The Oldheads are gone.
Stubborn bastard. Never was one to go quietly. And if he had his way, he’d keep sticking around. Outlasting the old guard. Planting his mark on Everest. The New Age might be here, but if they were going to make it their own, they were going to have to pry themselves from underneath the heel of his boot, all while he pressed and ground the life out of them.
At the top of PRIME, this was the way of life. Every show, you had to reestablish yourself or you would fall. PRIME gave zero quarter. You had to match the standard, no matter what was going on in your life. no matter how emotionally spent you were.
The handle of the axe was rough in his hands, wearing away at the skin of his palms. Each swing magnified the sensation, the raw chafing, the burning and callousing just underneath his fingers. Mental notes taken of mild discomforts. The first time he took to chopping wood as part of his regimen, he didn’t stop until he noticed blood trailing down his forearms. Every time since, he made sure to wear gloves.
He hadn’t forgotten them; the anxiety coursing through his chest made him actively avoid them. His heart was racing and he had to get outside right then and had to start hacking at the massive piece of oak wedged into the ground below and had to keep moving his body and had to and had to and…and…maybe that would make the disgusting wash of flight dissipate, to let him get back to a calm center, to let him feel normal again.
To feel normal again.
What was normal?
Alone in the Pacific Northwest. A log cabin refuge funded in full from much louder times. It wasn’t home. A stopover. Why was he feeling this way? He kept asking himself these questions, skimming his mind to try and find the answer. Returning to the ring hadn’t woken up some deep hidden door of trauma inside his psyche. Far from it. In PRIME’s rebirth, he found a peace, a catharsis in new beginnings. It hadn’t lasted long.
Brandon stopped hacking into the log, plugging a nostril with his thumb and snorting, letting out a heavy gob of blood and snot. The senton Miles crashed into his face with had him seeing stars, but in truth, this was a welcome respite; it allowed muscle memory to take over. Autopilot. The wild barrage of blows. The need to choke the life out of Miles. If it wasn’t for Lucky’s shoe…
Brandon went back to his practice, swinging from his hips, sweat draining from every pore, his focus fueled by constant spurts of nauseating adrenaline. Hours spent in place, driving the blade of the axe as downward as hard as he could, no matter how numb his arms became, no matter how much oxygen he swallowed into his lungs, there he was, cutting a series of v’s through the length of the oak. He huffed and wheezed as he cut through fresh bark, thinking, knowing he was shot. That he needed more recovery time after his second-round match up. Not physically. Mentally. So much energy spent mentally.
Those images in his mind. What he told Angelica Brooks. And yet, victory was supposed to give some form of closure, yes? Especially given totality. Miles Lucky was gone. Not just in the rear view, but utter road kill. There would be no second go-rounds. Not at his request; in truth, time would make it easier to fight him, and he would have done so gladly. As awful a notion it might have been, Brandon would’ve gladly reached down deep and pulled out The Pariah, and in so doing, half-nelson suplexing Lucky over and over again into outright oblivion. Oh how easy it was, to build himself up as this badass, ready to storm on through, safe in the reality of hypotheticals that wouldn’t come to pass.
With each swing he saw Miles’s face. The one after he’d stomped on his foot. The one when he deadlifted him into the Karelin Lift. Everything was a whirl of motion, but there was a crystallization right before he spiked his head into the canvas as hard as he could; Miles Lucky was smiling. And as time froze, the rage Brandon felt inside himself became all consuming, all because of what his opponent represented to him. That awful, terrible, shambling nightmare lingering on the outskirts of his mind, put to bed but given just a sliver of life to wreak havoc anew. He needed to snuff it out. To take its life and make it go away. Miles Lucky had to die. And if he did? Or if he could never walk again? All the better.
Each chop was driven with full impact, all his weight, all his strength, wearing and fraying the point where steel and wood joined. He wanted this feeling to go away. Knew it would linger. Would ebb into the days moving forward. There were no quick getaways. He did everything he could to avoid Xanax, even as minute a dosage as he took, and even then, only in emergencies. He could fight this. He could beat this.
Despite how hard Brandon drove the crown of Lucky’s head into the canvas, the bastard was still smiling. Even after the pinfall. Even after he was scrapped off the canvas minutes later. Still smiling.
