most boring day felt at least tolerable.
Good thing, because today was a strong contender for the most boring day ever. No shipments, no special events, very few patrons…Josie was starting to hope for a restroom catastrophe, just to liven things up. Sure, she would have made one of the new hires deal with it, but that wasn’t the point.
Josie looked at the clock, which read “5:57”. Just like it did the last time she looked, which she could have sworn was fifteen minutes ago.
“Ugh,” she groaned, not quite as under-her-breath as she should have. The old lady on the other side of the counter gave her a nasty look before grabbing her book-on-CD from the counter and walking out.
Just when she needed a savior from the all-consuming boredom, Chayden sauntered back to the front desk, pushing an empty cart. “Hey girrrrrrl,” he said upon his return.
Josie perked up immediately. “Hey girrrrrrl,” she fired back. “God, today’s taking foreeeeeeevveeeeeer.”
“I knoooooooooow,” Chayden replied, mocking Josie’s tone. “I need it to be five minutes from now, like, so bad.”
“I hear yo–wait, what? You’re closing tonight, Chay. What happens in ten minutes?”
“You don’t know?” Chayden asked in disbelief. “How can you not know? It’s, like, every week!”
“I don’t, like, usually work Tuesdays!” she mocked back.
“Oh emm gee. Girl, you are about to witness something magical for the first time.”
“Like the time Chuck spent two hours organizing the Westerns, then realized he’d forgotten the M’s?”
“Oh damn.” Josie stopped slouching, not wanting to miss whatever this was. At that moment, their friend Brandi appeared from the periodicals, power-walking toward the front desk. She had to pull up short to avoid bowling over a little kid who’d started running across the room. “No running in the library!” she said, but of course the kid didn’t listen.
As soon as the kid was gone, Brandi joined her friends. “I didn’t miss it, did I?”
“Just in time, sweetie,” Chayden said as he slid over to make room. “Any minute now.”
“Seriously, what are you two on aboooooooooh my God.”
A young man entered the library, causing the trio to fall silent. He was tall and blonde, and had cradled three books in a well-defined arm. Josie thought he looked like the human version of a golden retriever.
“Now I know why you guys never want to switch shifts with me,” she whispered.
“He reminds me of the quarterback from my high school,” Chayden said.
“The one who bullied you the whole time?”
“Yes. And the same one I hooked up with after senior prom.”
“I don’t believe he actually knows how to read,” Brandi chimed in. “He’s way too pretty.”
“I guess he’ll need someone to read those books to him, then.”
“I volunteer as tribute!” Brandi clasped her hands over her mouth, but not before Chayden could point at a jar behind the counter. The jar was half-filled with stray coins and bills, and had a handmade “HUNGER GAMES REFERENCE JAR” label on it.
“Dammit,” Brandi muttered, and grabbed her purse.
Meanwhile, the target of their attention had deposited his books in the returns shoot, and walked toward the shelves. He looked briefly at the front desk and flashed a smile, causing all three of them to suddenly look elsewhere.
Josie suddenly realized she’d been holding her breath. “Holy shit,” she said as the air rushed out. “How long have you bitches been holding out on me?”
“Six months, I think?” Chayden said. “Almost every week, right around this time. I look forward to it like it’s payday.”
“All right, you degenerates. Break it up.” This was a new voice, which sprung up behind the trio. It belonged to Chuck, a middle-aged manager who radiated apathy like a space heater that stopped giving a shit in 1994. “Got the periodicals straightened out again, even though my helper abandoned me halfway through the project. Thanks for that, Brandi.”
“Sorry,” she said, but obviously she wasn’t. “Something…came up.”
“Someone, more like,” Chuck groused. “Knock that off or I’m bringing back the Thirst Jar.”
Chayden said, “OK, Boomer,” and Chuck rolled his eyes.
“Gen X, thank you. Chayden, I need you and Brandi to set up the children’s reading area for Family Storytime tomorrow.”
“But–” they both started, but were cut off when Chuck raised a finger. Experience had taught them that this was Chuck’s most severe warning, and if they pressed the issue he would raise his finger again.
“I’ve got orders to process. I’ll check back in later.”
As soon as Chuck left the front desk, Brandi leaned in toward Josie and started pleading.
“Please please PLEASE let me take over the front! Lucille never lets me when she does this shift.” Lucille was the library’s longest-tenured employee, and made it very clear that the front desk was Her Domain.
“I dunno, Brandi. Chuck specifically put you on Storytime duty.”
“I will take care of your closing duties tonight if you let me check him out.”
“Hmm. Chayden, can you counter?”
“Don’t need to,” Chayden answered. “I’ve been checking him out since he got here.”
Once again they were interrupted by the voice of their supervisor. “Any day now, you two.”
Brandi gave a quick pout before she and Chayden went off to perform the only assignment Chuck gave them that day. Soon Josie found herself alone with her thoughts, which kept turning back toward the handsome young man currently looking through the Staff Recommendations.
