Orange light crept into the dark sky over Evansville, the first warning of the looming threat of another day of physical and emotional exhaustion.
So of course, Nate Colton was already wide awake.
He drove his mighty Prius through the quiet streets, made less quiet by the music he blasted from his speakers and his off-key singing.
“Mmm, she the devil! She a bad little bitch, she a rebel…”
The Colton Academy gym wasn’t open yet, but Nate often used his spare key to get an early start on his workout and make the sun look like a lazy bastard. He figured he had at least thirty minutes before anyone else filtered in.
As he turned the last corner, he saw that this would not be a typical day.
“Put her foot to the pedal, it’ll take a whole lot for me to–shit!”
A handful of people had already gathered outside. He recognized two specifically–Trece Vickers, the standout from this year’s graduating class, and his sister, Jennifer.
Nate hurriedly turned the stereo off, not willing to reveal his latest musical obsession, and parked the car.
By the time he reached the building, Jenny was already giving him attitude. “About time, lazy ass. Now hurry up, I’m cold.” She pulled her hood up, allowing the attached rabbit ears to flop down over her face.
“All right, keep your ears on,” Nate said as he fumbled in his pocket for the key. “Don’t know why you’re here so early anyway.”
“That’s my fault,” Trece said. “I was sayin’ I wanted to get in a session before work, and Jen told me you come in early a lot.”
Did she now
“I guess the word spread,” Trece continued.
“I like the initiative,” Nate said, “but maybe warn me so I don’t keep you all waiting.” He unlocked the door, allowing the others to enter. Nate held the door for them and took note of their names as they passed.
Gotta let Dad know who’s putting the extra work in
As much as he enjoyed the privacy, Nate liked seeing the young students making the extra effort…but he still felt disappointed that there wasn’t more. One more, in particular.
The one Nate had made a point of inviting.
# # #
“You ever do jigsaw puzzles, Kerry?”
“We used to sometimes, for our weekly game night. Just spend a few hours around the table, cracking jokes, drinking pop, and generally screwing around while Mom and Dad did the actual solving. Great times.”
“There was one night. I must have been…twelve? We’re doing a puzzle. Log cabin in the woods, middle of fall. Some real Bob Ross shit. We’d been at it for a while, finally got most of the edge pieces in place, when my little brother tried to help. Trouble is, he was four.”
“You see where this is going. He reached up to the table to grab a piece, knocked the box over. Pieces flew everywhere. Kid’s crying, Mom’s yelling, dog’s going apeshit…it’s a disaster.”
“We searched every inch of that carpet for the missing pieces. Found most of ‘em…but not all. Ended up with a big damn hole in the middle.”
“Usually we’d break it up and put it back in the box when we were done…but not this time. No, that puzzle stayed on the table. We’d see it whenever we came into the room, ate around it, played other games over the top of it. Every couple of days, someone would find a piece, and the picture became a little clearer.”
“After about two months, we finally gave up and put the puzzle away. Never did find the last few pieces–all right in the middle, wouldn’t you know.”
“So in case you’re wondering what my life has been like…pretty much that.”
“I know you weren’t. But stay with me.”
“You weren’t part of the company yet, but you probably heard. Short version, I made some major fuckups that hurt a lot of people. My life, relationships, reputation…shattered and scattered like so many…well. Puzzle pieces.”
“I’ve been doing my best to put it back together. Slow going, ‘cause there’s no edge pieces, no box you can look at. You never know what you’re looking for until you find it.”
“I’ve had to be humble in a business that punishes humility. Bite my tongue when people came after me. Ask for help, never knowing if they’ll say ‘yes’ or tell me to fuck myself.”
“You don’t even want to know how much I’ve spent on salted caramel lattes.”
“None of it’s been fun, but in order to get my life back, to be myself again…it’s all been necessary.”
“You gotta do the shit you hate, so that you can do the shit you love.”
# # #
Two hours later, Nate finally saw the student he was looking for.
The youngest Colton finally arrived. He walked toward the locker room with his head down, and bulky headphones covering his ears.
“Blake!” Nate stepped away from the crash pad where two trainees were practicing arm drags, making a beeline for his brother. “BLAKE!”
Blake finally stopped and removed a headphone from one ear. “What?”
