Chuck Poundstone was a kindred spirit. He had come up through the ranks at Stracker’s the same as Justine, and after his graduation had struggled to land on his feet within the industry. It wasn’t that the business didn’t want him, quite the contrary, but Chuck’s family obligation ran deep. Having spent much of his life in the care of his grandmother, he felt it only right to return the favor when her cognitive function began to fail. Alzheimer’s had taken a thousand moments of joy from her memory, but it didn’t take Chuck. He was there every afternoon to make sure that ‘Miss Ellie’ had someone to keep her company, and never took a booking more than a few hours away by car. His appearance at the Milo Flynn Cup as “Chaz Maximum” had been the only exception.
From what Justine knew of the situation, Ellie didn’t have much time left. This would likely be her last Christmas, and in the interim Chuck’s future remained in a state of suspended animation. It was a cruel trade with no winners: his future for her happiness. Chuck didn’t see it that way. He had plenty of time left. It made Justine think of another man who’d shared this space with her, one who’d made a similar trade of family for future.
She pushed the thought away. There was no time for that now, not here. She’d come back to Stracker’s ahead of schedule to get away from those thoughts, to give her mind something to occupy itself with while she waited for her body to heal. The space, once a second home, gave her little comfort. Before it had found its purpose as a school for professional wrestling, the building had been owned by the New England Confectionery Company, and the saccharine smell of molten sugar still hung in the aether and clung to the walls, seeping into every porous surface and merging with it, becoming one with the foundation. It used to lend the place a magical quality, her dreams being forged in this workshop like toys. Now every breath reminded her of Jared and of chocolate. It stung her nostrils, burned her lungs. She could taste it in the air, and it turned her stomach.
Justine was pulled out of her thoughts by the sound of Chuck tugging on a crash pad, pulling it from its spot against the wall and heaving it up onto the ring.
“Shit, let me give you a hand with that,” she said. Justine took a step forward, but Chuck waved her off.
“It’s okay, Miss Justine,” he said and gestured to the brace on her elbow. “I don’t want you to tweak that or anything. We need to make sure you’re at a hundred percent to punch those weirdos in a few days. I can do this.”
“Did I ever tell you that I tried to help break down the ring in PRIME? My first night there, after Jared and I won. The crew wouldn’t let me. Said it would violate union rules or some shit, so I had to sit back and watch.”
“No, I didn’t know that.” Chuck lifted the bottom rope and slid the pad underneath. “Why would you want to break down a ring? Aren’t you past that?”
“Part of it was out of habit, I guess. You spend so long working in tiny venues that you get used to being more than a performer.” She sighed. “Part of it is I really-goddamn-hate feeling useless. And right now? Feeling pretty useless.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Justine. I didn’t mean to-“
“No, no. It’s not you, Chuck. It’s this fuckin’ thing.” She lifted her arm and flexed the elbow. “I’ve been sitting at home for weeks dying to get back out there. If I was any younger this wouldn’t even be an issue.”
“And if you were any older, we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all.” Darren Stracker, the owner of the gym, strode up behind her. “You’ve got to give yourself time to heal, Cal. Body and mind.” He nodded to Chuck. “Ring’s yours, kid.”
Chuck looked first to Justine, and she nodded in agreement. Despite this being Darren’s gym, she was the one he spent his training days with as a student and then again when he was given the honor of working with some of the junior recruits. Darren would always have the final say, but as far as Chuck was concerned ‘Miss Justine’ was the boss.
Justine and Darren watched in silence for a moment as Chuck positioned the crash pad in the center of the ring. He began explaining to a pair of younger students how to trap your opponent for a proper suplex, and how best to try and brace your body for the impact.
“How’s that going, by the way?” Darren asked.
“Which part?” Justine said.
“Either one, really. Seems that the arm is coming along well enough, but that’s not the part I’m concerned with.”
“I’m fine, Darren.”
