The Colton Academy might not have been the most cutting edge facility, but it had everything required to train the next generation of wrestlers: workout equipment, practice rings, and a weird smell.
It also had an office, though Jake Colton tried not to spend much time in there. He viewed the work done in that room a necessary evil, but one to be avoided if possible. He reasoned that if God wanted him to file his paperwork, He wouldn’t have invented piles.
Nate, on the other hand, loved spending time in the office, even though he had no great love of paperwork either. Jake had set up the entire south wall as a shrine to his career as a wrestler and trainer. There were a few larger items in display cases–his Teppanyaki Steak Shrine jacket, a few replica title belts, the remnants of a trophy that he’d won, moments before Lester Schmidt smashed it over his head–but the rest of the wall was filled with photographs. Nate could happily spend hours watching his father’s story unfold, from start to finish, with countless milestones along the way–friends, tours, fans, enemies, and titles.
The far end of the wall displayed Jake’s proudest achievements: the success earned by his kids. Their graduations from the Academy, receiving their family jackets, and even Nate holding the trophy from the Belmont Classic in 2017, all immortalized behind wood and glass.
Nate was in the office at that moment, his hair still wet from his post-workout shower. Sometimes he missed the facilities at the University of Indiana…but they didn’t have a view like this.
He stared at the early stages of Jake’s career–mostly group shots of training and shows in California–when he noticed something.
“Huh. That’s new.”
Somewhere in those first few years was a photo that Nate hadn’t seen before. It couldn’t have been any later than 1993, because his dad didn’t have his signature trucker ‘stache yet.
The picture was of eight young men, standing in front of two cars–a bright blue Chevy Camaro, and a beat-up red Plymouth Voyager. Jake was in the center, next to someone around the same age. They each had an arm around the other’s shoulder, in the same way that Nate and his brothers did in most family pictures.
Nate had never met the man, but knew him from other pictures and brief conversations with his father as “your Uncle Tommy.”
He recognized a few others, like Jake’s longtime friends Carlos Talamantez and Darryl Clark, as well as Pete Yardley–though it took a moment, because much like Jake’s mustache, Pete’s eyepatch had not yet made its first appearance. He didn’t know the others, but one of them seemed oddly familiar…
The door swung open, and Nate heard not-quite-under-his-breath muttering before he turned around.
“God damn kid’s gonna be the death of me, I swear…”
Jake Colton stormed into the office and was halfway around his desk before he noticed Nate was in the room. “…oh. Hi, son.”
“Hi, Dad. What’s Benny done this time?”
“Not him,” Jake replied, shaking his head. “It’s Blake. He’s nowhere near where he should be.”
“Give the kid a break, Dad. He’s only a month in.”
“So is everyone else, and the only ones making less progress have quit already. It’s…it’s like if I’m not talking to him directly, he can’t hear me.”
“Maybe he needs some one-on-one training?”
Jake pinched the bridge of his nose, attempting to stave off a headache. “That’s not fair to the others, and they’re actually paying for the class. I want to teach Blake, but I can’t tutor him. I don’t have the time, and neither does he.”
“I’d be happy to–”
Jake cut him off. “And you definitely don’t have the time. Helping him cuts into your own match prep…and with the kind of people you’re fighting in PRIME, you can’t afford that. I know you want to help, Nate. But some day, the kid’s got to learn how to stand on his own.”
Nate met his father’s eyes for a moment. “If you say so.” He knew there was merit to what Jake had said. But he also knew that if Blake needed him, he would do whatever it took to help, and nothing else mattered.
Jake knew it too, of course.
Nate turned back toward the wall of pictures and pointed at the new addition. “I don’t think I’ve seen this picture before.”
“Hmm?” Jake walked over to the wall where his son stood. “Oh, that. I finally found that a few months ago. That’s from my first or second year.”
“Who’s that guy?” Nate asked, pointing at a man standing at the center of the photo and smiling broadly. Jake followed Nate’s finger and peered at the man in question.
“That? That’s Frank.”
“Frank? You mean Mazur…Maze…that scout you know?”
“Oh yeah. He’d been wrestling for a few years when we started, and did a lot of lookin’ out for us. Great guy.”
“Frank was a wrestler?”
“Damn good one, too. Went by ‘Kid Fantastic’ back then. Damn shame about his luck; he could have been one of the greats.”
“That doesn’t look anything like him.”
