Two fingers of bourbon and an Aniversario cigar. The smell of freshly cut grass. An open pool. A nice spot of shade underneath a cantilever umbrella.
Cheddar Youngblood-Campbell made it even better.
The senior pug was a very good boy as he sat in Brandon’s lap as he sat in his lawn chair. Gray had started to creep around his snout, and he couldn’t help his tail wagging as he chomped on small blocks of marbled colby jack cheese. His dad kept petting him, all while he took another sip from his glass, his hand reaching inside the sandwich bag for another piece of cheese to feed to his pup. After Cheddar took a bite, Brandon’s eyes looked upward, toward his son Cody, pushing the lawnmower through the backyard. In his midteens and already standing above six feet. And he hadn’t even begun filling out his frame. A chip off the old block, like his blood father at that age, even down to his mop of dirty blonde hair. On a hot day like this, he went shirtless, his skin reddening from the sun. Brandon had told him to put on sunscreen, but had he listened? Maybe he wasn’t as sensitive as his father; after all, he didn’t have a clean shaven head in need of protection.
Brandon would have snacked on some of Cheddar’s cheese, but after ballooning to over three hundred pounds just before his a brief run in the Championship Wrestling Federation with Lindsay Troy, he knew he needed to trim down. For his own well being, not for the ring. Hell, she’d tried to move Heaven and Earth to get him to come to High Octane Wrestling, but it was like talking to a brick wall. Lee Best couldn’t afford what it’d take to get him to come over. Youngblood wanted no part in legitimizing them.
Talk to me if PRIME ever makes a comeback. She rolled her eyes and sighed.
Little did he know.
Wiping the sweat from his brow, he ruffled Cheddar’s ears. “You sure you don’t want to go in the pool? It’s real hot out. I won’t even tell Mom that you didn’t wait an hour after eating.” The pug’s mouth hung open, his breathing heavy, surely understanding everything being said. “Alright. Suit yourself.”
He grabbed his cigar, taking a drag. Plans for later in the evening involved a trio of brined ribeye steaks that would get the parsley and garlic butter treatment after a short stay in the Traeger. Maybe a side of potatoes? They had gotten sweet corn at the Farmer’s Market just a few days ago, he could cook the ears up just as well. Tonight was the last he’d be staying with him for at least a week; Melissa and Travis were picking him up the next day to vacation at the Dells. His ex-wife asked if they wanted to tag along, but Amy was busy engineering the last few tracks for the band she was hired on by freelance.
UmberWolf. A symphonic metal band out of the Netherlands. They were laying out the finishing touches on their debut album, The Balrog Of Doom, all while being the opening act of Solid Gold Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Rise Of The Forge Cycle Three: Sick of the Studio ‘19 Summer Tour. Oh, the stories Amy had heard from UmberWolf’s lead singer, like how some guy named Sadikaj wouldn’t stop trying to get her to ask him about his boots.
When his cell phone began vibrating, he reached for it absentmindedly, flicking it to life. Wonderful. Some kind of Smartnews alert. Maybe something political? He groaned as the article began loading, unaware of what it was all about. When he began reading, his stomach dropped.
The Tacoma News Tribune has learned that The Washington Board of Parole has denied Caesar Vega’s request for parole. He is not set to go before the board again for another year.
Vega’s request was first heard on July 15. The official denial comes nearly a month later. According to Washington Department of Corrections, Vega’s next parole hearing is set for July 20, 2020. If Vega serves out his full sentence of six years, he will be released in 2023 at the age of 44.
“The Board independently reviewed Mr. Vega’s parole case and three concurring votes were needed to reach a final decision. The Board of Parole has now finalized a decision by voting to deny parole.”
Vega, age 40, is serving a six year sentence on three counts; count one, possession of marijuana with intent to deliver-more than two kilograms, count two, possession of psilocybin with intent to deliver-more than two kilograms, and count three, possession of cocaine with intent to deliver-more than two kilograms.
Vega is a retired professional wrestler who performed under the name N ova. While some within wrestling have tried to start campaigns for his release, Board Chairwoman Kecia Rongen says that his status as a celebrity has no bearing on the Board’s decision making process. “Just because Mr. Vega had a worldwide platform to ply his craft, the State of Washington must still uphold fair sentencing standards for all residents.”