“Right,” he said, and turned his back to the ring. “But it’s okay if you’re not, you know. The sort of shit you’ve seen over the last couple of months isn’t normal by any stretch. It’s okay to be shaken by it.”
The air around her felt thicker, like she was breathing in molasses. Or worse, chocolate syrup. For a while she’d been able to push through the feelings that being back here had triggered, but the scent that lingered in the air was getting heavier with each breath.
“I’ll be honest, Cal,” Darren continued. “It’s got me fucked up. You two are my kids, practically family, you understand? Watching that happen on television from three thousand miles away is one of the worst things I’ve experienced in this business. I can’t imagine what it was like to live it. Don’t want to imagine it. Hell, if there was a way I could get you both to never go back I might seriously consider it.”
Her breaths came quicker, pulling more and more of the tainted air into her lungs. She could feel her heart rate rising, every beat resonating like a drum in her ears. She tried to find a spot to focus on – the ring, Chuck, anything. Her eyes kept darting to different parts of the building, scanning the old factory and finding every ancient bolt and every rusted nail driven into its walls.
“Have you talked to anyone about this? I hope you don’t think this too forward of me, but I reached out to an old friend who helps people with this sort of thing. I don’t want you to think I’m trying to force you into something, but I’m worried about you, Cal.”
His words were mumbles, like he was speaking underwater. Nothing but gibberish no matter how hard she tried to focus. All she could see now was the ring, and the three men in it. None of them was older than twenty-five. The two going through drills – Jason and Robbie – were barely out of high school. She watched as Chuck positioned the pair, then stepped back and saw Jason lift Robbie into the early stages of a vertical suplex.
“His name is Paul McKendrick. Super nice guy, too. We go way back, Paul and I. He said he’s willing to clear his calendar to get you in, if you want. Any day, any time. Whatever’s good for you.”
Robbie’s world started to invert, and time froze. The world had gone hazy and Justine blinked, trying to bring it back into focus. When she opened her eyes, it wasn’t Robbie who Jason held; he didn’t have blond hair. Jonathan Rhine, unconscious and oblivious to his fate, was about to be driven straight down into the canvas. She blinked a second time, rubbing feverishly at her eyes, and the figure changed again. She could no longer see the pink in Jared’s hair, the blood had stained it a deep crimson. It poured from a gash on his forehead, his nose, his lips. Jason – no, not Jason, Paxton – would end him the same way he had ended Rhine.
“STOP!” she screamed, startled at the sound of her own voice.
Justine took two steps towards the ring, then collapsed onto her knees.
On the other side of the gym, Darren had gathered his three students together. A quick huddle to try and calm everyone’s nerves after Justine’s outburst. She figured Darren would reassure everyone that they did nothing wrong, that this wasn’t their fault, that Justine had been under a tremendous amount of stress, and had been forced to deal with a very large amount of trauma in a very short amount of time. He’d be right of course, but that didn’t make her feel any better. These were her kids. She’d had the biggest hand in their progress, and now they stood fifty feet away scared of what she’d just become. Every few seconds one of them would glance in her direction. The expressions were all the same. She could read their concern plain as day. It was difficult to gauge which was more embarrassing: her panic-driven eruption in the middle of the gym, or feeling like a child forced to sit around while all the adults discussed what to do with her.
Eventually she’d need to apologize to Chuck, but she was more concerned about the damage done to Jason and Robbie. They were still new, only a few months in, and their confidence would be harder to rebuild.
Justine closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She tasted candy and felt her stomach churn. There would be no peace here.
She planted her feet and tried to will herself to stand when the sound of footsteps drew her attention. Darren’s soft shuffle was unmistakable. The man had made a career of wrestling barefoot, but otherwise lived in sandals.
“Are they okay?” she said, not looking up. She took a drink from her bottle of water, desperate to wash the taste of the air out of her mouth. She noticed her hands hadn’t stopped shaking. “I feel like I really fucked that up.”