Still fucking smiling!
The axe couldn’t take it anymore, the last swing causing the handle the crack and break, splitting away. And in his rage, at himself, at the axe, at that smile, he roared, launching the axe handle somewhere, anywhere, his chest heaving, his hands burning, and his heart beating with uncontrollable ferocity.
And as he stood there, alone, thankfully alone, he looked on, toward the log cabin and the light within, at the stars in the sky, at his own breath bellowing from his lips and nostrils. His legs gave way, and he slumped onto the ground. And he laughed. Laughed at how crazy this was. Laughed at himself for giving anyone such power over him.
Laughed because it was the only thing that felt normal.
Don’t fear the Reaper?
Then why fear Xanax?
Your doctor prescribed them to you to take as needed for flashpoints such as these. They scare you. For good reason, they scare you. But they are a tool. And you use them as such. Never abused. Your doctor doesn’t even know that you halve the pills when you do need to take one. And you’ve been doing so well! She tells you so. Builds you up. How proud she is in your progress.
You’re fighting with yourself here. So just breathe, take a pill, and get some sleep. It’ll help you relax and you’ll feel better.
I don’t want to lose myself.
Don’t want to lose yourself?
We didn’t fear the Reaper because we were both running from something. And I don’t like the feeling. The numbness. The fog. Not being in full control of myself. Of my mind. As terrible as the things inside it can be, at least it lets me know I’m still alive.
That’s the anxiety talking. It doesn’t change you. Doesn’t turn you into a zombie. It just lets you relax. And once you get started, you can’t stop. You focus on what you’re feeling and you don’t let it go. So please, for your sake, just take a pill and get some rest. You know you won’t be able to until you do.
I love you.
You’re right. I know you’re right.
I love you too.
Fifteen years ago. Another time, another world. And they were different people. ‘The Only Diamond In The Sport’ Brandon Youngblood, ‘Old School’ Dave Gibson, and ‘The Red Raver’ Amy Campbell didn’t have a catchy group name. They came from different sides of the tracks, with Gibson and Campbell in the role of upstart good guys, all while Youngblood was smothering and terrorizing the main event scene. All the same, as summer turned to autumn, and as their machinations fell into place, it was the three of them that were the clique running PRIME.
Oh, if only they knew how ignorant they were.
Dave was a straight arrow, the proverbial good hand, a skilled technician in the ring who, in their only confrontation, had taken Brandon to his limit. He was a ring savant, a surgeon who only lost because the wild colt in front of him was able to find a narrow hole to escape. He was the wheel man, always trying to maintain control over his surroundings. As talented as he was, he realized his time was coming to a close; his friends were the real future.
Or were they the present? Amy Campbell, in her early-twenties, had already become an iconic figure in wrestling. Raw, yet talented. The quintessential scene girl that promotional machines got behind with all their might. And yet, their red rose had plenty of thorns, and in the minds of many, poison to go with the barbs. And then there were the rumors. She always found herself in places of importance, with the It crowd. Hush tones on extensive drug use. She’d come to PRIME as a prized signing, and despite the immense success and measure of Karina Wolfenden, at this time, at this moment, it was Amy who was the predominant female competitor on the roster, having bested the K-Wolf.
“Don’t fear the Reaper!” The preamble to the next shot. The next pill. The next drag.
Hoyt Williams might’ve been Universal Champion, but he wouldn’t be for long; Brandon was the number one contender for the Championship, and after winning the Tropical Turmoil scramble by besting Amy, Nova, Angelo Deville, Vangelus Olsig, and Ellis Easton, beating Hoyt was nothing more than a foregone conclusion. He was a joke. Someone to be crushed under his boot as he rose to the very top of PRIME and made good on all the promise attributed to him. King of Kings was mere weeks away.
His coronation would be complete.
Greasy pizza boxes littered Brandon’s hotel room bed, not that he was even aware of them anymore. His glassed eyes were fixed on the dull orange cream hued walls across from him, his legs crossed Indian style, his fingers scratching at his shoulder. In his other hand was a beer bottle, half full, enough of it having spilled on the comforter leave a stain. His mouth hung agape, drool trickling from the corners of his lips. Time moved slowly, the vibration within his space so serene. Sheer unadulterated ignorance.
