49 Hours to Bell Time
Ever since they landed, Justine’s nerves had been set on edge. The first hint that something was amiss started when they boarded their flight at Boston’s Logan International Airport, and the first few feelings of unease started percolating. She tried to shut it down, tried to tell herself that it was just from the rumble of the plane during takeoff, or a patch of turbulence at the thirty-thousand foot mark. Maybe she could convince herself that it was a change in air pressure; nothing to worry about beyond the influence of a few millibars.
The tarmac at Harry Reid came up fast, and the seeds of concern that had spent the last few days germinating now erupted from her core in a barbed, jagged thornbush of anxiety.
Their room on the 28th floor of the MGM Grand was a palatial expanse that dwarfed her apartment in both size and amenities, boasting two master suites, her own whirlpool spa tub, and a panoramic view of the Vegas skyline. The fruit costumes and smoke machines she would have to tolerate, but she could get used to this collection of creature comforts.
Besides, there was enough furniture around that she could use to build a barricade not even Javert and the French Army could storm.
32 Hours to Bell Time
The door to the elevator slid shut, and Jared pressed the button for the main floor.
“I told him we’d meet at Starbucks,” he said. “Hope that’s cool.”
“The one by the front desk?”
“The other Starbucks.”
“Oh, so the one in the casino.”
He chuckled. “No, I meant the other other Starbucks.”
Justine closed her eyes, balled her fists in the pockets of her sweatshirt, and exhaled a long sigh through her nose.
“Do you have any idea how goddamn frustrating you are sometimes?”
“Sorry,” he said. “I keep forgetting that they have three here. Two of them are basically right across the way from each other. Why does one place need so much coffee?”
“Because sleepy people don’t gamble, Jared.”
“Yeah, that makes sense.”
On the seventeenth floor the elevator stopped, and the doors slid open to allow a pair of older gentlemen in brightly-colored Hawaiian shirts to step on. Justine used the opportunity to slip to the other side of the elevator, using the new additions as a barrier against whatever other nonsense might seep from Jared’s brain and stain the carpet.
As the elevator moved closer to their destination, Jared pulled the hood from his sweatshirt over he head, and fished a pair of sunglasses from the front pocket. It was one thing to dress up like a Blueberry on show night, but the downtime disguise was a little much, she thought.
Once their technicolor traveling companions had left the elevator, Justine flew through the door and down the concourse, a whirlwind of nervous energy. Jared had to sprint to catch up with her.
“You look like the police sketch of someone who shits in mailboxes,” she said, a bitter edge seeping into her tone.
“That feels oddly specific,” he said. For his part, Jared stayed light. If he caught on to her frustration – and by now, she figured, there was no way he hadn’t – he wasn’t letting on. “Plus, what are you talking about?”
“The hood? The indoor sunglasses? It’s quite the look, Corey Hart.”
“Man, we really need to update your reference game. Corey Hart wore his sunglasses at night, Cal. And besides, I can get away with this here. No one in Vegas gives a shit what you look like unless they think you’re not spending money.”
She quickened her pace again. The other other Starbucks wasn’t far off, and it was better to get this over with than let it linger. More than once she thought about dipping into the crowd and disappearing. Running was safe, and she had a history of vanishing around Jared instead of staying to answer the hard questions. Twenty-plus years ago, the first time it happened, she could simply drive home. When it happened again a decade later she could duck out under the guise of running errands. There was no safety net in Sin City, and worse, this time the fall-out would devastate them both.
So she put her head down, tried to shore-up her resolve, and marched ever onward, stopping only when they reached their destination.
“So,” he said, “are you ready for your ‘initiation’?”
Her only answer was a step towards the door.
Coral Avalon, the man behind the fetish nightmare mask of Baron Von Blackberry, had already settled into a far table with his back to the wall. To the casual observer he was fairly unassuming: black hair; clean-shaven; blue eyes; attractive. Were it not for the scars healing on his left arm, scars that looked like the aftermath of a Tic-Tac-Toe game fought with knives, he could blend in seamlessly with the rest of the crowd.
