Private: Jonathan Rhine
From the manuscript of the memoir “Renewed – The Rises and Falls of Jonathan Rhine” – to be released in Fall of 2027
Paxton was furious with me for a few days. I tried to explain everything to him at the time, but he was more concerned with ripping my head off. Luckily, Shweta stopped him. After that we went a couple of weeks without speaking.
Those weeks were rough – not only were Paxton and I not talking, but I wasn’t very interested in talking to Shweta either. At that point she and Chet Fleetwood were inseparable. Chet Fleetwood. Ugh. What an asshole. I could barely stand to be in the same room with him as it was, and then I had to watch him and Shweta paw at each other at every opportunity. Plus Quinn was taking this development as his cue to be even more unruly in classes. All put, life was pretty much a nightmare at that point.
Except, somehow, for PRIME. Beyond all odds, we had gotten through another survivor event, even with Paxton wanting to kill me every time he looked at me. Not only had we gotten through, we actually won, which was a big boost of confidence. We were set to face Jared and Justine Calvin in the finals for the PRIME Tag Team Championship. I was focused and determined, because Jared and I had been fighting for a while at that point, and I wanted to beat him. But I was also worried.
I was worried because a successful tag team relies on cohesion and chemistry to succeed. Paxton and I had bonded in the six months we knew each other, and that allowed us to survive many talented people in the various Survivor tasks. But as we faced our final competition, a new team but one that couldn’t be underestimated, I looked over at my tag team partner and saw a man who probably hated me, and not without reason.
At the time I was hoping for a chance to explain myself to him and clear the air, so we could walk into Great American Nightmare with a clear, unified purpose.
We ended up getting there, but the path was muddy.
June 20, 2022
Jonathan Rhine sits in his office with the door closed. He’s reading an email aloud. “Dear Mr. Rhine, I hope this letter finds you well. I have to express my sincere misgivings upon hearing that you rejected a sizable donation from the MESSIAH organization. As a father of a son with cancer, I looked to the Fighting For Nora Foundation as a way to help someone whose purpose matched my own. However, from the outside looking in, your refusal to accept money looks like a strange competitive decision, and that is not something I understand or condone. Therefore, we will not be donating further to the Foundation, nor will we encourage our friends to continue donating. Please reconsider your stance on MESSIAH to prevent your Foundation from spiraling further down this path. Yours, Charles Wright.”
Jonathan sighs, then clicks through his emails, finding similar sentiments. “Why can’t everyone else see the truth?” he says to himself.
The door suddenly bursts open and Paxton Ray storms in, slamming his hands on the desk. “Hey partner. Ya said ya were dyin’ to explain the whole Dustin shit to me, right?”
Jon closes his laptop. “Absolutely, Pax, if you’d just listen…”
“I will listen. But we ain’t talkin’ about it here. You want me to believe ya? To repair this trust and fight for them belts? Then we can’t do it on your turf.”
“Okay.” Jon pushes his chair back and walks over to Paxton. “I want to make this right. I’ll go wherever you want to go.”
Paxton Ray grins and puts a hand on Jon’s shoulder, intentionally putting a little extra weight on it. “Oh buddy. You’re gonna really regret sayin’ that.”
“Take a right,” Paxton mutters as Jon pulls his car down a back road in the lower 9th ward of New Orleans. The forgotten and devastated neighborhood feels eerily quiet in the fading sunlight.
“Like a ghost town,” Jon says under his breath as he flips on the turn signal.
“Plenty’a ghosts all right.”
To this point Jon has kept his concerns to himself, but as the car creeps towards the Mississippi River, he finally speaks up. “Where are we going, Pax? This isn’t a part of the city I usually go to.”
“What a surprise,” Paxton laughs. “The white-as-a-sheet rich boy from the suburbs ain’t never been in the 9th. Ya worried about your precious Infiniti gettin’ stolen?”
“I mean…yes. I am.”
“That’ll be the least’a your worries soon enough.”
They ride in silence until they arrive at a large field that had housed several homes before August 29, 2005. Now it is vast and muddy. As Jon parks the car, realization finally strikes him.
“The Mud Pits.”
Paxton Ray smiles. “Ding ding, genius.”
I mentioned earlier that Paxton Ray got his start in the Mud Pit fights: illegal bareknuckle brawls out in 9th ward for cash. I thought at the time that I was doing Paxton a favor by taking him out of the Pits and giving him somewhere else to fight, for more money and less danger.