Amy stared back at him, her joint between her fingers, her hoodie drawn, her feet bare because she’d kicked her shoes off shortly after getting in the room. Dave might’ve been the wheel man, but he wasn’t sharing rooms with the two of them anymore. It was too awkward. She sat there, the glow of early morning television infomercials teasing her periphery, her eyes watery and itchy, her lips moving, and Brandon craned his head in her direction, the weight of his skull too much to bare as he neck slackened, chuckling to himself, nothing mattered, nothing would ever matter, because he was feeling no pain, not in his lower back or his knees even though he knew he had torn his meniscus taking down Peter Vetra on the recent ReVolution, Percocet and Soma, and he reached for the bottle on the dresser across from him, but she was there, standing over him, looking down on him, slapping the bottle away, and all he could manage was a few histrionic mewls.
“Brandon! You’ve had enough!”
But her words didn’t register. Don’t fear the Reaper he tried to bellow, the words slurring and trapped around his slug of a tongue, everything he said utterly incomprehensible. And she worried. He wasn’t like this. But the closer to the top he came, the more he took. The ascent emboldened him, and he was bulletproof. The franchise.
He could barely chew his food or stop himself from pissing his pants.
And I do the things I do because I want, because I don’t care, because I’ve done a real good job at burying things deep so you’ll never find them, Amy. Just grab hold of me, kid. I’m going places. I’m the Big Bad Wolf. Superstar. And I don’t give a fuck what rumors they spread. Don’t Fear The Reaper. Rolling Stone cover girl, and if they only knew that you are all mine.
Somewhere, enraptured by his own vanity, he slumped, the bottle rolling under the bedframe, his head on the mattress and his body splayed in a contorted mess. The hangover would be Hell.
Yet there she was, lining the ice bucket, setting it on carpet beside his bed. He was already choking in his snoring, heavy gasps for air. She knew she couldn’t move him in this position without some maneuvering, so she took the closest chair she to them and moved it across from him, using the balls of her feet against his flank to push against him until, finally, she was able to get the tops of her feet underneath him, all before rolling him onto his stomach. At least that would make sure he wouldn’t choke on his own vomit.
‘He’s gonna kill himself if he keeps this up.’ Dave was right. She knew he was. No matter how much Brandon told her that Dave was just jealous. She’d been around so many in the wrestling business, and yet, as powerful as he seemed in the ring, as drawn to him as she found herself, there was only one way she could describe him if asked.
Time and its perception were an oily mess for her. She watched the television out of habit, and when she could barely keep her eyes open, she made her way out of the chair, plopping forward onto mattress below. She always thought he made the best pillow. Placing a kiss at the bottom of the back of his neck, she nuzzled against him, two mismatched puzzle pieces trying to make whatever this was work.
It didn’t. It never could. Anguished romance? Missing narrative. He had a wedding ring, and it wasn’t binding him to her. Her name was Melissa. She was pregnant. And when she found out?
It wasn’t her fault he punched her.
Skulking wiry beasts in the mind. So ripe and open for blame. And many would and do. Brandon Youngblood knew that the paths people walked were their own, and there wasn’t judgment if others felt paralyzed by their past. But for him, it was merely a part of a whole. And in knowing, he refused to salve the awful things he did and the people he hurt by excusing his crimes as a result of suffering from his father’s hand.
‘Hey, have you seen this? It’s insane…’ Dave Gibson never was one to mind time zone differences from across the country. Thankfully, Brandon was awake, despite his yawning, having just gotten through security at the airport terminal. Viva Las Vegas in a few hours. Dave might’ve been retired, but the sport never left his blood. Brandon implicitly trusted his friend’s analytical ability, his ability to see things between the margins he may have missed. Gibson’s mind was important; it was another tool to use to achieve their goal of Youngblood finally becoming Universal Champion.
His path in Rolo had been dubbed Murder’s Row by the fans, each round brimming with comically challenging match ups, his path some twisted roller coaster sequence demanding the very best from him every week. ReVival 4 wasn’t supposed to be the Anglo Luchador, though. He wasn’t Murder’s Row.