“Where you been, kid?” Nate asked. “I told you I was coming in early.”
“I…was hoping you’d come with me.”
“Should have said that.”
Nate rolled his eyes. He knew his little brother often misunderstood things that weren’t said directly.
He also knew that sometimes, Blake did it on purpose.
“I guess. Well…I can spot for you, then.”
“Whatever,” Blake said, resuming his path to the locker room.
Nate let out a heavy sigh. One more thing I have to deal with, he thought.
Blake walked back out ten minutes later. He quietly walked toward an empty corner and began his stretches.
Nate met him there. “We can get some running in, and then move over to the bench press, looks like that will–”
Blake paused in his stretches just long enough to place his headphones back over his ears.
Nate silently cursed again; obviously something was wrong, but finding out was going to be a struggle.
In contrast to the rest of his siblings–and maybe because of them–Blake was very quiet. You could never tell if he was completely ignoring a problem, or bottling up his emotions…until he overflowed.
Judging by his mood, the bottle was ready to blow.
Gotta be careful with this. Can’t push too hard. Maybe he’ll open up to me when it’s safe
Nate kept his distance through the morning workout, making sure to stay away from his brother…but always close enough to watch.
Blake jogged on the treadmill, his eyes never moving from the same spot on the nondescript wall in front of him. From there, he did a rotation on the various weight machines alongside one of the other students, a young Black man named Khalil Jeffries. They were about the same age and seemed to get along all right, apart from attending rival high schools.
Most of the circuit went well, but by the end Blake seemed to be losing energy…or interest. He’d only made it halfway through his last set on the bench press before resting the bar back on the rack.
“You all right, bruh?” Khalil asked, but Blake waved him off as he stood up and wiped the sweat from his face.
Shit. Soon he’s gonna start telling people he’s “fine”
They moved on to the next machine, but it was obvious Blake’s heart wasn’t in it, and his output seemed to flag even quicker.
“Why don’t you grab a rest?” he asked, finally stepping in. “You could use it.”
They agreed, and grabbed their water bottles. Nate wiped down the bench on their behalf, then sat down next to his brother.
“You all right, kid?”
“Fine,” Blake snapped.
“I…” Blake paused, like might finally open up a bit. “I just don’t like the workouts.”
“I get it,” Nate said. “You get all tired and sweaty, and there’s always some sadist that puts shitty metal or bro country on the stereo. But it’s gotta be done.”
“I know,” Blake replied, in a way that implied he’d heard this speech many, many times before.
Nate fell silent. There was more to say, but he obviously wasn’t getting through.
Once their break had ended, Nate tried his luck again. “Sorry, I know Dad tells you this stuff all the time. But he’s not wrong. You do the stuff you hate…”
“…so you can do the stuff you love,” Khalil finished. That one has been drilled into his head already.
“Speaking of which,” Nate said, once their break had ended. “Wanna spar for a bit? I’d like to see how much better you’ve gotten.”
“Still working with Khalil,” Blake said. This seemed to be news to Khalil, but the young man shrugged and rolled in the ring. Blake set aside his devices and followed.
They started in the standard collar-and-elbow, and Blake quickly transitioned into a side headlock.
A little loose, but better than the last time I saw it, Nate thought.
Khalil was about to counter when they were both interrupted by Jake Colton, who had just come out of the office. “Sorry, boys, but I need you to clear out. Vickers just got called off of work, so we’re giving him the ring this afternoon.”
Khalil, amenable as ever, took the quickest route out of the ring…but Blake stomped across the ring in order to exit directly in front of his father.
Even if it had been a request–Jake Colton’s word was law in the Academy–it wasn’t an unreasonable one. But judging by his brother’s shaking fists and reddening face, Nate knew it was about to prompt a very unreasonable response.
“Jenny!” he shouted, and held up three fingers…then, turned his hand downward so the fingers formed a letter M.
She pointed toward the office, then drew the attention of the others in the gym. “All right, which one of you dorks thinks you can last on the mat with me? Whoever does the best gets to come to the Belmont with us!”
A round of excited cheers went up from the others, and they all rushed to form a disorderly line in front of Jennifer. Lost in the ruckus were Jake’s protests…but also Nate ushering Blake into the office, whispering in his ear the whole time.
“I got you, little bro. Remember to breathe.”