Brandon’s cigar slipped from his grasp. He hadn’t thought about Caesar for ages. And yet, after everything, all that he’d done, that he’d done to him, it was Youngblood sitting by the pool, watching his son, playing with his dog. His hand was unsteady as he reached for his bourbon, a heavy gulp polishing it off. A sloshing miasma of disgust filled his stomach. All he wanted to do was throw up.
What a cruel joke.
“Your bitch here, just getting done shopping, about to drink some BOOOOBA! TEAAAAAAAAAA!” He hadn’t heard Amy Campbell until her shouting snapped him out of his fog, her death metal parody growl coming just before she took the straw and punched it through the seal. She took her first sip, tossing her shoulder bag onto the table and plopping down into the chair beside her paramour. Her attentions, however, were on her good little man. “How’s my lil Champ Champ?” She cooed as she reached for Cheddar, playing with his ears. He barked, jumping from Brandon’s lap and pacing around the legs of her seat. She eased back into her chair, pulling at the hem of her tank top, swinging one leg over the other before kicking off her flip flops. “Oh man, the construction. It was a nightmare getting through downtown.”
He offered no acknowledgement, only a distant stare.
“Hey, Earth to Gloom Boy. What’s going on? You ain’t in the pool. You dropped your cigar. Cheddar ain’t gonna wanna smoke that.”
Uncomfortable reentry with reality. “Nothing. Just…nothing.”
She wasn’t buying it. “Big Sneak, I’ve known you long enough to know your nothings are pretty big somethings. So what gives?” If he was going to shut down, she was going to take it upon herself to wake him up. “Hell, you ain’t even giving these piggies any love.” With a mischievous casualness, she plopped her bare feet into his lap. A simple wiggle of her freshly pedicured toes was usually enough to get his attention. She even chose a particular shade of red that drove him up a wall. “It was baaaaaad today. That woman at the spa, she’s pure evil. She had me howling for fifteen fucking minutes. She was enjoying it.” Rubbing the ball of her foot against his thigh, she managed to feign a giggle as if her intentions weren’t obvious. “I mean, I can’t even imagine how ticklish I am now. Would be reaaaaaaally cruel if someone wanted to find out.”
His eyes scanned downward, toward her feet, toward the newest bit of ink she’d had done along her calf. April 6, 2019. European Union Sport Champion. Reigning and defending, no end date. A crown atop the other championship reigns of her wrestling career. His voice was spectral. Drained of energy. “They look great.”
“Come on, Brandon. Talk to me. What’s really going on?”
His eyes met hers. “Saw something I didn’t expect to see is all.”
“Everything okay? It’s not about the Chicken Cook Out for Marshfield, is it? I know you’ve been trying to get the vendors all lined up for that, and–”
“It’s someone I haven’t thought about for a long time. Too long.”
An albatross weighing his neck. “Caesar.”
Any semblance smile she had was gone. “Oh shit…”
“Denied parole. Again.”
“They say why?”
He brushed at the sweat now pouring down his face. “Just some bullshit about the State of Washington and fairness and all that bullshit…”
As he finished, she reached down, scooping Cheddar into her lap, giving him a hearty pet. “I ain’t in the loop with all that. Kinda an outsider there.”
His tone shifted, concern ground into a paste of disgust. “They kicked down his door. Like he’s Pablo Escabar or some shit. Big drug kingpin. As fucking if…”
“Prohibition is bullshit. Always has been.” She pulled her feet from his lap, some nascent fear telling her to guard her handbag, what with the grinder inside. “I hate to think what would happen if the cops decided they–”
“Eau Claire’s got a one dollar fine, Amy. They’re busy doing shit that actually matters.”
“I’m just saying…”
“Yeah. I know.”
The two of them sat there, the silence between them underpinned by the ambiance of Cheddar’s breathing and a running lawnmower. “So what’re you thinking?”
He chewed on her question. “I dunno. Maybe reach out to him? Would he even want that? After all this time?”