Justine didn’t need Jared to point him out. She’d seen enough of his work overseas to recognize him on sight. After all, this was the man who defeated Akira Hanazawa in the final of the Bang! Pro Wrestling TC-X tournament last year, and then lost his shot against “Big Iron” Gorou Ichikawa. Here sat a man who had already immortalized himself in the PRIME record books as a member of the Blue Rogues, once holding the same championships that she and Jared would vie for the next night.
“You nervous?” Jared asked as the pair made their way over.
In his hand he held a combination of caffeine and sugar that was, she thought, chemically indistinguishable from rocket fuel. One wrong step and BOOM! No more Jared, no more Blueberry, and no title match to stress over.
She had ordered tea, but only so she would have something to do with her hands.
“No,” she said again.
Jared slid into a seat and let the words fall out of his head as they came. There were no greetings or pleasantries exchanged. It was like the conversation had already started for him, and the rest of them would have to play catch-up.
“So, I totally went and did A Thing,” he said, smiling. “Justine Calvin, this is Coral Avalon. Coral is-“
She interrupted before he could finish the thought.
“I know who he is.” It was part of her job to know. Like Coral, Justine was also a wrestling trainer. If nothing else, they had that in common. “Um, hi.”
“Hey, Justine,” Coral said. “Oh, and hey, Jared.”
Jared opened his mouth to speak, but he was too slow. This despite the fact that a few sips of his drink meant that his blood chemistry was now regulated by the Federation of American Scientists.
“Jared said there was an ‘initiation’ that needed to happen for this ‘berry’ thing.” The glance she snapped in his direction was pure ice. “But he didn’t tell me what that actually meant, or what was involved.”
“I was deliberately vague, yeah.”
“Do you know what he’s talking about?” she continued. “Because I’m not a fan of secrets.”
Coral looked her dead in the eyes, and in a voice that betrayed no intent, asked his first question. “Did you imagine having to reach into a bucket of crabs to pull out a berry mask, or something?”
“Wait, what?” A surge of panic hit, and she wheeled on her partner-to-be. “Is he serious?!”
Despite the sudden darkening of Justine’s already-sour disposition, Jared smiled. “No. There really isn’t an initiation, but it sounded a lot cooler than just saying, ‘let’s all go say hi.’ To me, anyway.”
“I hate him so much sometimes,” she said to Coral. Jared shrugged.
“It’s not that kind of initiation, no,” Coral said, smiling. “Just a simple meet-and-greet. Two hundred percent less crabs.”
The math gave her pause. Two hundred percent less than what? How many crabs were they starting with, to have such a wild reduction? Would this introduce the concept of negative crabs? Her thoughts were getting away from her; she had to right the ship. Fortunately, she had a cure for that.
“Do people ever get punched at initiations?” She turned again to Jared. “Because right now that is totally on the table.”
Jared didn’t flinch, most likely assuming that if a punch was coming it would have happened by now. Pattern analysis was a secret superpower of his, and even she would have to concede she had a certain predictability around him, but it was a gift he played close to his chest. Besides, why be analytical when you could rampage around an arena like a chaos goblin with a forklift fetish.
“Cal here is what you might call a ‘reluctant berry’,” Jared said, and took another drink from his cup.
I swear if your heart explodes later I am not calling for help.
“It wouldn’t be my first choice, no.” She paused, then added, “No offense.”
“It wasn’t my first choice either,” Coral said. “I got used to it, though.”
“Okay, so how did you get suckered into this?”
“Well, the third of our merry band, may he rest in peace, talked me into it. I was stuck in a weird limbo after I left PRIME, and he helped me out. I wasn’t sure I should thank him at the time but… I do now.”
Justine made the decision to hold off on punching Jared, at least for the time being.
“So, and I’m sorry if this is a lot of questions, but, like, what changed it for you? Because on its face…” Jared started giggling, and she realized her pun, unintentional though it may be. Maybe she would hit him after all. “Okay, you shut up.” Once again, she turned her attention back to Coral. “It just seems so silly.”
