The brainbuster should have been the worst of it. It was, after all, the move that had taken Jonathan Rhine’s career away and left him confined to a wheelchair, maybe for the rest of his life. But that was only the beginning of the carnage. Soon a chain would come into play. The ring steps would be weaponized in brutal fashion.
“This is fuckin’ sick, dude!”
The worst of it was the necklace of gator teeth, used as a shiv to tear open the ring canvas and a lash to bite into exposed flesh. Blow after blow landed on Jared’s back, ripping through skin and leaving trails of blood in their wake. Later that night the medical team that PRIME employed would remark that Jared’s torso looked like the aftermath of an encounter with the firing squad.
“Oh man, what a badass!”
Ryan, the only son of Elizabeth Sykes-Vincent and her husband Doug, sat on the basement floor of Danny MacInnis’ house, engaging in the one activity his mother had expressly forbidden: watching his uncle. He didn’t understand at first. What was so wrong about what Uncle Jared did for work? He was the one who always stood up to the bad guys; who despite what anyone said about him tried to do the right thing even if it hurt.
But there, leaning against the couch with only a thin layer of carpet to separate him from the cold concrete, Ryan understood. What he saw in the months before Colossus should have served as a warning, a sign to stay the fuck away because the dog that lives on the other side of the fence has endless rows of teeth and a ravenous hunger.
He wanted to stop, to beg them to shut it off, but he couldn’t pull his eyes away. He watched his hero bleed out onto the exposed boards of the ring, desperate for it to end. In spite of himself, Ryan began to tremble.
His friends only cheered for more violence.
She’d known Jared for more than half of her life, but as they stood inside the foyer of the Vincent family’s modest home just outside of Vancouver, Justine realized that this was the first time she’d met his sister. Greetings and pleasantries were exchanged. She was introduced first to Lizzy’s husband Doug.
Pleasure to meet you.
What a lovely home.
Yeah, it’s my first time in this part of Canada.
No, the flight wasn’t that bad. I mostly slept.
The two girls arrived next, each one made in the image of their mother. Amanda, the younger of the two, expressed her intense displeasure at the fact her uncle would come visit, bring a new friend with him, but arrive without presents. She was still pouting when her older sister, Bailey, ran to Jared’s side.
“I know so many languages!” she said. Justine wondered for a moment what the Canadian education system was like if a child barely older than seven was already multilingual. “Wanna see?”
“Sure!” Jared said. He crouched low so that Bailey had to look down at him. It was a move Justine had seen countless times before; with fans who approached when they traveled, with Nora at the fundraiser dinner in New Orleans the previous spring.
“I’ll show you how I say hello.” Bailey cleared her throat. “Hello. Bonjour. Hola. Aloha. Howdy.”
“Howdy?” Justine said. She couldn’t help but smile. “What language is that?”
“Texas!” Bailey grinned, and ran from the room with her sister in tow.
Justine could hear the footsteps thundering down the upstairs hall before Ryan revealed himself. He was taller than she expected, still in that awkward phase where his body was trying to figure out in what direction it wanted to grow. The boy had let his hair grow long so that it almost hung to his nose, and the front had been dyed a familiar shade of pink.
“Hey, buddy,” Jared said. He’d moved to the bottom of the stairs when he heard his nephew’s footfalls above. The smile he wore could have lit the house in a blackout.
Ryan tore down the stairs, ignoring his mother’s attempt to introduce him. He barreled into his uncle and threw his arms around him. It was almost like a dog, Justine thought. Separated from its owner for so long that the sheer sight of them made the rest of the world wholly irrelevant.
“Good to see you, too.” Jared returned the embrace, but after a moment the expression on his face fell. It took Justine a minute to understand why, but then she heard the muffled sobs. Against them she had to strain to hear Jared’s next words.
“It’s okay,” she heard Jared say. “I know. I know. I’m so sorry.”
The first thing I saw when we walked into Ryan’s room was my own reflection, younger, smiling, and with far fewer scars both mental and physical. The poster hung on a spot of wall just above his bed, high enough that any nights of tossing and turning wouldn’t accidentally clip the corner or tear it right in half.