The signal was, naturally, another Colton Thing. A reference to an old accident that was a lot easier–and quieter–than just yelling ‘Chernobyl!”
They weren’t experts on nuclear power plants, but they did know that drawing everyone’s attention to a meltdown only made things worse.
Once inside the office, Nate quietly shut the door while Blake bolted for his father’s desk. He grabbed his father’s coat and shoved his face in it, muffling his screams as he threw himself in the chair.
Countless thoughts flooded Nate’s mind as he desperately tried not to stare at Blake’s outburst.
I can’t believe you’re still having tantrums at your age
I know you’re frustrated but Jesus buddy you need to learn how to be cool
You can’t go into wrestling and do this you’ll get eaten alive
Nate discarded those thoughts, recognizing them for what they were–judgmental mean-spiritedness. Some might be true, but they weren’t helpful…and therefore worthless.
“You feelin’ okay, buddy?” Nate asked once the screams trailed off. “Need your headphones?”
“No!” Blake yelled sharply, just loud enough to be heard through the coat.
“Okay,” Nate said, keeping his voice as calm as possible. “Talk to me, bud. Is it the ring time? I know it was your turn, but Trece needs to be ready for the Belmont.”
Another scream was swallowed by Jake’s coat.
“You’ll be okay. Just keep breathing.”
More noises…but this time they sounded more like words.
Blake pulled the coat away from his face slightly. “That’s not why,” he growled.
Finally, a little progress. “Then what?”
The whispered word cut through Nate like a razor blade.
“You abandoned us! You bailed on the whole family and now you’re back like nothing ever happened and just when things are getting back to normal you’re going to leave again you’re all going to leave, and I’m…”
Finally, a missing piece presented itself.
Oh, jeez. It’s the Japan trip.
Nate looked at his little brother as if seeing him for the first time.
Blake got left out of so many things. Because he was the youngest. Because he was quiet. Because he had school. Sometimes, just plain old because.
Nate’s eyes narrowed. Not about to take that from my baby brother–
But just after the flash of anger, a flash of clarity.
He’s not a baby anymore
“Blake, I want you to look at something,” he said, and pointed at the largest display case on the wall.
Blake crossed his arms and fingers, refusing to turn.
Nate repeated his order with a little more force. “Blake? Look.”
He reluctantly turned and followed his brother’s finger. “It’s Dad’s steak jacket. So what?”
So what?! You little–no, NO. That’s not helping.
“You know what it means, then.”
Blake nodded. Of course they all knew the story–about their father’s first trip to Japan, and how it changed his life and career in so many ways.
“And you know that when you get through training, there’s going to be one for you, too.”
“Big deal. Everyone in the world will probably have one by then.”
“You know what Dan Stein did for the family. One more jacket isn’t going to–”
Shit. You know about the other order then.
“Pretty soon they’re not gonna mean anything,” Blake groused.
“Bullshit. The other guys who get those jackets…they earned that shit. They went so far above and beyond for our family that they became family. Just because they don’t have the same name, that doesn’t mean they don’t belong, or that it suddenly means any less. So don’t you dare even think it, ’cause you’re better than that.”
Blake’s eyes widened a little, and he opened his mouth to argue but nothing came out.
Nate continued. “Someday you’ll have a jacket of your own. From the moment you put it on, you’re gonna feel a connection with everyone else who’s got one. You’ll be part of a whole new family, and no matter how many other people get brought in, you’re gonna feel the same amount of love and support coming back. It’s gonna be amazing…but it won’t happen until you’ve earned it. It’s gonna be hard as hell and it’ll bust your ass the whole way. but I know you will, and I’ll do everything I can to help. Sounds good?”
Blake closed his eyes, and for a moment a sense of panic filled Nate’s mind. Did he push too hard?
Maybe the kid wouldn’t be able to handle this…
But maybe the man could.
Blake opened his eyes again…and nodded.
“All right,” Nate said, and offered his hand to his brother. Blake shook it…but then, asked another question.
“If the jacket’s so important…how come you stopped wearing yours?”
Don’t dance around it, Nate. Be direct.
“After everything that happened, the fight with Dad and the boys, then getting kicked out of the locker room after all the Savannah Scandal bullshit…I felt like I lost the right.”