“I’m not sure if there was just one thing that made me go, ‘oh, I get it now.’ I put the mask on, acted like an idiot, and eventually got better at acting like an idiot. I think people know by now that I’m Blackberry, but… I keep them separate enough that it doesn’t affect Coral Avalon. If that makes sense.”
“I’ve always been an idiot,” Jared said.
“No shit,” Justine said.
“But we are kind of a terribly kept secret,” Jared continued. “I mean, people knew who I was right off the jump fourteen years ago. Granted, my reasons for playing dress-up have always been a little different than everyone else’s, but… Where was I going with this?”
Justine watched the hamster in his brain die a slow, excruciating death by starvation as rational thoughts failed to arrive and feed it.
“Somehow, along the way this ended up being more than just a few people in costumes having fun. I didn’t really know Jason – Seymour, I mean – and then he approached me one day while I was between gigs and said, ‘You know what would be fun?’ Same with Coral. I didn’t know him either. But now we’re our own little messed-up family, and the thing is, once you’re in? You’re in. If tomorrow you wake up and decide you hate me…”
“Or later today, at the rate this is going.”
“Sure. But you’d still be in. Still a berry.” He drained the last of his cup and gave it a shake. “Jesus, that just sounds weird when you say it out loud.”
“Little bit,” Coral said. “You know, I’ve taken the berry thing to six continents by now. Still working on Antarctica. Anyway, it seems weird and dumb, and I don’t know who ever thought it was a good idea. But it’s fun.”
Jared sighed and set the cup down in front of him, no doubt mourning the last drops of sugar-filled propellant he would never get to taste.
“Technically this is my fault. I started this nonsense, so you can blame me for that. But that’s the other thing: it stopped being mine in pretty short order. When Jason came on, it became as much his. And it’s just as much Coral’s now. Hell, he actually went and did something successful with it. And, if you want it, then it’ll be yours too. There’s no hierarchy here. It belongs to everyone equally. Do whatever you want with it.”
“This is a big deal to you, isn’t it?” she said.
“Honestly? Yeah, it kind of is. In fifteen years there have ever only been five of us.” Jared waited until their eyes met before going any further. “But only you get to decide if that number goes to six.”
Darren Stracker looked across his gym at the collection of friends and current and former students, and smiled. Days later, when both Jared and Justine returned home from Las Vegas, he’d tell them that he sold the place out.
“Standing room only,” he’d say, “and wall to wall.”
It wasn’t uncommon for him to show big events at his school, but the turnout was never like this, and maybe for good reason. Tonight was special, the first time that two of his kids would be competing on the national stage together.
For one of them, the main event was nothing new; he’d been there before in both victory and defeat. His accolades were many, and helped draw some interested prospects into the converted candy factory that Darren called his second home.
The other was new to the spectacle, though she’d had a hand in getting dozens of men and women ready to take that step themselves. They turned out in force to watch their “Auntie Cal” get her shot at immortality in a company that had for years served as a cornerstone of professional wrestling.
Crammed into the space, standing shoulder to shoulder, it was her they came to see. Max Barton. Roderick Frost. Cameron Smart. Classmates gathered in solidarity. Even Solomon King managed to duck away from his K-pop security duties to join a video call for the occasion.
At the front of the gym, Chuck Poundstone sat in rapt attention. He’d been working locally for around a year now as “Chaz Maximum”, a Tom Selleck look alike with an 80’s throwback vibe. Chuck had finished his training over a year ago, but had been asked by his trainer – the woman in the purple berry mask – if he wanted to stay on and help with some classes, the extra money going to his grandmother’s care. Short of flying to Vegas, there is nowhere else he’d rather be than front row at a gym sellout.
When Cal was in trouble early, they collectively cursed at the projector screen. When she rallied, they rallied with her, shouting encouragement at her image as if she could hear them. And when she found her corner, palpable relief filled the room.
Then the last bell sounded and the building shook itself down to the foundation.