“Well, the years weren’t good to him. Botched back surgery, then a muscular degeneration thing…he was in real bad shape. Fell out of contact for a long time, until we finally started talking again…what, five years ago? Glad he’s turned things around.”
“Wow. I had no idea.” Something about that fact made Nate feel uneasy. He knew that injuries were common in his line of work, and quite often a career–or a life–could be tragically cut short by a mistake. But actually knowing someone that it happened to, and seeing just how bad the damage could be, made it seem all the more real.
“Dad…” he started.
“Do you miss it?”
Jake thought for a moment. “Miss what? The shitty hotels? The cross-country travel? Taking a fistful of painkillers, just so I can get out of bed? Sure, that all sounds much better than shaping the future of the business and still going home to my family every night.”
“That makes sense,” Nate replied…but he noticed that while Jake gave a response, he never gave an answer. “But…do you miss it?”
Jake said nothing, but stared across the room at the pictures on the wall. The story of his career, from beginning to end. Then he looked down at his right leg, as if accusing his knee of betrayal, and let out a heavy sigh. “Every goddamn day.”
His eldest son laughed. “Thought so.”
“If it were up to me, I’d sign a contract tomorrow and get right back in there. Hell, maybe I’d join PRIME,” he said with a grin. “Then I could be one of those old-timers that Atken fella complains about all the time.”
Nate had been smiling at the fantasy, but scowled at the mention of the Humble Proprietor. “I dunno about that guy. He seems like bad news.”
“No doubt,” Jake said, and sighed again–more from resignation than frustration, this time. “Well, he’s got nothing to fear from me. My doctor, my knee, and my wife all say I’m retired. I’ll have to listen to the experts.”
“Glad to hear it, Dad,” Nate replied. “I’m relieved that I won’t have to beat you up in front of a worldwide audience.”
Jake laughed, sharply. “Don’t get cocky, sport. I still got some fight in me.”
“Maybe you do, old man,” Nate answered, barely able to contain his amusement. “But you’ll have to save that for mom, if she finds out you want to wrestle again.”
“No thank you. That’s one fight I’m definitely not–” Jake was cut off by a loud “ding” from his phone, because of course he had the volume turned all the way up. “Speaking of your mom, let’s see…oh. OH.”
Nate looked quizzically at his father, as Jake fell silent and his eyes went wide. “Everything okay?” he asked.
“Yes. Yes it is,” Jake answered, struggling to regain his composure. “Umm…can you handle closing up shop tonight? Your mom needs my help with something.”
“Sure. Anything I can help with?”
Jake’s face suddenly turned bright red, and he started coughing. “Nope. No, I…no. No. Just take care of things here, that’s all I need.”
“Not a problem. If some of the students stick around to help, we can get it done pretty quick.”
“No rush. I’d rather have it done right than done fast. Take your time. Thanks.” With that, Jake grabbed a set of keys from his desk and quickly walked out the door.
Nate watched him leave, then took another look at the wall of pictures. I wonder what mine will look like, he thought, and visions danced through his head. Title belts, accolades, cheering crowds, victories over the best wrestlers in the world. He hoped that all of these pictures, one day, would adorn his own walls.
His father never quite reached those dizzying heights in the industry. But while the pictures displayed a lot of his achievements, there were a lot more of the things Jake truly valued the most. His family, his friends, and the memories they made.
If that’s what my career looks like, Nate thought, …well, that’d be pretty good too.
Nate left the office and entered the gym itself, which was empty. All the trainees were still in the locker room, and Jake was already gone. He moves pretty fast for a guy with a gimpy knee.
He decided that he’d ask people to help with cleanup. Voluntarily, of course, but he expected a lot of them would stay. Some because they felt obligated or just wanted to help, others because it was a way to impress someone who could put in a good word for them.
Team players and social climbers. An almost perfect description of wrestling, really.
# # #
After closing duties were complete, the Coltons headed home. Blake drove the minivan, because he always did–he’d gotten his license much later than his siblings, so his parents made sure he had extra practice. Nate sat in the passenger seat, where he handled the music and pointed out upcoming traffic concerns that Blake had already seen.
“There’s a bike up there.”
“OK. How did training go today?”
Nate nodded, but frowned a bit. He may not have deep emotional scars, but he’d been through enough to know what being “fine” meant.
“Dad says you’re struggling a bit. Want to talk about it?”
“The light’s turning red.”
“I see it.”