He was now.
Brandon took a seat near the escalator to his Southwest platform. There was still plenty of time before boarding, and given how deep Gibson had thrown himself into finding and studying everything he could about the Anglo Luchador, he figured his friend had found some new wrinkle, some odd tidbit that he could latch onto to build an edge. After all, anyone who could beat Garbage Bag Johnny could damn well do the same to him. Three seconds, like life, can come at you fast. Youngblood thumbed the link and watched as his Jabber app opened.
That should’ve been the first warning sign.
An inset video began to play, the drone of a dance club beat pulsing as some pixelated abomination resembling the masked face of the Anglo Luchador began to move about the space in disconcerting stop motion. It made him think of Max Headroom…if he’d been compressed through a straw and spit up onto the burning surface of the hottest parts of Hell. Suddenly, to the beat, spliced together from different sources in the ether, the Anglo Luchador was speaking. Rhyming? Singing? “Icy hothothothothothot icy hothothothothothothot icy hothothothothothothothot icy icy icy hothothothothothothothothot.” A quick cut shifted the scene, his masked face now superimposed onto the body of a salmon shirted Shaquille O’Neal doing a shoulder shimmy after spritzing himself with Gold Bond, looping again and again.
It was then that he realized he wasn’t listening to all this through his earbuds.
His face flushed with absolute embarrassment. He couldn’t click away fast enough. And when he did, he looked from side to side, to make sure nobody was staring. The response from his fingertips was pointed. ‘Dave…you ever send that to me again, and I’m putting you inside a goddamn wicker man.’
“So, I have to ask…” Angelica Brooks trailed off, clasping the handle of her luggage case. “Why don’t you have the biggest room at the MGM? I’d of thought you’d of easily negotiated that with Melvin and the like.”
Brandon had checked in to the MGM Grand and was on his way up to his room via the elevator before she’d managed to flag him down. Things could’ve been awkward, especially given everything that had transpired in her interview with him. Instead, he was warm, pleasant. Days before, he felt so mentally fried, so out of sorts, he couldn’t fathom getting back to the grind. The wound was scabbing over, though, for now. “Eh. Maybe back in the day.” He turned to her, smirking. “I hear Knox and Cally got an ocelot in their room at some point, though. So that had to be fun.”
Angelica’s eyes lit up as she chuckled. “Oh yeah. You should’ve seen it. Apparently, it was all to do with some folks giving them the side eye. Like they were better than them or something.”
It was his turn to laugh. “I guess we’re just the help, aren’t we?”
“Oh of course. To some of the high rollers, anyway.”
“Maybe I should say hey to them. Always love making small talk with them types.”
She playfully nudged him, shaking her head. “I don’t think Lindsay can sell Melvin on that being a good idea. By the way, you disappointed you’re not facing Johnny?”
“Because you think Luchador is easier.”
There was no hesitation in his response. “I know Johnny. As good as he is, as good as he can be, there’s sometimes that moment…he overthinks things. Overthinks himself. But Anglo?” There was a moment of pondering, in how to frame his thoughts. “He wants it. Wants this. Everyone wants to make him into some kind of joke, or wants to act like he’s a fluke. But I don’t see him as a joke. Hell, him being here, that means he’s dangerous. And I have to deal with that any way I can.”
She nodded in affirmation. Once they reached the top floor, the elevator door opened, but neither of them stepped out. There was something gnawing beneath the surface between the two, something needing to be expressed, to be said.
“Hey, Angie?” he started.
“Thanks. For last week. Or last…whatever.”
“Thank you for trusting me enough to share yourself like that. It means a lot, not just to me, but a lot of folks.”
“Maybe, when you’re in the right place…I can share with you the response I’ve gotten. Show how much impact you can have with people in a positive way.”
“Yeah…maybe,” he stepped off, holding the door so it wouldn’t close on her as she made her own way out. “Give me a bit. I’m just now starting to remember what it is to be human. You know?”
They went their separate ways, but before too long, he could hear her yelling for him from down the hall. “Hey Brandon!”
He turned to face her. “Yeah?”
“Just remember…don’t fear the reaper.”
He gave her a nod.