27 Hours to Bell Time
When Jared had asked if she wanted to check out the setup for Great American Nightmare, her first instinct had been to decline. The curiosity was there, of course, but so was the notion that being inside the arena and seeing it decorated for the show would galvanize the experience, make it real. And, if it came to it, make it harder for her to say no if the nerves became too much to bear.
She took her first steps into the arena proper. Once, when she was a little girl, her father had taken all four kids to tour the old Boston Garden, a building just as impressive, but one with its own aura. Even as a child it didn’t seem as big. She was one among hundreds, tiny feet squeaking across the parquet floor in a pair of Keds. Here, without the benefit of a crowd and with the weight of her commitment upon her, she felt small, an ant under the eye of God.
They walked in silence to the edge of the stage, stepping aside as a pair of crewmen carried a folded ladder to store under the ring. There was nothing booked for the show that required one, but given the somewhat unpredictable nature of professional wrestling Justine wouldn’t be surprised to see it come into play the next night.
Jared broke the silence.
“Do you want to talk about it? About what’s going on?”
“What do you mean, ‘what’s going on’?”
Jared put both hands up and patted the air. “I’m not trying to start a fight, but you’ve been pretty short with most people we’ve talked to. With me. Hell, I’m catching more strays than animal control.”
“You’re right,” she said, sighing. “I’m not handling this very well. I’m trying, but this is really hard.”
“You know you don’t have to do this. If you’re uncomfortable with-“
“No. No, it’s not that, I just…”
“God, you keep saying that! It’s like you’re trying to get me to go back home.”
“I keep saying it because I need you to believe it, and I’m worried that you’re out here because you think it’s what I want, or that you think you owe me something, or…” He plopped down on a stack of crates, each marked with a faded, stenciled serial number. “Who the fuck knows.”
“So me being here isn’t what you want?”
“No, it’s… Jesus Christ, Cal, I’m not your enemy here.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
He pushed back up off the crates and moved alongside her.
“I get it. Stepping through those curtains for the first time in a place like this is fucking horrifying. When PRIME re-opened at the start of the year, I damn near pissed myself at the thought of having to be in front of people, because for eleven years I’d been away. And that feeling is still there. I don’t know if I’ll ever be comfortable doing this in front of a crowd again. It’s why I hid in high school gyms, and National Guard halls for the last few years. Because it felt safer. So, I understand.”
“It’s not just the people, though that is a part of it. It’s just, like, the halls and gyms that you talk about are the only things I know. That’s all I’ve ever been given a chance to do, and the pressure there is so much less than this. The level of competition is different. And not just that, but dammit, Jared, I’ve spent most of my career training other people to work those shows, you know?”
“Do you trust me?”
The question blindsided her, and she took a reflexive step back to steady herself.
“Do you trust me, Cal?”
“I mean it,” he said. “No secrets. Don’t just say it because you’re here and I’m asking. Tell me the truth, even if you think it’ll hurt. And if you have to think about it at all, then the answer is ‘no’. Do you trust me?”
“Do you genuinely believe I would ask you to do this if I didn’t think you could handle it?”
The sudden introduction of calm, well-reasoned thought into this conversation put her off. It was one thing to have this exchange, but anytime Jared introduced logic into his arguments was cause for concern, if only because on those days he tended to have a fair point.
“No, I don’t.”
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t want you out here with me tomorrow night. I wouldn’t have asked you otherwise. I also meant it when I said that you’ve deserved this chance for far too long. I want you to know what it feels like to have thousands of people chanting your name. I want you to know what it’s like to succeed on the biggest stage imaginable. I want you to finally get to see your dream realized, Cal.” He paused to give his next words room to breathe. “But I only want those things if you want them, too.”
Logic and reason was one thing, but being sweet on top of it was a bridge too far. She wondered if their room had a balcony to throw him off of later, then kicked herself when the image of Wyatt Connors falling off a scaffold slipped into her mind. Then she kicked herself again for having so many violent thoughts at all.
She decided to drown him in the spa tub instead.