Why is he so cute, nobody that cute comes in here, it’s all supposed to be old people and kids and weirdos
She tried to go back to work, but she kept drifting away from her duties and back to her new crush. She spotted him again, near the water fountain. Their eyes met for a moment and
Oh my God HE’S LOOKING AT ME
Josie’s face went red as she turned away. She stared intently at her monitor and started typing like she was the hacker in the movies, bringing the full force of her 85 wpm to the task at hand, but her fingers were moving in slow motion compared to her thoughts.
He’s coming over here and he’s going to TALK TO ME and that gray shirt he’s wearing is IT and why didn’t those jerks warn me I would have dressed nicer my hair is a mess and I’m too frumpy why did I put on so much frump today
Once again, she was brought back to reality by someone else…but not who she hoped. Instead, a little boy suddenly appeared at the counter. He held his right hand in a fist, with the thumb folded between his index and middle fingers, and waved it around frantically.
“Can I help you?” she asked, but the child only repeated the same motion. She felt her face go red again, quickly losing her grasp of the situation. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand–”
“He’s asking where the bathroom is.”
Josie looked up and saw who just spoke, hoping it wouldn’t be the person she expected. But of course it was.
He tapped the boy on the shoulder and knelt down in front of him. Once he had the boy’s attention, he made the same sign, then pointed to where the bathrooms were. The boy smiled and ran off.
“Thank you so much,” Josie said quietly. “Good thing you know sign language.”
He shrugged, and Josie felt Some Kind of Way about how his shoulders moved. “Only a little, these days. Fell out of practice.” He set two books on the desk, along with his library card. Josie scanned the card, then the barcodes on the books’ spines, all while hoping he couldn’t see her hands shake.
She spied one of the titles–the second book in the Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series–and her eyes lit up. “Oh, I love this series!” she said. “Have you read his other books?”
“Just the first one,” he answered. “My baby brother’s been talking this guy up for years, so I figured I’d give him a shot. Pretty impressed so far.”
“He’s so good.” Josie relaxed a bit, thankful that the conversation had steered into her comfort zone. “Too bad the next Stormlight Archive book won’t come out until next year.”
“Gives me time to catch up, then.” He paused for a moment, and an odd little smile grew on his face, which she pretended not to notice. “If you don’t mind me asking…are you new? I’m used to checking out with Lucille.”
AAHHHHHHHHHHH “Oh, no. I just don’t usually work Tuesdays.”
“Gotcha. Well, it’s nice to meet you…”
“Um…Josie,” she said softly as she pushed the books toward him.
“Josie. My name’s Nate” He started to extend a hand, but pulled back and grabbed the books instead. “Well…thanks. Have a good night.”
He gave another warm smile before turning to leave. Josie immediately buried her face in the sleeves of her shirt.
What the hell just happened he’s perfect and gorgeous and maybe an actual good person dear God please don’t let him own a snake or be into feet
About when Nate had reached the door, Chayden and Brandi snuck their way back to Josie’s side.
She glanced back at the monitor, which still had his account information.
“Oh emm gee girl!” Chayden said, clapping his hands. “He is SO into you!”
“What? No!” she shouted, her face turning bright red. “He’s just…really polite.”
“He asked your name, Jojo. He could have just read it off your nametag.”
“He’s probably into feet,” Brandi said, with more than a hint of bitterness.
“Don’t listen to her, queen,” Chayden said. “She’s just jelly. I am too, that boy is a snacc. Hell, he’s a Lunchable.”
“Yeah, but…me? Look at me! I look like I just rolled out of bed and went straight to my knitting circle!”
“Lies! You are the hottest goddess, serving up the freshest looks with the freshest books.”
“I thought I was–” Brandi started, but Chayden cut her off by raising a finger. “Did…did you just Chuck me?”
“We’re supporting our friend now, B. Get on board.”
“Fine. Girl gang, mount up. So let’s see who this Homelander-looking beefcake is.” She leaned in toward the monitor and peered at the screen. “Nathan…Colton, lives at–”
Josie quickly pressed the Escape key and cleared the screen. “Brandi! You can’t be creeping on people using their accounts!”
Brandi shrugged. “Fine, I’ll just use Facebook.”
“That’s just as–” But of course, Brandi already had her phone out. Josie’s friend typed for a few seconds, and moments later a shocked look washed over her face.
“Whoa. Girl, you are not going to believe this.”
# # #
At the same time, Nate Colton was walking across the Clark County Library parking lot. He soon arrived at his trusty Prius, opened the door, and sat behind the wheel. He set his new books in the passenger seat, pressed the Start button, grabbed the steering wheel…and let out the breath he’d been holding since he left the counter.
“Holy shit,” he said to nobody. “Thought for sure I was going to throw up.”
He’d been so focused on his career since joining PRIME that he’d barely thought about his private life. About finally moving on. He’d expected this visit to be like all the others–keep his head down, grab his books, have a friendly chat with the old lady at the front, and then go home.
He certainly didn’t expect to feel a spark in his chest for the first time in two years. He didn’t expect to be so nervous that he nearly tripped over his own feet when he walked back to the counter.
But sometimes you get a choice. You can stay in your routine, or step out of your comfort zone.
He chuckled to himself again, as he thought about his dad’s First Rule.
“Truer words, old man.”
# # #
Rule Number One:
Life isn’t going to wait until you’re ready. So you’d damned well better be ready.