But as I struggled to repair our bond, I found that it was the reverse: he was dragging me down to where he started.
“So this is your solution? You’re going to beat the shit out of me while I explain myself?”
“Ya can fight back, Jonny.”
Jon shakes his head. “But I can’t! You’re my partner. You’re my…”
Paxton bangs his hand on the top of Jon’s car, causing him to jump. “The next word outta your mouth better not be friend, ‘cause friends don’t do what you did. Listen, bud. I ain’t gonna kill ya. But you’re gonna tell me about Fightin’ For Dustin, and you’re gonna tell me why you and Shway did all this for me and Nora. And yeah, I’m gonna smack ya around a bit.”
Jon looks down at his feet and sighs. “Fine. I owe you an explanation. Let’s do this.”
Jon follows Paxton across the field, noticing his feet getting stuck as he walks. A few flecks of mud fly into his face and he instinctively wipes it away as they reach a small crowd of people.
“Pax,” a large man says in a deep baritone, giving him a fist bump. “Said you got a grudge match?”
“Somethin’ like that,” Paxton says. “Jus’ a little spar, Bishop. No finishin’ rules. I’ll tell ya when we stop.”
Bishop turns to Jonathan and smiles. “Hope you said your prayers, New Life.”
Jonathan doesn’t answer, turning to Paxton. “We ready?”
“Yep,” Paxton says, and he begins to circle Jon, who begins to circle as well. “Here’s how it’s gonna work. I’m gonna ask ya a question, and you’re gonna answer while tryin’ to avoid my fists. If I like your answer, I stop hittin’ you and ask another. Fair?”
“Fair as it can be, I gu–” Jon says, and is interrupted by a punch to the mouth.
“I didn’t like that answer,” Pax says, laughing. “But that’s all right. Let’s start at the beginnin’. Who’s Dustin?”
March 23, 2020
“Three sixteen year olds, Foster? You’re out of your mind.”
Jonathan Rhine stands over the desk that will one day become his. Sitting behind it is Foster Nackedy, his flat top and goatee groomed and perfect, his smile fully-toothed and full, his demeanor arrogant and aloof.
“No, Jon, I’m a visionary. I know what you’re going to say. I’m blinded by fatherhood. But believe me, Connor is ready. He’s good. He can be one of the best wrestlers we’ve ever had here.”
“What about the other two?”
“I can’t have him be the youngest student. He’ll get picked on, especially since he’s the owner’s kid. So I found two other kids. One of them, Quinn, is a high school rival of Connor’s, a brute, kind of a shithead. You should meet his dad, he’s a real asshole.”
Jon smiles. “Nice sell there. And the last one?”
“He’s Connor’s best friend. They’ve been inseparable since first grade. If we’re honest, I don’t think he’s going to last. He’s a little soft, a little introspective. But Connor wouldn’t do it without him.”
Jon sits back in his chair and looks down. “I’m your head trainer, so I’ll obviously do it. Hopefully you’re right. I’m just wondering where this came from.”
Foster leans back in his chair. “When you run a school like this, you’re constantly thinking about legacy. This isn’t just about teaching kids to do a headlock. I want to produce stars. I want people to know that Gray’s Academy is where you send your prospects so they can have real success.”
Jon nods. “And two-time SCCW Champion isn’t success?”
Foster laughs. “I knew you’d take offense to that. You were great for two years. Your entire wrestling career was two years. I think Connor can be a multi-decade star, which is why I’m starting him so young. If Dustin and Quinn can be anything remotely good, it’s a bonus.” Foster stands up, smiling. “Trust me, Jon. In a few years you’re going to realize this is the best decision I’ve ever made. This will change the academy forever.”
“So Dustin was a kid, huh? And ya trained him ‘fore he could even buy smokes?” Paxton throws a wild punch, which Jon ducks under and sends two punches to Paxton’s chest. Paxton, unfazed, hits Jon with a backhand, sending him into the mud.
“That’s what Foster wanted. He wanted his son to be star, and he wanted Dustin to be the fallback plan. But that’s not how it turned out.” Jon gets to his feet, wiping his nose, which is now mixed with blood and grime.
“Well I know Connor ain’t a star.”
“Nope,” Jon says, blocking another punch. “But Dustin was. And Foster didn’t like it.”
May 3, 2020
“Too tight!” Foster screams. “Way too tight!”
Dustin gets to his feet and immediately helps Connor up, who leans against the turnbuckle. “What do you mean too tight?” Dustin asks. “Aren’t hurricanrana supposed to be tight?”