“What if I can’t do it, Jared? What if I go out there and find out that I can’t hang, or maybe that I never could? That guy – your friend Jon – won the Universal Championship twice. Once from Clinton Sage, and once from your redheaded friend. You seriously think I’m on their level?”
His answer came without hesitation. “Yes.”
Justine’s laughter was joyless. “Okay, maybe the things people say about you are true after all, and you really are out of your fucking mind.”
Still, his expression never changed. His was a mask of absolute conviction.
“Maybe, but their opinions aren’t the ones that matter right now. Only one that counts here is yours. Promise me that whatever you decide… Promise me that the decision you make is going to be the one that’s best for you, okay?”
“You said you trust me. So, look… Regardless of what tomorrow night means, regardless of what’s on the line, the only thing that matters is that you come out of this happy. Whatever that means for you. That’s what’s important right now.”
“Promise me,” he said.
On any other night, Junie would have told him that he was too old to stay up this late, and if he didn’t stop what he was doing right now and go to bed then he would be cranky the next day. She would of course be right, she always was, but that was Barrett’s little girl on TV. That was his Tina. And anyone who thought they could drag him away from watching her that night would have to dig in their heels, square up, and brace themselves for as many rounds as his aching joints would allow. Unless Junie was adamant, then he’d concede.
“The only person I ain’t ever winning against,” he’d say.
After suffering through a bunch of garbage with a mannequin and those weirdos with the fog machines, the first notes of his old walk-out song hit, and he pushed himself to the edge of his chair. Despite the mask covering her eyes, and the three thousand miles that separated them, Barrett could read the surprise on his daughter’s face. To hear him tell it, that’s when he knew – when he knew with absolute goddamn certainty – how this was going to go.
The first bell rang, the fight began, and Junie cursed the television.
“Why isn’t he doing something? He’s just standing there. He should do something!”
Barrett grunted, his eyes never leaving the screen. They’d been together for nearly fifty years, ever since she’d been swept off her feet by the fighter with the awkward shuffle, but there were some things that Junie would never understand. She never stood across the ring from anyone, didn’t understand that if their girl didn’t find her bearings now, under this pressure, that she never would.
“That guy ain’t gonna let you fall, Tina.” That’s what he told her when she came looking for advice. He knew it to be true; knew without question. “That just ain’t who he is.”
Barrett did so love being right.
Thirty minutes later, and well past his bedtime, for the first time since his mother passed away Barrett Calvin wept.
5 Minutes to Bell Time
Mark, Jared’s MGM-appointed babysitter, buzzed around the room like the fly at a picnic. With every hovering footstep Justine wanted more and more to squash him, to swat him away, to duct-tape him to a chair and lock him in a broom closet, anything as long as he would stop goddamn moving. And where Mark, a kid with no stake in the match, could not stop his body from fidgeting, Jared sat stone-still, a complete deviation from what she had expected.
There was something in his hand, but from where she sat Justine couldn’t get a clear line-of-sight. Whatever it was, he had spent the last few minutes tracing slow patterns across it with his thumb.
“What are you looking at?” she said, and gestured to his hands.
“He looks at it before every match,” Mark said, and the urge to crush him sprung forth anew. “I’ve never seen it. He usually hides it when people are around.”
Jared looked first to Mark, and the boy wilted, retreating back towards the wall. He slid his chair closer to Justine, and held out his hand. The picture in his palm was of two boys, their faces covered in frosting, laughing and smiling behind the remnants of a cake. By the look of them, they couldn’t have been any older than five, maybe six. A thin veneer of plastic covered the still image, sealing in edges that had been long worn and frayed.
“Can I see?” Mark craned his neck. No, not a chair. She’d tape him to a toilet instead.
With a magician’s dexterity the picture vanished, and Mark was left leering at an empty hand.
“Hey, can you do me a favor?” Jared asked. “Why don’t you go make sure that the Bonafides are all set. I know that Biff’s arthritis has been flaring up lately. Can you see if he needs anything?”