“If you want, I can go in early with you tomorrow and–”
“I said it’s fine,” Blake snapped, and his hands gripped tighter on the steering wheel.
He’s really worked up, Nate thought. He knew he should let the matter drop; Blake could be just as stubborn as the rest of them when he wanted to be.
“All right. Well, if you–that truck is turning up there…”
“I fucking know!” Blake’s face flushed with anger…and moments later, shame. “Sorry,” he said, meekly.
Nate put his hand on his brother’s shoulder, which Blake shrugged off. “It’s all right, kid. We all get frustrated sometimes. You just can’t dwell on it; you’ve gotta take a step back and try to figure out what the problem is.”
“It’s…I just feel like I’m not getting it. Everyone else is ahead of me on this stuff. And now Dad’s pissed at me, because I keep screwing up. I feel like such a loser…”
“Hey!” Nate shouted, pointing an accusatory finger. “Nobody talks about my little bro like that, so cut that shit out. Besides, Dad knows damn well that you’ve got college to worry about.”
“Yeah, yeah. But this all seems like it was so much easier for you guys.”
“Oh, it was never easy,” Nate said with a slight chuckle. “Dad definitely put us through our paces. You gotta remember, he’s going to make us work twice as hard as everyone else, because we’re carrying his name. You’ll be fine; you just gotta switch up your thinking a little bit.”
“How do you mean?”
“First, you can’t get down on yourself because something didn’t go right. That doesn’t help. Gotta figure out a way to turn those negatives into positives.”
Blake shook his head a little, focusing back on the road. He wasn’t buying his brother’s advice, but Nate went on anyway.
“Take my last match, with Scott and Balaam. I hated losing, but it does me no good to just get pissed and not change anything. So I gave it a few days, watched the match again, and I was able to learn a lot.”
“Like, don’t burn yourself out against one guy when you’ve got two opponents, no matter how big and bad that guy is. And don’t overextend yourself. Sure, that move I hit on Balaam was cool, but it also took me out of the match. That’s no good.”
“Did you learn anything about not landing headfirst on the ring steps?”
“Meh,” Nate replied with a dismissive wave. “I was a little woozy, but I’m fine. And I’ve hardly noticed any lasting eff–”
At that moment, Nate’s eyes rolled back, and he pitched forward, hitting his head on the dashboard.
“Nate?” Blake asked, worry creeping into his voice. “Nate?!” But then he saw his brother’s shoulders shake, and heard his muffled laughter. “Oh, you fucker.”
“The mouth on you,” Nate said as he sat back up, a big shit-eating grin plastered on his face. “But you see where I’m coming from, right? Failure’s only a problem if you don’t learn from it.”
“I guess. And I want to get better, I really do. But there’s all this other stuff I have to worry about now.”
“Yeah, the rest of us were lucky that way; we only ever had to focus on wrestling ‘cause it’s all we’re good at. You’re the only one of us with actual brains, and we’d all rather have you focus on school. Wrestling will be here when you get done, if you still want to do it.”
“Of course I will!” Blake exclaimed.
Nate nodded. “Maybe. Or maybe you’ll find something else that you like just as much. Maybe you’ll be…I dunno, a geologist. You’ll get paid to look at maps all day, or whatever it is they do.”
“Maps are geography, not geology.”
“See? You’re smarter than me already. Point is, if you split your focus, you can’t do anything to the best of your abilities. At some point you’ll have to choose. Obviously, we’d all love it if you followed us into the business. But if you do something else, we’ll love that just the same. Hell, I bet Mom would love it a lot more. At least there’d be one of us not getting our shit kicked in every weekend.”
Blake giggled, mostly at the thought of his other brother, Benjamin, getting beat up. “I guess so. It’ll be a lot easier when I don’t have so much going on.”
“Yeah. I mean, there’s always going to be distractions. I’ve got ‘em too. I’ve got this kid, FLAMBERGE, giving me static now. He said some shit at the last show I didn’t care for, and I’m sure he’ll do the same at the next one. But I’ve also got a match with Dusk coming up, and that dude is a legend. His resume is basically ‘been everywhere, done everything.’ If I don’t focus on him, he’s gonna eat my lunch.”
“Wow. Can’t believe you’ve got to fight that guy.”
“I know, right? So that means I’ve got to tune out the distractions. Forget about what FLAMBERGE might say, or that Phil Atken wants me to join his group, or that I haven’t heard from Filmix in over a month. All that’s gonna take care of itself later. From now up until the show, the only thing I’m thinking about is how to beat Dusk.”