Foster laughs and looks at Jonathan, who shrugs. “You see the cheek on this kid?” Foster jumps onto the apron and steps into the ring. “Sixteen years old and he already has the world all figured out.”
“Dad, stop,” Connor says.
“Not now, Connor. Dustin, listen to me. Wrestling is about a lot of things. Moves, yes. Being efficient with your energy. But it’s also about discipline. Knowing when to say something and when to stay quiet. And one of the times to stay quiet is when your trainer is giving you advice.”
Foster claps twice. “Let’s take a five minute break and then work on cardio. Ring runs for everyone.” He hears the groans and laughs. “This is cardo and discipline, guys. Treasure it!”
As the crowd disperses, Jon walks up to Dustin and Connor. “Don’t worry about it, Dustin. That was a great move.”
“I know,” he says. Then he turns to his friend. “What’s wrong, Connor?”
“I don’t think I can do it.”
“What, a hurricanrana? Yes you can,” Jon says. “You just have to practice.”
“No, any of it. Wrestling. I just don’t think I’m good enough.”
Jon puts a hand on his shoulder. “You’re plenty good enough, Connor. I can see it.”
Dustin puts a hand up to the trainer. “I’ve got this, Mr. Rhine. Connor, you’re good enough, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is, do you even want this?”
“I know you better than anyone. I see how miserable you are. You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. You don’t have to be a wrestler just because he says you do.”
“Now–” Jonathan opens his mouth, but he’s cut off.
“IS THAT WHAT YOU THINK?” Foster Nackedy growls behind Dustin, putting a hand on his shoulder. “You think I’m forcing Connor into something against his will?” Dustin doesn’t answer. “Man, teenagers just think they fucking know everything, don’t they? I’ll show you what you really know.” Foster claps his hands again. “Ring runs are canceled, everyone. Instead we’re going to have a match. Dustin vs. me.”
“What?” Jon asks. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. Just a friendly spar. Don’t worry, Dustin. I’m not gonna hurt you. Just show you how to work a little better. You’ll ref, Jon.”
“…okay. Let’s get in the ring, you two.”
A few minutes later, Jon calls for the bell, and a forty-two year old gym owner locks up against his sixteen year old son’s best friend. The match is barely three minutes old when Dustin is on the ground, panting.
“Come on, show me those tight moves,” Foster says, slapping Dustin on the back of his head.
“Dad, stop!” Connor shouts, pounding the apron.
“You’ve made your point, Fos,” Jon says. “Let’s go do some ring runs.”
“No,” Foster says. “Not yet.” He bends over and grabs Dustin by the neck. “Gotta show him a bit more.”
He lifts Dustin up easily into a suplex, holding him up. Then he adjusts his head so that it’s pointed down.
“Dustin, tuck! Tuck your head! TUCK!” Connor shouts as Foster begins his descent.
Jonathan watches the fall for what feels like hours. Finally, he hears the sickening crunch as Foster finishes the brainbuster, causing Dustin to splay his limbs out as he bounces off the mat. Foster’s cocky smile shifts as he looks down, where Jonathan is already on his knees grabbing the boy’s hand. “Shit,” Foster mutters, then looks over at his son, who is staring at him through glassy eyes.
“Shit,” he says again.
“Shit,” Paxton says as he levels Jon with two quick punches. At this point, Rhine’s face is a grueling mixture of blood, sweat, mud, and fear. “Paralyzed?”
“Yes,” Jon says, putting his hands up to block more blows. “Broken…neck. Three surgeries. He’ll…never…walk again.”
“And lemme guess. He didn’t feel bad about it.”
“He did,” Jon says, trying to get to his feet but failing. “He gave up.”
“They’re going to take the school, Fos,” Jon says, sitting on Foster’s desk. Foster is leaning over it, his head in his hands.
“We can’t let them do that.” Jon puts his hand on Foster’s shoulder. “This place is all…it’s all we have.”
Foster lifts his head and reaches below the desk. He pulls out a beer and opens it, then takes a long sip. “And sometimes, Jon, you lose everything you have. And you deserve to lose it.”
Slowly, Jon lifts his hand off on Foster’s shoulder. “No. I won’t let this place go down on your mistake. I won’t do that to the students. I won’t do that to Connor. And I know you wouldn’t do that either.”
Foster looks at Jon in between sips. His eyes are heavy, and they narrow. “You’ve been my friend for 14 years, but you don’t know a fucking thing about me.”