Ryan plodded across the room and took his seat on the mattress, letting his head hang. I took up a spot beside him.
“I am so, so sorry you saw that, Ry’. I’m sorry I let it get that far. I thought… I honestly thought I was doing the right thing, that there was no way to avoid this. But it all went to hell, didn’t it?”
He didn’t answer.
I let my eyes wander the room. There was another picture, this one framed, resting on a bookshelf in between a Lego sculpture and part of a cracked geode. The shot captured the first time my nephew and I had met. He was born in the summer of ‘09, a year that I look back on with varying degrees of fondness, but my schedule kept me from getting up here to see him until a few months later. The version of myself staring back from the frame had a welt under his left eye that you could see from low earth orbit without the aid of a scope, the result of a nasty dust-up with Thad Denver.
Ryan’s very first moment with me ruined because once again I’d managed to put myself in danger. Because I’d pissed off the wrong person and suffered for it.
I knew then that no matter what he said next, he’d be right.
“I used to think it was just me getting hurt,” I said. “I never considered what it might be doing to anyone else, and that’s on me. I should have done better. I should have been better. I let you down, bud. That’s why we’re here, because it doesn’t matter what the result was. I still failed.”
It still didn’t make what he said any easier.
“I think maybe mom is right.”
“Lizzy says it’s always been like this.”
Doug stepped over to the table with a mug in both of his hands, setting one down before each of the women. Justine offered her thanks and drew hers closer. In the wake of ReVival 16 the wrestling community at large had started referring to what happened that night as “Chocoboarding,” and while she wasn’t the victim of that attack it still left its mark. It had taken her a few months before dark liquid was something she could once again drink.
“Since we were kids,” Lizzy said. She turned her attention to Justine. “I don’t know what Jared’s told you about when we were younger or what it was like after Andrew passed, but things were hard for a while.”
“I can only imagine,” Justine said. “He doesn’t talk about it much, but I know he still goes to visit every year on their birthday. Has done it as long as I’ve known him.”
Lizzy’s mug hung suspended in the air. There were tears forming at the corners of her eyes. Justine felt a surge of heat wash over her. This was new information she’d just put out into the world.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I sort of expected you knew.”
“No, it’s fine,” Lizzy said. She set her cup back on the table and blinked the tears back. “I’m not surprised, given… well…”
“I know they were close. I know it’s why he’s a wrestler… why he changed his middle name.”
“Yeah.” Lizzy took a long breath, using the opportunity to compose herself.
She was hard to read. Where Jared wore his heart on sleeve, his sister was more reserved. On the flight to Vancouver, Justine had been told that Lizzy inherited all the brains from their parents. She was starting to wonder if Lizzy had inherited all the restraint as well.
“Anyway,” Lizzy continued, “for the first year or so after it happened Jared just got quiet. He wouldn’t talk to our father at all. Would barely talk to the rest of us. Then he started eighth grade, and we started noticing things. Little things at first. A scratch on his hand. A tear in his jeans. It didn’t happen often, and he always had some excuse when mom would ask.”
“And then high school started,” Doug offered. He was leaning against the cabinets, one hand in his pocket and the other on the handle of his mug. This was a story he’d heard before.
“What happened?” Justine said.
“Suspended twice before Christmas as a freshman,” Lizzy said. “New bruises every week. For me, more time with the babysitter because mom and dad kept getting called to the school. He was almost thrown off the hockey team, almost expelled. Behavioral counseling. That sort of thing.”
“Jesus,” Justine said. “I had no idea.”
“I don’t think he’s proud of those days. I remember asking him about it. I was around nine years old and all I knew was my big brother kept coming home hurt.” She shifted in her seat. The facade had started to crack, and some of the underlying emotion was bleeding through. “One day he came home with a bloody nose, worse than any I’d seen before it. I went to his room that night, told him I was scared. Some of the older kids were picking on the boy they had tutoring him. Mervin was his name.”