Blake scowled at the name. “What ever happened to her?”
“No idea. I was getting ready to drive her ghouls away from the library, and then…they were just gone.”
“I still don’t understand why you didn’t ask Dad for help.”
“Yeah, that was stupid of me. But I was just so ashamed. I couldn’t bring myself to ask…I thought I didn’t deserve it. Bad enough I let everyone down so bad; I couldn’t bear the thought that he’d turn me down.”
“That’s ridiculous. Dad helps everybody. He even–”
Blake trailed off, the unfinished sentence hanging in the air. Nate didn’t know what his brother was about to say, but knew better than to press right now.
“Tell you what,” Nate said. “I’ll start wearing it again…but only if it’s okay by you. I don’t want anything tainting those jackets by the time you get yours. So I won’t put it on until you say I can.”
Blake twisted his mouth in thought. “Shovel the sidewalk for me the next time it snows, and we’ll talk.”
Nate glared at his brother, whose face quickly turned into a grin.
“Just fuckin’ with you. Of course you can.”
Nate laughed. “You had me going for a minute there. But thank you. Now what do you say we get done more work done? If you’re gonna be the future of the business, we gotta start now.”
Blake nodded, stood up, and threw his father’s coat back onto the chair. “Let’s go, big bro.”
The young man led the way out of the office, and Nate smiled broadly as he followed.
Damn, Blake. You’re gonna put us all to shame one day.
# # #
“When wrestling is at its best, it’s both a sport and an art. When you and the other guy have pushed each other way past what you thought was possible…and eventually, you get to this…place. Where time kinda slows down, and the crowd is screaming their heads off but you can barely hear ‘em.”
“God, I probably sound like Sage Pontiff right now.”
“You ever feel that way, Kerry? It’s incredible. Better than any other kind of high in the world. When you put the other guy down and you start praying to God that he stays there…except for that little voice in the pit of your soul that isn’t ready for it to end.”
“I love that feeling…and I miss it. I was starting to think I might never feel that way again.”
“It’s funny. If you told me at the beginning of the year what I would accomplish, or who I’d be in the ring with…I’d have been ecstatic. But in reality, damn near every match that should have been a career highlight got swallowed up by the bullshit. A lot of those were my own fault, ‘cause it was my own bullshit. But you see where I’m comin’ from.”
“Sure, I wish I was in the finals of the Almasy, or fighting for the Universal. But I blew my chance at the one, and never had a chance at the other…and right now, neither one is where my heart really lies.”
“I need to get back to that place, and I believe this fight can get me there.”
“I know you’re with me on this, ‘cause I saw the look in your eyes when we talked in Memphis. You need this as much as I do. Because you’re the best there is, and by God the world needs to know.
“We’re going to chase perfection, and we may not catch it but we’re sure going to give it a scare. And that means more to me right now than any title, any main event.”
“It’s what I need to finish the puzzle. I know what the missing piece looks like, but I need your help finding it.”
“Please, Kerry. Please…help me find it.”
# # #
Nate Colton stepped into an apartment that no longer seemed like home. Small wonder; he’d barely spent any time here since just before UltraViolence.
God, I hope I cleaned the fridge out last time
What he needed wasn’t in the fridge, though.
Instead, Nate went straight for his bedroom closet, nearly forgetting to turn the lights on. He opened the door, reached inside, and pulled an item off of its hanger.
He stared at it for a moment, savoring the feel of the fabric. He’d left it behind a while ago, and it hadn’t felt right to pick up since then.
Because forgiveness can be very hard, but never harder than when it’s time to forgive yourself.
He ran his fingers over the stitches that formed his name, then turned it over and did the same for the letters on the back. As he did, he thought of the other people who carried that name.
The ones who had his back, even when he didn’t deserve it.
Their bonds had been tested this year, probably more than ever. But they’d come through, and were stronger for it.
At long last–five months, in fact–it was time. He had earned this right…or rather, re-earned it.
Nate slipped one arm into a sleeve, then the other. He pulled the collar taut against his neck and smoothed out the front, then looked in the mirror.
He watched as his reflection’s face showed uncertainty…which gave way to relief…and finally to pride.
The final piece was located, and the puzzle nearly solved. He finally felt like Nate Colton again.
All that remained was Colossus, where he would show the world what that meant.