“They’re more worried about you,” he said. “They know life’s been hell lately, and they know this ain’t their fault.” Darren crouched low and met her eyes. “And we all know it’s not yours either, Cal.”
Justine nodded and noticed that her right leg was pumping up and down like a piston. She didn’t remember when it started doing that.
“So much for getting out of the house,” she said. “Thought it would be good to come down here, even if I couldn’t do much.”
“I’m glad you did. So are they. Like I said, people have been worried, so it was nice that they got to see you up and around. They’ve all told me as much, no matter how this played out.”
Once again she let her eyes wander the gym she’d called home for the last twenty years, seeing it in a new light, like coming back to her childhood bedroom to find it was haunted. The magic was gone, left to bleed out and drown in the middle of a PRIME ring.
“Come on,” Darren continued, offering her a hand. “I’ll give you a ride home.”
“I’m fine, Darren. My car-”
“Can stay here for a night or two. But being here isn’t what you need right now, and you’re in no condition to drive.”
“Chuck’s going to keep running that. I told him he’s in charge until I get back. I think it’ll be good for him. Maybe build up a little confidence. Same for Jason and Robbie. Give ‘em both someone new to respect as well.”
She took his hand and rose to her feet, but her legs didn’t want to cooperate, and it took a moment before she found her footing.
“I’m going to give you Paul’s number,” Darren said. “You don’t have to call him if you don’t want to, Cal. I learned a long time ago that you’re stubborn as hell. Just do me a favor and promise me you’ll talk to somebody. Will you do that for me?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I will.”
The first person she could think of was the last one she wanted to reach out to, but she knew he would understand. She watched him experience something like this in New Orleans after Nora’s fundraiser. She knew he’d come, and though she didn’t want to admit it to herself, she knew that’s what she wanted him to do.
She could hear the last of his steps in the hallway, and it sounded like he was vaulting up the stairwell that led to her third-floor apartment. He tested the door once, and then from her seat on the kitchen floor she heard the lock disengage, grateful that she’d never asked him to return the key.
“In here,” she said and pulled her knees to her chest.
Justine heard the door to the apartment close, and almost as fast Jared was in the kitchen like he’d teleported there. He paused for just long enough for it to register. It was the sweatshirt, she figured, one that he hadn’t seen in over twenty years, faded navy with a series of gray rings around the bicep. He’d worn it the night their class gathered to celebrate their graduation at a hotel party, and it was one of two things missing from his room when he woke up the next morning. Justine herself was the other.
“Darren tell you what happened?” she said and dragged an oversized sleeve across red eyes.
“Yeah. I called him as soon as I got in the car.” He crouched a few feet away, just close enough without encroaching on any boundaries. Things between them had become more civil over the last few weeks, but the tension was still thick and showed no signs of abating any time soon. “How do you feel now?”
“Like it’s all fucking unravelling. Like… like everywhere I look there’s something that brings it all back, you know?” She paused, expecting him to say something, but he just nodded. “I used to be so excited to go there, Jared. It was home. But now all the things that I used to love about it – the way it smelled, how everything always felt like it was held together by bubble gum and wishes – it all just sucks. I can’t stop thinking about chocolate, and nails, and…”
“I’m sorry, Cal. I know what that’s like.” He reached forward, but a raised hand stopped him cold.
He nodded again and took a seat on the floor. “Sorry. Old habit.”
“You know what the worst part about this is? The shit that you do, all this bullshit with Paxton… it makes sense to me now, sort of. I know things right now are, fuck, I dunno, hard or whatever. But they’re hard because I still care about you so goddamn much, and twice now I’ve been like ten feet away as you’ve almost been killed.”
“I know, and-”
“I want to hurt him, Jared. Tristan, or whatever his name is. The things they did poisoned one of my favorite places in the world. Darren’s gym used to be special, and they ruined it. They fucking ruined it! They hurt someone I-,” She cut herself off, afraid of what direction the conversation would take if she finished that thought. To Jared’s credit, he didn’t press. He sat, and he listened, and let her spill her frustrations out on the floor. “I want to hit him, and then hit him again and again until he stops moving. I want to punch him in his goddamn face so much that he has to change his legal name, because ‘Gladhappy’ will be so fucking far from the truth. I hate this feeling, Jared. I hate it so fucking much. Jesus Christ, how do you handle this shit? When does it stop?”
