Another episode of ReVival had come and gone, and with it another foray into the chaos fiesta that PRIME called “Survivor”. While Jared and his mannequin had been successful enough – finishing second only to a pair of certified legends in Garbage Bag Johnny and Nova, it wasn’t that event that drew her attention.
Justine waited until the show was over, and was sure that he’d be free before sending the first message.
Hey, how’s your ass?
She couldn’t help but laugh at the response, written in the stunted English of a prepubescent teenager, or a dog whose brain had been hardwired for science.
can send a pic if u want
Should have predicted that, she thought. Conversations between them had gotten easier, lighter, and far more frequent since the day she arrived at his house and reintroduced herself into his life.
If you do I’m posting it on Twitter.
It only made sense that the reply came with a photo attached.
“Jesus Christ, Jared,” she whispered to herself, and deleted the photo. It wouldn’t be set free on the internet after all. The world just wasn’t ready.
Seriously though are you okay?
Looked like you had a rough night.
It took minutes for the next one to arrive. Short, to the point, and thoroughly unconvincing.
What a goddamn liar.
I don’t mean Ria but one day she and I gonna have words about that
I mean Jon and the persimmon guy
Call me if you want to talk
She was about to stand when the phone rang.
For a long time I told myself that it was just a joke, a send-up of some of the more colorful aspects of lucha libre that I’ve witnessed, but that’s not true. It’s a shield. It’s always been a shield.
I treat it like an icebreaker, or maybe more of a safety blanket – something to hold on to and hide under whenever I find myself in a new place. Four times now I’ve put the mask on: twice in Sin City, and twice in PRIME. Nobody really gives a shit about the first PRIME run. Pretty uneventful five months, all things considered. I’m the alum you ask for donations, but don’t invite to your reunions.
I’m getting off track.
There have only ever been five people who’ve done the whole “berry” thing with me. The first two, Mervin and Lloyd, were old friends. They didn’t wrestle, but their role was no less important. They kept me sane. They had my back in the places I needed it most, where thoughts get dark and dangerous. We didn’t have an official name. No factions. No stables. Just three guys who dressed up like blueberries.
We lost Merv’ around the end of 2009, but he’d moved on from wrestling by then. He was my best friend, with me since high school, the one constant I had through a turbulent stop-and-start career. Through a turbulent life. He deserved better than he got. From the world. From this business.
You don’t just walk in and replace him.
Then came the “Kings Of Popsicles”.
Look, I know it’s a terrible name, but that’s sort of the gag. The title was born out of a team I had with Charlie Crisp. We were the “Kings Of Pop”, and before anyone asks, no, I don’t remember why. Probably because our theme was a Michael Jackson track.
That group – the three of us that became the Kings – is sacred to me. It’s special because Seymour Almasy, a justified icon in this sport, reached out and said, “Hey, if you ever decide to do this again, I want in.”
I’ve been overlooked for the majority of my time in wrestling. An afterthought. A joke. My credentials – and there are so very many – are passed over all the goddamn time, and why? Because of a garden gnome? Because I might have a thing for turning cards into musical theater? Because one time I locked a guy in a room full of strippers?
Look, just come up with your own answer. Plenty of options to pick from.
Point is, I can count on one hand the amount of times somebody whose name carried any weight looked at me and said, “Him. That guy. That’s the one.” I love him for that. Seymour didn’t have to, but he picked me.
He picked me.
We lost him, too. Because life is a cruel fucking nightmare.
Sultan Strawberry is irreplaceable.
Coral Avalon does the masked berry thing better than I could ever hope to. I’ll die on this hill.
He took something that I came up with and completely reinvented it. Made it his own. If I had known that he was going to be coming to PRIME, then I would have found something else. Maybe dressed as a crab. Maybe just worn a bag over my head. Who knows.
In truth, he might be the one guy who’s got it all figured out. When he puts the mask on, when he becomes Baron von Blackberry, he gets to cut loose, and have fun, and do all the shit that strait-laced Coral wouldn’t dream of. He’s not hiding. He’s not cowering behind a shield, or burying himself under the covers so the monsters don’t see him.