“Brandon…after that night…”
She cut him off. “That night was some scary shit. Scared me.” She folded her hands on top of Cheddar’s head, playing at giving him attention as he started to whine. “You were in a trance. I saw it. Saw it in your eyes. Shit…you were smiling and–”
Gingerly, he eased against his seat. “He…didn’t do anything to deserve it, Amy. We were just two guys, fighting for something we thought mattered more than anything. And when it was done…all that came from it was…nothing good. Nothing good at all.”
She knew how his thoughts could spiral. There were no easy answers. “Maybe you should try to reach out to him.”
There was no hesitation in his response. “Yeah. I think so.”
“That’s one of those things they teach in recovery. To try to mend things with people you wronged.”
The engine to the lawnmower died, and as it did, from across the backyard, Cody took off in a dead sprint. Covered in sweat, he roared, launching himself cannonball into the deep end of the pool, laughing and flipping his hair back as he came up for air. Cheddar’s attention was caught, and he jumped off Amy’s lap, running toward the edge of the pool, yelping before jumping in himself. Cody tried to shield his eyes away from the splash, and before he knew it, the pug’s tiny legs were kicking through the water, his head barely above it. It didn’t take long for Cody to scoop him up, helping him back onto land, where the pug tried as best as he could to wiggle himself dry.
Everything he had, crystalized before Brandon’s eyes. It warmed his heart. “I don’t think saying I’m sorry is enough.”
Amy folded her arms across her chest. “What do you mean.”
“Amy…Caesar lost everything. He got the world in his hand…and then he opened it up, and…poof. \He didn’t get a chance to make up for the things he did to those he loved. And a big part of me…a big part of me feels responsible for that. Because of what I did…how much of that played a role? How much did that drive him down that path he took that led to him losing his wife and his baby girl?”
An uncomfortable grimace. “I…don’t…want to think about that.”
“Least I can do is be upfront with him. Apologize. But I can do more. You know that money from that tour I was on with Lindsay and all that? Figured it’d make a nice nest egg for Cody. But…maybe…and this is something I’d need to clear by you…”
“Caesar didn’t get a chance to make amends. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have a chance at a fresh start. What if…when he gets out…and if he wants it–”
“He comes and lives with us?”
“Yeah.” There was a relief in her finishing his thought, in reading his mind. An acceptance? Given the sincerity in her voice, he was certain. “Amy…how bad were we? How far gone? And yet, here we are, today, living. Sure, we got scars, but what we have, this life, each other, all that…it’s pretty nice. And we got there by healing. By helping other people.” He reached for her, taking her hands into his. “Caesar, I might have hated the guy, but I hated everyone back then. Everything I’ve known about him? He’s an upstanding guy. Someone you’d want in your foxhole. And he’s an old warhorse, just like the both of us…”
She let go of his hand, arching forward, her fingertips combing his scalp. “I think that’d be great, Brandon…but only if he wants that.”
He wouldn’t know unless he tried. “I hope he does..”
To Chris, Caesar, Nova, sorry, I don’t know what I should call you by.
Hearing from me is probably one of the last things you’d want to do. I can’t blame you. If the roles were reversed, I’d feel the same.
For a long time, I hated you. Not just that night in Honolulu, but further than that, to Detroit, when we faced off for the 5 Star Championship. What we did then…at Colossus…people celebrate it. And it’d be great if we could too. For over an hour, we dug deep, poured every ounce of ourselves in that ring. We made a statement about what it meant to be PRIME. We were on the same path. Truth is, as much as I tried, as much as I pushed my chest out and told the world how great I was, it was all insecurity. I don’t have enough space in this letter to explain the hows and whys, and frankly, I don’t want to burden you with that knowledge. I don’t want to use the traumas and insanity that I grew up with as justification for who I was or what I did.
Nothing I say will ever make up to you what I robbed from you.
From what you know of me, you probably think I’m talking about standing. I’m not. This isn’t an olive branch for two old warhorses to look at what they did and tint it rose. In that match in Honolulu, I struck you and wanted to end your career. The coward who did that to you, that piece of shit, he’s dead. Gone. I’d gladly give him to you, let you beat him and put his head on a pike. I’m all that remains. And that bothers me. Bothers me because as you sit in prison, I walk free.
It’s not right.
It’s not fair.