Justine’s mind wandered to a crisp December morning in a cemetery a few towns over from where she grew up. There was no sun, only the gray canopy of clouds and the smell of snow in the air. She stood by Darren that day, the both of them wondering why Jared hadn’t attended. “Yeah, I knew Merv. Not well, but… yeah.”
“Do you know what Jared said to me?”
“That he was doing the right thing. He turned his anger into a sword, and he used it to try and help his friend. Do you know what’s changed in thirty years?” She swallowed hard around the lump in her throat. “Nothing.”
“I know you have a fight coming up. I read about it online.”
He was dancing around the heart of the issue, what he really wanted to say. Given everything he knew, I couldn’t blame him. He’d seen what happened at Colossus and in the weeks before that. He knew what the last few months had been like. Despite everything his parents tried to do to prevent him from watching, convincing a thirteen-year old boy to stay off the internet is an impossible task. Even if he’d listened, his friends at school knew who I was. There’s no way that information wouldn’t make it back to him. No way.
For the same reasons Jake Colton would never let his kids watch SCCW during its heyday, Lizzy would never let Ryan watch me anywhere. Both parents did what they thought was best for the people who were most important to them.
I wouldn’t dare argue against either.
“Yeah,” I said. ”I do.”
Ryan’s eyes never left the floor.
“Is he going to try and hurt you, too?”
Suddenly I was a kid again, a confused, angry teenager sitting on the edge of my bed with a wad of tissue stuffed up my nose. A little girl sat crying beside me asking why her big brother was always bleeding. Why are mommy and daddy so mad, Jared? Are you hurt? Are you going to be okay? Are they going to kick you out of school?
And the worst of them all: are you going to die?
A nine-year old in her pajamas held a teddy bear that was patched together by frayed thread and wishes, and the best I could offer was, “I don’t know.”
“Who, Abe? Nah.”
I had no idea if that was true. I’d never seen Abe Lipschitz wrestle. Had no idea what he was capable of, or whether he’d be the next in a long line of people whose life ambition was to take me out permanently. For all I knew, there could be the second coming of Terrence Kingsley hiding behind the sunglasses and screaming pink tights, waiting to shatter a hundred light tubes against the people I cared about most. Against me.
For all I knew, “Wyatt Connors” had been reborn after our meeting in Indiana over the summer, and hired the most unsuspecting person he could think of to rend asunder the self-worth I’d spent so many years trying to rebuild.
Maybe he’d be the avatar of Alex Pierce, finally ready to enact vengeance a decade after I nudged the linchpin that sent her personal life into chaos.
Aside from some colorful company and a newfound blood vendetta against Ned Reform, Abe Lipschitz was an unknown quantity. I was about to dip my toes into brand new waters, not knowing if there was a shark lurking just beneath the surface.
For Ryan’s sake more than mine.
“What if he does? What if those people he’s friends with decide that they want to? What if one of them made a deal so that Paxton guy or someone else like him can try again?”
“I don’t think that’s gonna happen, Ry’. I don’t think he’s that type of guy. He might be, but…” I didn’t end the thought, shrugging instead.
Ryan looked up and met my eyes. The hard question was coming; it was all over his face.
“How do you know?” he said.
Thirty years, and nothing had changed.
Thirty years, because some habits are hard to break.
Thirty fucking years, because Justine was right. I will throw myself in front of that train. Every goddamn time.
“This is why I try to keep Ryan from watching,” Lizzy said.
Doug was no longer in the room, having stepped out to keep Amanda and Bailey entertained, leaving Justine and Lizzy to talk in private.
“I have no idea how you manage,” she continued. “Having to actually be there when all this happens. I don’t want the kids to see, but he’s my brother, and I hardly ever get to see him because we live so far apart. I’ve seen the clips, too. I know you tried to help. I appreciate you so much for that.”
“I’m not sure I was much help,” Justine said. “I think I might have actually made things worse in some regard.”
Lizzy tilted her head slightly. “What do you mean?”
Justine took another sip from her mug.