“I know you can.”
“Thanks, but that’s not the point. You need to do the same. There’s always gonna be stuff pulling you in different directions. But when you figure out what it is you really want out of life, you’ve got to put all your heart into that, and forget everything else. Make sense?”
Blake nodded. “Yeah. That makes a lot of sense, actually.”
Nate’s heart filled with pride, knowing he’d finally gotten through. “So…what are you going to do before the next session?”
“I’m…going to learn from my mistakes?”
“Right. What else?”
“I’m going to focus on what’s ahead of me.”
“Like that stop sign?”
“I see it, Nate.”
“And…I don’t know?”
“And you’re going to be good to yourself. If you ever think that you’re not good enough, remember that I do. And I’m your big bro, so you have to listen to me.”
Blake smiled, at last snapping out of his funk. “Thanks, big bro.”
“Any time, every time. And just in time, ‘cause we’re damn near home. Maybe later I’ll whip up some nachos, and we can–”
Buzz buzz, went the phone in Nate’s pocket.
“Hang on,” he said as he fished it out. “It’s Jenny. Wonder what she–oh, SHIT.”
There on the screen were two words that struck fear into the hearts of all the Colton kids.
“No….no no no no…” Blake muttered, rocking back and forth in the driver’s seat.
“Stay with me, kid,” Nate told him, steadying his little brother with a hand on his shoulder. “Jenny’s still in the house, she needs us.”
“We need to get the hell out of here–”
“NO ONE GETS LEFT BEHIND!” Nate yelled, as he typed furiously in response. “Pull around to the side!”
we got u girl
comin in hot
The van rolled over the curb near the driveway, then made the turn around the corner. Nate unbuckled his safety belt and crawled to the back.
“Is she…climbing out the window?”
Sure enough, their sister was making her escape through her bedroom window. She dropped to the ground and ran toward the van at a dead sprint, clutching a shoe in one hand. Nate had just enough time to open the sliding door before Jenny threw her shoe in, then dove in afterward.
“GO! GO!” Nate screamed, and Blake slammed his foot down on the accelerator like he was being chased by the local police, highway patrol, and Buford T. Justice himself. The tires squealed, the back end fishtailed for a few seconds, and the siblings escaped the horrors of whatever a Code Purple is.
They’d gone about two blocks before Nate realized the door was still open. He slid it back into place and crashed down on the seat. “I think we’re safe now. You all right, Jen?”
Jennifer’s breathing slowed, and she got up from the floor of the vehicle and sat down. “I’m…I’m okay. Thanks.”
“What happened?” Blake asked, not daring to take his eyes off the road or his foot off the gas. Sure, he probably shouldn’t be doing 45 in a neighborhood and blowing through stop signs, but this was an emergency.
“I was taking a nap when the music started,” Jenny said. “I think they forgot I was home. As soon as I figured out it was Prince, I told you guys.”
“Good thing we were just getting home,” Nate said. “Which–Jesus Christ, Blake, slow down!–which song was it? Insatiable?”
“Darling Nikki?” Blake offered, finally slowing down to a speed that wouldn’t get him arrested.
Jenny shook her head. “Dirty Mind.”
Fresh horror spread across Nate’s face. “Oh God. Forget the bedroom, they won’t even make it to the couch.”
“Last time they played that one, I had to clean the dining table three times,” Blake said, now staring off into the distance. “Wore the finish off, but I needed to be sure.”
They all shuddered, and desperately tried to take their minds off of the kinds of things their parents did to the sounds of Prince’s horniest album.
One thought that Nate couldn’t shake was that, while the drive had been good for Blake, and the afternoon was very good for their parents, it hadn’t done much for Nate himself. The Academy was a great place, but it wasn’t always open when he needed a workout. And while he was always willing to help his family with their problems, he needed time to focus on his own.
And then there was the nagging feeling that, after spending so much time in Las Vegas over the last few months, Evansville suddenly felt a lot smaller.
Maybe it’s time…
“Fuck it,” Nate said. “Take us to the Sawmill.”
“I’m not old enough,” Blake replied.
“And I’ve only got one shoe,” Jenny added. “Dropped the other one in my room, and I wasn’t about to go back for it.
“We’ll figure it out when we get there,” Nate told them. “We always do.”