I spent a lot of my life in fear. In terror. And every day, I wrestle with myself, saying I should have been stronger. Therapy tries to beat the survivor guilt out of you, no matter how much blood is on your hands. I beat my wife at my darkest moment. Almost caused her to have a miscarriage. You sit with a felony sentence, and every time you come up for parole, you’re denied. I didn’t spend but a few days in a county lock up for what I did. I wanted to die. Hell, I sought death out in the Middle East. It should have. Only reason it didn’t was because of instinct. It’s funny, but we both have Lindsay Troy to thank for still being here. She gave me hope. Started me on the path of healing. Out of all the awful things I have done, when it comes to wrestling, I make no apologies.
I’m sorry, Caesar. I…I’m going to write names that I haven’t earned the right to say, and I hope you can forgive me. What I did that night…I did out of jealousy and fear. I might have beaten you in the past, but I could read the tide. We weren’t equals. You were getting better, stronger. Karina and Angelo…they had already made their names. You were going to sprint on by me, leaving me in the dust. You were going to win that night. You knew it. We ALL knew it. I couldn’t cope with that because I knew there’d be no catching up to your level. Like a coward, I changed things. You went on the shelf. I played false king. When you came back, you were more driven than ever to make up for lost time. And in doing so, while you did well in the ring, personally, things turned to shit. But they didn’t have to. What if I don’t shove you? What if you win that night and go on to win the Universal? Is Samara still here?
Is Ariel still here?
That’s not a burden you should carry. I’m so fucking sorry. I can’t fathom it. It isn’t right that you lost everything and I get to walk around this world with a second chance to try and make up for all the horrible things I’ve done. I look at my son, Cody, and I love him with all my heart. Melissa, my ex-wife, she’s forgiven me. You should have had that same opportunity. You should be thinking about what college your daughter is going to attend, thinking about your golden years with Ariel.
I’m sorry if what I did cost you one second of time you could have spent with them.
I’m reaching out to you, trying to make amends. I spent a lot of time the last few years trying to make a difference in the world, to leave something good and decent and positive behind. Tried to be the best father I can be. Tried to help others in my community, both here and in Karachi. I’m with Amy Campbell now, and, if you want, if you need, both of us are here for you. If you need character witnesses for your next parole hearing, we’re there. If you need anything, help financially, you name it and I’ll make sure it’s done. If you want a place to heal and get a fresh start, you can stay with us as long as you need.
Even if you just need someone to talk to, I’m there for you.
It’s the least I can do.
You deserved better, Caesar. I’m sorry for who I was and what I did to you. If you can find it in your heart to forgive me, I promise, I will do right by you. If you decide you want nothing to do with me? I won’t blame you. Just know, regardless of your decision, that I hope you’re well.
Take care of yourself.
Buck Talbot was born into law enforcement. Third generation. Protect and serve. He was a tall and hid his Punisher tattoo well. Outside his home, above the American Flag, flew the banner of Blue Lives Matter. A checkered record. Unlike his father, he never wasn’t very good at his job. It’s how he went from being a Washington State Trooper to working at the Monroe Correctional Complex. He hated being here. Everyday, locked inside with these animals. Disgust and hatred for them filled him. It made any morsel of cruelty justifiable in his mind.
A rush of oncoming mail needed to be processed. Sort the letters by cell blocks, that was the mandate. And as he thumbed through the tray before him, he saw the green of a certification label. Oh, who the fuck does he think his? He peeled the return label from the back of the envelope, stamping it with the MCC boilerplate before tossed it into a pile of outgoing mail. His eyes scanned for the name on the letter for proper casing. Caesar Vega? You shitting me? Talbot never watched wrestling, thought it was garbage. And in the run up to Vega’s parole hearing, fresh waves of letters had been coming through the system from all across the country. Well wishes? Dipshits begging for autographs? Who knows.
Hero worship of a criminal sickened him.
The proof of delivery was already properly processed. The certificate would go back to its sender, as intended. Wisconsin, or something. Didn’t matter.
Just because there was proof the letter had received never meant it had to get into Caesar’s hands. With a few rough tears, just like Talbot had done to countless other letters to countless other inmates, it was as if it never existed.
After all, it was only right to deny humanity after you chose to break the law.