“How do I handle it? If the last ten years or so are any indication, not very well.” He offered a weak smile. “You’re already way ahead of where I was just by reaching out. And you’re right. It’s awful. I never imagined you’d have to go through something like this, Cal. Never. And I’m so sorry it happened this way, I really am.”
“What am I supposed to do, Jared? What’s the next step from here? I honestly don’t know, and that thought terrifies me.”
“I wish I had a good answer.”
“So then what?! I should just lock myself in this apartment until I’m fifty?” She let her head fall back against the cabinets and pressed her palms into her eyes. Every nerve felt exposed, raw. “Fuck, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“It’s okay, Cal.”
“No, it’s not,” she said. “You don’t deserve it.”
“I’m serious, it’s okay. Like you said, things are hard right now, and I admit a lot of it is because I’m not doing much to make things easy. I know what this is like, what you’re going through right now, and the first time it hit me like this was…,” he trailed off and shook his head. “Like I said, you’re taking it better than I did, for whatever that’s worth.”
There was a part of her brain that wanted to revolt, to pin this all on him and give her a tangible enemy to focus her anger on. The chain of logic was easy enough to follow, she didn’t even need to give it much thought. He was the one that made the decision to leave his house and join PRIME. He was the one that decided he could survive an entire division carrying a mannequin as his partner. It was Jared who stole the forklift, who started using a taser to try and win. One domino falling into another all leading up to the afternoon that Darren asked her to try and break through, that Jared would listen to her more than anyone else he knew. An argument in his house. The reconciliation that followed. A friendship stronger than it had ever been in the twenty years prior.
Justine looked across the kitchen, closed her eyes, and took a steadying breath. She was relieved to find that the stench of sugar didn’t follow her home. There was only the faint aroma of the candle she left unlit on the table.
He had put his reputation on the line for her, been the one to open a door that everyone else had barricaded. On the night they won, when she made her debut on the world stage, he had willingly stood in the shadow while she enjoyed the spotlight. Despite carrying that goddamn mannequin through three months of the Survivor gauntlet, Jared had insisted that she be the first one to touch the championships they now carried.
She opened her eyes and said: “Why did you come here?”
“You know why.” His answer was immediate, given without a second of hesitation. He let it hang in the air for a moment, before adding: “Why did you call?”
She didn’t answer.
It had all been perfect. Her career had reached its zenith. She was days away from setting an all-time record in PRIME as the longest single reign in the history of their tag team division. With three defenses under her belt, she was already knocking on the door of another record. The names that came before her, the teams that she was about to surpass, they had spots in the Hall of Fame. Fans wore tee shirts with her name on them. In a few weeks, she would have her very first action figure released to the world. As successful as she was in the ring, what she and Jared had built outside of it was even more meaningful.
Then Paxton Ray happened, the Love Convoy followed, and a switch – no, THE switch – had flipped in her partner. It had all started crumbling around her.
“This was supposed to be a dream come true,” she said. Her voice wavered. She looked at her hands and saw that they were shaking again. “But it’s… it’s all gone to hell. It’s a goddamn nightmare.”
Jared moved towards her again, and this time she didn’t stop him. She buried her face in his chest, tears staining his shirt.
“I know,” he said. “I know. We’ll get through this. We will.”
She could feel the beating of his heart, and Justine wondered just how close Jared came to the end. A few inches in one of two directions, and Tristan-Crispin’s nail finds a very different target. If his heart or his throat had been hit she would have spent her days mourning more than the loss of her childhood fantasy.
Justine pressed her eyes tight and pulled him in all the closer, acutely aware of the fact that nightmares are dreams, too.