And then he takes the mask off, and gets to go home to his family, or his school, or one of his successful side-projects. I would say that I’m not jealous, but then I’d be lying.
Most importantly, I have never once felt judged by Coral, or that he was above all of this. For that fact alone he has my undying respect and admiration. Whatever that’s worth.
This is as much his as mine, and I will never get in the way.
Baron von Blackberry is irreplaceable.
Fuck Foster Nackedy for thinking he could waltz in and satisfy his own petty bullshit. These aren’t just men I play dress-up with for fun. This is my family. These are the people who keep me safe, who keep me sane.
These are people I love.
Don’t ever – ever – challenge me on that.
And they would all – each and every one of them – know better than to namecheck Wyatt fucking Connors in front of me.
She asked the question out of anger and frustration, never pausing to consider the implications.
“Is this who you are now?”
He answered it weeks later, after distance and time had blunted the shock and lessened the sting.
“I don’t have an answer to that question. I used to know. I used to think I knew. But I haven’t been sure since Wyatt Connors.”
She only knew what the rest of the world did. Twelve years ago Sin City Championship Wrestling was on the verge of collapse. Its core had been depleted through years of attrition. The omnipresent threat of Alexandra Pierce gave rise to the unchecked mania of Lane Stevens. When both of them had been diminished, the rusted avatar of Terrence Kingsley rose to fill the void. The sustained attack was more than the roster could withstand, and unable to find people willing to sign-on, Sin City folded.
A few names remained in those dying days, two stand-outs chief among them: Jared Sykes, the former universal champion, and Wyatt Connors, the man who took Jared’s title as his own. The rivalry had become bitterly personal. Week by week Connors had made it his mission, his stated objective, to peel back the curtain on Jared and reveal the truth of what lay beneath. In the years that followed, Sykes would be asked why he stayed on, instead of heading to GCW with a large portion of Sin City’s former roster or finding a new home far removed from the group he spent the previous three years with. His answer was always the same.
“Like he wouldn’t follow me.”
There was no officially-released video of that night in Las Vegas, only grainy cell phone footage of what became known as the “Lost Episode”. With profits dwindling, the company had taken to recording multiple episodes of their flagship Temptation program during a single evening. At the end of one of these tapings, Sykes and Connors battled in a main event that sprawled throughout the building, before Connors took Sykes on a chase up into the balcony, and then onto the catwalk that ran through the rafters over the ring.
Specifics of what happened next varied from person-to-person. There were only two people on the planet who knew the truth, and neither of them were talking.
The fight continued on the narrow steel suspended high in the air, and then one – or both, depending on who you asked – lost their balance. In the harrowing seconds that followed, Connors fell over the edge. He hung there for a moment, and then gravity claimed the “Wise Guy” as a sacrifice.
Medical personnel stormed the building. Connors’ wounds were tended to. Sykes – in shock and unable to move, if the rumors were to be believed – was collected from the rafters. The crowd was evacuated.
By all accounts, the tape was destroyed.
There were elements to the story that Jared withheld. When pressed in interviews he would dance around the question or change the subject. Some of that information was critical to painting a complete picture, Justine was sure enough of that, but Jared wouldn’t talk, and Wyatt Connors was never seen or heard from again.
That, she knew with absolute certainty, was for the best.
“Can you get the second box? It’s the heavy one,” she said, sliding past her son. The box in her arms was awkward, but nothing she couldn’t manage. Jared had offered to take it, but settled for holding the door when she waved him away.
The house was as she remembered it, save for a spot on the wall in the hallway leading to the kitchen. She swore a mirror used to hang there.
She dipped into the living room and set the box down on his coffee table. A tee shirt had been balled up on the couch, and she lifted it to create a space to sit. Mary-Ellen had no idea who Garry Nelson was, only that he looked like a young Larry Bird. Probably someone from Jared’s social circle. Maybe someone who knew the other berry, or the green-haired girl. Perhaps the two troublemakers from Minnesota. Her son did keep some strange company.