Foster puts his head back down for a few moments before saying, “Go,” but if he had looked up he would’ve seen that Jon was halfway out of the academy.
“Lemme finish for ya,” Paxton says, landing another punch. Jon is slow to climb to his feet, and even slower when Paxton nails an elbow to the back of his head. “Ya went to Shweta. She came up with a campaign to rally for Dustin. Ya made banners, sold shit, and raised money to save the gym. An’ Foster ended up out on his ass as the drunk idiot who nearly killed a kid.”
Jon grabs Paxton’s legs and tries to get up, but his feet slip in the mud. He lifts his head and stares at Paxton through bloodied and blackened eyes. “We helped Dustin…too. He has money. He…he’s okay.”
Paxton rolls Jonathan over and puts a knee on his chest. “So ya helped a paralyzed kid, but ya really was helpin’ yourself. Keepin’ your job, keepin’ the only thing you had goin’. So now I want ya to answer one more question.” Jon braces for a punch, but instead he feels a finger tilting his chin up so that Paxton and Jon are nose to nose. “Why did ya help me? Why really?”
As Paxton beat me harder than anyone had up to that point, I looked up at him and told him everything. And now, five years later, I will tell you all as well.
I cared about Paxton’s story. I cared about the idea of Nora, how a sweet little girl could potentially have her life cut short but something so cruel and random.
But I cared more about myself. I wanted to wrestle again. I wanted the crowd to cheer me again. I knew that because the story resonated with me, it would resonate with others. And I used that. I used Paxton and Nora.
I wanted glory again. And so I fought. I fought for Nora, but I fought for myself. I fought against cancer, but I also fought against father time. I focused on raising money for the Foundation, but I also focused on raising my own stature and confidence.
Twelve years before I had lost my girlfriend, my job, and my only purpose for living. I toiled away as a trainer for a man I didn’t respect in a place that felt like a trap. I wanted to be a good person. Deep down, I knew I was a good person. But then I found an opportunity to get back one of the only two things I ever truly cared about, and I jumped at it. I didn’t think about the people. I didn’t think about the consequences. I thought about myself.
I punched Jared Sykes in the face right before our title match because he mentioned Katie, which set me off, but I also punched him because he has always seen through me, even when I tried to hide things from myself. Jared was a lot of things. He could be a jumbled mess. But he has always known exactly who I am.
I told this all to Paxton, sure that it was the last thing I’d say before he ended me in that muddy field. I even told him that I understood, and that I didn’t blame him, and – just like Foster had said – that I deserved to lose everything.
And then that crazy asshole started laughing.
“Wha…?” is all Jon can manage as his head slowly shakes, whether from disbelief or lack of control he doesn’t know.
“A few weeks ago, ya were blubberin’ with Shweta about the dinner bein’ ruined ‘cause some dipshit ya didn’t like gave a speech. An’ I came in jus’ happy that my girl got some money. So ya really thought I was gonna kill ya because you’re a glory hound who gets hard when his name is chanted?” Paxton laughs again and slaps his hand on Jon’s chest. “You’re an asshole. But you’re an asshole who helped my daughter. And ya stepped into this hell with me without even blinkin’. I don’t care what you’re doin’ it for. I jus’ had to beat ya a little because ya hid it from me.”
“A little…?” Jon murmurs. Paxton looks over at Bishop and moves a hand across his neck, then reaches over and pulls him up.
“Yeah, you’ll be fine by the show. Ya owe me a hundred dollars by the way. I tol’ Bishop you paid but I covered ya. Don’t worry, ya can just pay me back after we win these titles.”
Jon starts to follow him to his car but stumbles, and Paxton comes back to offer an arm. “I don’t…understand. I told you everything. And you’re still in this with me?”
“Ya told me four months ago that teams rely on trust. And now that ya tol’ me about your past, I trust ya. Plus we got this far without it. Imagine what we can do now that we have that trust?”
Jon laughs as they stumble to the car. “As long as you do to Jared what you just did to me, I think we’re gonna be fine.” Jon reaches the car door, then stops. “Maybe you better drive.”
I felt better somehow coming away from the Mud Pit, despite the bruises and blood. It’s important to admit to yourself the things you’ve done wrong. It’s the first step to becoming a better person. And as we drove back to the academy, I was determined to be better. To do things for the right reasons. To be more open about the things that I want. And to work with others to make sure all of our goals are met.
I was ready for redemption. But admitting your sins doesn’t always save you from punishment. And I’d find out soon that more punishment was well on its way.