“I gave each of them their smoke machine earlier,” Mark protested. “We tested all of them. I don’t think-“
“Mark.” Though he stayed calm, Jared’s voice had found an edge; a parent who wasn’t mad, just disappointed. The message was received loud and clear.
“Okay,” the boy said. “I’ll come back when it’s time.”
Mark stepped through the door, and Justine exhaled a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding. Finally, the fly had been swatted.
“Thanks,” she said, “Jitters are bad enough without him wandering all over the place.”
“Figured you needed a breather. Mark’s a good kid. He means well, just… not the most socially adept guy.”
“You two must get along great then.” Some of yesterday’s venom was back, and she knew it as soon as the words left her lips. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I keep doing that.”
“You’re scared. It’s okay to be. I remember before my first match – my first one on a stage like this, I mean – I was a mess. Just a total fucking disaster.”
“You? A disaster? Noooo.”
“I know, right?” With a little bit of effort, he removed the mask from his face, sending a cascade of pink locks tumbling over his face. “It was in Cyber Championship Wrestling. Feels like a lifetime ago. Think it was about a month after we graduated.”
Not long after their first night together, she thought, and wondered which had been the bigger disaster: his first match, or the aftermath of their first intimate evening. She concluded the latter, since it would be close to ten years since they’d speak to each other again.
“I wandered the backstage area for an hour, finding new trash barrels to throw up in. God, the nerves were so bad. At one point I was convinced I was going to have a heart attack, or stroke out around a bunch of production equipment.”
“You looked okay when you went out, though.”
This caught his attention, and he raised an eyebrow. Ah, she thought, this is new information for him. She never told him she watched it live, but now the truth of it was out.
“You were watching?”
“Did you know I called your house that night?”
“I’m serious. After my adventures with barrel number three, I found a pay phone. My cell didn’t have the best reception, so I had to work with what I had. Come to think of it, that might be the last time I used one of those. A pay phone, I mean.”
“And so you decided to call me,” she said. Her attitude and her attention had shifted. No doubt he could read the incredulity in her posture. “Why? We hadn’t spoken in like a month by then. Why the hell would you call me?”
Jared sighed, and let his eyes wander to the floor for a minute.
“I needed a familiar voice,” he said. “Thought it would help calm me down.”
Don’t you fucking lie to me, she thought, not now – definitely not now. Time was running short. Any minute, Marky McFly would be back to let them know it was time to go. At that moment she made the decision to revisit this in the future. She wanted answers, and she would get answers, but right now the clock was against her.
“Okay, but I was home that night, and we never spoke. No messages either.”
“This is where it gets embarrassing,” he said. “I didn’t recognize the voice that answered, so I sort of panicked and hung up.”
Marcus, her brother, had surprised the family a week before when he returned home early from an deployment. He was the only other person in the house that night, and to Jared his voice would have been new. This led her down a new line of thinking, one that she definitely didn’t want to chase right now: why would he be scared off by the voice of a man he didn’t recognize?
Better to change the subject.
“That picture,” she said. “It’s your brother, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. Our seventh birthday. Been carrying it with me for years to remind myself why I do this; why I started doing this in the first place.”
“Does it help?”
He shrugged. “Sometimes, I guess.”
“Tell me it’s going to be okay, Jared.”
“Tonight. Now. I need you to tell me it’s going to be okay.”
He pulled his chair in all the closer, and took both of her hands in his. The tape on his knuckles felt coarse against her fingers.
“It’s going to suck, Cal. For a while, it’s going to really, really suck. But then things will settle, you’ll find yourself, and yeah… Then it’ll all be okay.”
“And what if I don’t?”
“Then that’s okay, too.”
“But what if it’s not?”
He ignored the knock on the door and leaned in, pressing his forehead against hers.
“Cal, do you know what’s going to happen tonight?”
“In a second we’re going to open that door, and then walk down to the ring. What happens after that I can’t predict, but I’m going to do everything I can, even if it kills me, to make sure that you leave here a champion, okay?”
She didn’t answer.
“You want to know something really cool?”
“No matter what happens out there, win or lose, you and I get to live forever.”