A memory played out in her mind, clear as the day it happened. There was a call from Shweta Kallemullah. She was reaching out because she wasn’t able to reach Jared, and thought that Justine might be able to help. The situation, she said, was urgent. The exchange gave birth to a secret Justine had yet to speak aloud to anyone.
Behind her cup, Justine laughed in spite of herself. The irony was bitter, coming up like bile.
“I did what I thought was the right thing,” she said.
“Can I ask you something?” Ryan said. I don’t know if he was satisfied with what I’d had to say, or if he was just too tired to be upset. “Do you ever get scared?”
“All the time.”
“About fighting. About what people think of the things I do. About a lot of things. Been real scared a lot lately.” His head snapped in my direction. “Don’t worry, this isn’t anything bad. At least, I hope it isn’t.”
“What do you mean?”
I leaned in close, elbows on my knees so that we were only a few inches apart.
“Can you keep a secret?” His eyes got wider. “Don’t make that face. Like I said, it’s nothing bad. It’s just… Nobody knows about this, and if I tell you then I need you to promise me that you won’t say anything to anyone. Not your friends. Not your sisters. Not even your mom and dad. Can you do that for me?”
He extended his right hand. It was balled into a fist except for his little finger. It took me a minute to understand what he was doing. I genuinely didn’t realize people still made “pinky promises.”
“I swear,” he said. There was an air of mischief in his voice. It was refreshing to hear given the tone of our conversation so far, but didn’t provide any relief to the way I was feeling at that moment.
Deep breath, Jared. They’re all going to find out eventually, one way or another.
“I bought a ring.”
“A wed-” he started to say before clasping both of his hands over his mouth. I think it might have been my expression, wide-eyed with terror that he was about to blow all of this literally seconds after swearing silence. After a moment he whispered, “Shut up!”
“Yeah,” I said. “Exactly what you’re thinking. Had it custom made, so it’s not like I can just return the thing. So, you see why it’s a secret, right?”
“Oh man,” he said. He was grinning now, thank god. “But why are you scared?”
“Because I don’t want to know what happens if she says no.”
“No way!” He was off the bed now, pacing back and forth across the room. “Oh man, we get to come, right? When she says yes, and you guys get… you know.”
He winked at me all big and exaggerated. God, this kid would make such a shitty spy. Guess we had that in common, too.
“About that.” He froze. “It turns out that this is a two-part secret, I guess. If she says yes, if this all happens… Ryan, I need you up on that altar with me, okay?”
“Yeah, you. Biggest day of my life, where the fuck else would you be?” He shot a nervous glance to the door, expecting to hear his mother’s voice. That’s another one of Lizzy’s rules: no swearing. It’s almost a preternatural sense at this point where she doesn’t need to hear it to know it’s happening somewhere around her. “No one else on this planet looks at me the way you do, bud. No one else sees what you do. So I need you there, okay? I need you to hold me up, or else I might fall.”
“Okay,” he said. There was a slight change in his demeanor, as if the gravity of the afternoon was pulling him back to earth. “If.”
“You have to promise me that you’ll make it there okay. I mean… like…”
He didn’t have to finish. The intent was clear as day.
“I give you my word, I will get there in one piece.”
He nodded, wholly unconvinced.
“Okay, we’ll do it this way.” I spun off the bed and looked him dead in the eyes. “I promise you, Ryan. I swear it on your uncle… my brother, Andy. That’s the best I can give you. I don’t know if that means anything to you, but you tell your mom and she’ll explain it. Just, you know, don’t tell her the rest. I swear to you that I will do everything I can to get there in one piece. That even if Abe turns out to be a real prick, he will not keep me from getting there. That any time I think of doing something dumb I’ll remember today instead. Okay?”
He stared at me wide-eyed for a moment, and I knew then that he wouldn’t need to ask his mom. He understood. Of course he did.
“Good,” he said. Then a smile engulfed his face. “I wasn’t going to say anything, but she is kinda hot.”
“Oh, yeah. I’m well aware, bud.”
He threw himself off the edge of the bed, and once again his arms were around my neck. A much different embrace than what he’d greeted me with, because this time there was only joy.
Because this time, I’d actually done the right thing.