“God damn,” Jared called from the hall, “did you fill this with cement?”
He moved into the room and set the second box on the floor, collapsing into the couch with a sigh.
“No,” she said, “it’s just some of your old books that I found in the attic.”
Her eyes wandered the room. A mask, deep blue in color, was on display on a shelf all its own. It looked handmade, like someone had taken great care to make sure each stitch was perfect, not a single thread out of place.
She lingered on a photo, black and white and framed in silver – a candid shot of two men sitting in a stairwell. One held a mask in his hand, the other had ears that could pick up satellite signals. Both were smiling.
“Hey,” she nodded towards the photo. “What’s going on with you and Jonathan?”
“With Jon? How do you know about that?”
“The last time I was visiting Lorraine, her son said that he heard my name on television. I thought it might be you, so he showed me a clip on his phone.”
“I texted Jonathan after I saw it.” She smiled. “Not every day that your mom is a celebrity, you know.”
His eyes went wide. “Wait, you texted Jonathan Rhine? You have his cell number? How the f-”
“I’ve had it for a while. I think since that event his girlfriend – Katie, was that her name? – that she put together for everyone’s family all those years ago. You remember that, don’t you?”
He did remember; not so much the event itself, but the anxiety it inspired. The thought of his mother sharing the same air as Alexandra Pierce had been a hard pill to swallow. For Mary-Ellen it was a chance to meet the people her son spent most of his time with. For Jared it was an exercise in unbridled panic.
“Such a shame about what happened to her,” she continued. “To lose someone so young.”
“It is,” he said. “Jon took that rough, and by proxy so did the rest of us. I don’t think he’s really let go yet. Not sure if he knows how.”
“Well, then there’s something else you two have in common.”
“You know what I think? I think you’re more alike than you want to admit. And when I watched that clip, it reminded me of you kids when you were both little.”
“It’s nothing like that.”
“You boys would fight all the time, and over the littlest things.”
“I don’t remember us fighting.”
“Well, you might not want to remember, but those arguments happened. Oh boy, did they ever. One of you would say or do something, the other would respond, and then it would escalate. Both of you would end up crying. It was awful.” She sighed. “The worst one was over a crayon. Can you believe it? A whole weekend of you two not talking to each other because of a broken red crayon. But, you didn’t know any better. You were kids, and kids don’t know how to process their feelings. At the end of the day you boys still loved each other. That’s what counted.”
She glanced at the photo again, and then at the others around it. Jared, barely old enough to drink, and two other boys – he’d once introduced them as Charlie and David – standing in front of a tour bus. The pretty green-eyed girl he’d trained with, the one who always looked just north of irritated. Mervin, the smart one with thick glasses who followed her boy like a shadow. A redheaded girl whose tattooed hand blocked half of his face while she clung to him piggyback. The people he cared about. The ones that mattered.
“I don’t know what’s going on between you and your friend, Jared. But I know what it looks like. And I think deep down you do, too.”
I went back into the living room after my mom left. She’d kept glancing at a photo, one of Jon and I from before it all went sideways. As if I knew when that was. But it wasn’t the only one on that shelf.
Charlie and Dave – Crash and Burn, for the uninitiated – lived across the country. We chatted sometimes, but I hadn’t seen them in years. Merv’ passed away twelve years ago. Amy and I hadn’t spoken in almost as long. Cal had only recently come back into the picture after years apart. And Jon? Well…
A lifetime ago he told me that he had “put me on too high of a pedestal.” In no uncertain terms, I was a disappointment. Unworthy of his respect.
That was November of 2009. Before Katie passed.
Days ago he said I wouldn’t know anything about having friends, or people to look out for me.
A thought gnawed at the back of my mind, one I just could not shake despite staring at evidence to the contrary.
Was he right?
A few strands of pink hung loose beneath a Bruins cap that looked like it spent most of its life in a bear trap, then liberated and dragged to freedom down thirty miles of unpaved road. As disguises went, it was far from convincing. Subtlety was never his strong suit.
She could tell he was nervous long before she walked over. Some people wore their heart on their sleeve, but Jared was a different sort. His might as well be displayed on a billboard – eight feet across, suspended over his head, and emblazoned with the words “EMOTIONS ARE HAPPENING” in a brilliant neon eruption. He thought he hid it well, but only one person was ever fooled by that lie.
“You look terrified,” she said.
Justine decided to let that one go. In the time he’d spent waiting for her to finish running the afternoon training session, Jared had been unable to sit still. It’s why she waited until the gym had cleared out before approaching. Whatever he was grappling with, she was sure he didn’t need an audience.
Emotions were happening.
She pulled up a folding chair beside him. “This about what you mentioned on the phone?”
He ran a hand through his hair and replaced the hat on his head. Justine wondered how that mop ever fit under a mask.
“So what’s up?”
“I was invited to something – a fundraiser. Jon’s team, they’re not just wrestling to raise money for Nora, there’s actually a foundation for it and everything.”
“I thought you guys had a falling out.”
“We did. Or maybe we didn’t.” He barked a laugh. “I honestly don’t even fucking know at this point.”
“Okay. Doesn’t really explain why you were invited, you know.”
“I made a donation.”
“Not really the sorta thing I like talking about.”
“I get that, it’s just that there’s a pretty big gap between ‘Thanks for donating, now you get our newsletters forever’ and ‘You have been cordially invited’.” She grinned. “I get the feeling that guy would get all pissy and righteous if you try to unsubscribe. From the newsletters.”
He took a deep breath, and said a single word over his shoulder. “Ten.”
“Ten?” The gears turned. “Ten thousand?!”
He didn’t answer.
“Jesus Christ, Jared. That’s incredibly generous, but why?”
“It felt like the right thing to do. I know what cancer does to a family. You know that. I’ve seen first-hand what it’s like to live with it, and I know all too well what the worst-case scenario looks like. She’s seven, Cal. Andy was eleven when we found out, and I thought that was young, but seven?” His voice trailed off, the memories bubbling too close to the surface and threatening to boil over. “I don’t care what Jon thinks. I don’t care what Paxton thinks. If I can help somehow, even just a little bit, then I can’t say no to that. I just can’t.”
She leaned against him and rested her head on his shoulder.
“He’s wrong, you know. What he said to you on Friday. I know you were both angry, and I don’t really know what’s going on there, but what he said about not having people who support you – He’s wrong, Jared. He’s dead wrong. I wish I didn’t have to tell you that.”
“So how can I help?”
“Oh, right, yeah, that.” She could feel his pulse quicken, hear the thundering of his heart. When the words came, they flowed like water from a fire hose; 200-odd pounds of pressure and impossible for one person to control. “They invited me with a plus-one, and normally I wouldn’t ask because it’s all the way in New Orleans, and I don’t know what your schedule is like, but I genuinely don’t know how I’m going to handle being around a seven year old who’s fighting for her life, and if it wasn’t for that then I’d just go alone, but you know my history, and…”
“Okay. I’m in.”
“Are you sure? Because I don’t want to stress you out just because I might be going crazy, and I’ll cover the plane tickets, and your room, and whatever else you need, just, so…”
“Jared, I need you to relax. It’s all going to work itself out. I promise.”
He laughed, but there was no humor behind it. “I don’t know about that. And if you change your mind, I’ll understand. It’s totally cool if you do.”
She spun, chair and all, wheeling around to look at him head-on.
“Jared Jordan Sykes,” she began, leaning hard on his middle name – the one he’d given up at age eighteen in memory of his brother. She didn’t know how many people were aware of it outside his immediate family, but leveraging it was a surefire way to focus his attention. He recoiled; the hypothesis proven true. With one hand she pulled the hat from his head and cast aside. The other went to his chin, raising it until their eyes met. “I’ve got you on this. You hear me? You don’t need to worry. I’ve got you.”
They sat in silence for a while, eyes locked, neither looking away.
The grin started small, just a twitch at the corner of his mouth, but it wasn’t long until the smile bloomed across his face, radiant and infectious.
“I’m really happy you’re back, Cal.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Me, too.”