“Mama, they fightin’ again!”
Mary-Ellen turned from her spot at the sink and sighed. She turned off the water and dried her hands before taking the first steps towards the living room. Another Saturday in front of the television meant another scrap that she had to break up, the weekly side-effect of Andrew’s wrestling obsession and two sugared-up ten-year-olds.
“Thanks, Lizzy-bean,” she said, gently stroking her daughter’s hair as she passed into the hallway.
Lizzy darted off, a stuffed bear in tow.
The scene in the living room was in line with her expectations. The boys were on the floor, and once again Andrew had his brother in a compromising position. It was nothing more than a headlock, but true to form Jared wasn’t fighting back, which meant this would go on until either Andrew got bored or she broke it up.
“Andrew David Sykes.” That was all it took to get her sons’ attention. The Middle Name something she’d learned from her own mother, one that she’d refined. The trick was to use it sparingly, so that when it came out the kids would know she meant business. “Please get off your brother, he looks miserable.”
Andrew did as he was told, releasing his brother and bounding to his feet.
“Sorry,” he said.
“You okay, honey?” She said to Jared.
“Yeah,” he said. He pulled a piece of carpet fuzz from his shirt and sat on the couch.
“I’m going to finish the dishes,” Mary-Ellen said. “No more roughhousing, okay?”
Satisfied that the situation was now in order, she headed back to her work in the kitchen, and the two boys were once again alone.
“How come you never fight back?” Andrew said. He flopped into his corner of the sofa and glanced at the television. On the screen was a tanned, muscular man with an action-star mustache and a polished silver badge. “Lawman” Dixon Judge was Andrew’s favorite, and it was his famous finishing hold – The Equalizer – that he had been trying to apply to his brother. “You love wrestling.”
“No, you love wrestling,” Jared said.
“Yeah, but it’s not any fun when it’s just me. C’mon, why don’t you ever play?”
Jared pointed at the screen with a colored pencil. “Those guys aren’t playing. They’re fighting for real, and that means people can get hurt.”
“So I don’t want to hurt you.”
“You’re not gonna hurt me,” Andrew groaned.
“Andy, Mom says that I’m seven minutes older than you. Which means I’m the big brother.”
Andrew rolled his eyes. Seven minutes wasn’t that old.
“It’s my job to keep you safe,” Jared continued. “It’s my job to protect you. And I always will.”
It had been weeks since the funeral, and the world had moved on.
Mom was back to work during the day, which meant that Meredith the babysitter came over every afternoon to watch the kids after school. At twelve years old, Jared was old enough to be trusted on his own, but Lizzy still had a few years to go.
The phone didn’t ring as much anymore. The surprise visits from friends and family had slowed as April went on. It used to be that someone came to the house every day, and most of them brought food so that Mom wouldn’t have to cook that night.
Jared took this as a sign. The fact that his mother was making dinner again served as a clear indicator that the world had decided they’d used up their predetermined allotment of grief, and it was time to get back to it.
The changes at school didn’t make the transition any easier.
Mister Morrison’s afternoon history class was the only course that the twins shared with each other, and the old man learned quickly that he better split them up, or they’d spend the entire session whispering, telling jokes, and swapping notes with each other. He put Jared in the row closest to the door, and Andrew was given the front seat by the windows. A seat that was now occupied by Danny Farris, the rest of the row all having moved forward one spot.
Dad was back on his usual schedule, coming every Tuesday and Thursday night to take the kids for a few hours, but only Lizzy would go with him. Jared refused to even come downstairs, waiting until he heard the door to the house shut before peeking out of his room to ask his mother, “Is he gone yet?”
He wondered if the bruise he’d left on his father’s face had healed.
The spring soccer season had started, and after missing the first few weeks Mom had taken Lizzy to meet her team. Springtime would have also meant baseball for Jared, had he not begged his mother to cancel. That was something the boys had always done together, playing side-by-side since tee ball, and he flatly refused to do it alone.
So, for the first time since he could remember, the house was quiet.
It was far from the traditional Saturday. There was no cereal. No wrestling. No fights for mom to break up.
It all felt wrong.
Jared padded into the kitchen and filled two bowls. He walked to his usual spot in the living room, and then kept going until he reached the base of the stairs. There was a television in Andy’s room, one that his mother had bought when his energy started to wane and he was spending more time in bed in between treatments for the cancer that was eating him.
No one had been inside Andy’s room since before the funeral, when Mom shut it and asked the kids not to open it.
“We just need to give it time,” she’d said.
Jared balanced a bowl in the crook of his arm, careful not to let any of the milk spill onto the carpet. His hands felt sweaty, though he didn’t know why.
He turned the handle.
Andy was never fond of making his bed, so it was no surprise that it was a haphazard pile of blankets and sheets. A half-finished Lego set rested on the desk. There was a toy wrestling ring on the floor, a Christmas gift after the boys’ eleventh birthday. Andy had always used the elastic ropes to launch action figures across the room, pretending they were performing incredible feats of acrobatics. Nearby were all of his favorites – Doctor Tornado, “Delicious” Donnie Vicious, and the hero of the Wild West, Dixon Judge himself.
Andy had always said he was going to have his own action figure one day.
It was the pictures over the bed that gave Jared pause. Each had come from his sketchbook at his brother’s request, all so they could be taped to the wall. One showed the two visiting a far away planet and fighting off three bright green aliens. Another featured a submarine surrounded by sharks, two faces peeking through the portholes. The one that hung over by the pillows showed Andy in his wrestling costume, a big gold belt held proudly over his head.
Jared set the bowls down, first needing to brush aside a few Lego bricks to clear a spot. He took in the room again, seeing it for what it held. And what it didn’t.
Toys that would never be played with.
Clothes that would never catch another grass stain roughhousing on a sunny summer afternoon.
A bed that would never again know warmth, or help shepherd the dreams of the innocent into the ever after.
Just an empty space.
“Okay, I know this is going to be hard, but just sit tight and I should be back in a few minutes with the results.”
Susan, the nurse practitioner, smiled as she stepped into the hall and pulled the door behind her.
“Yeah.” Justine whispered the word to herself. “Good fuckin’ luck with that.”
It had been almost six months since Jared and Justine had made the decision to try and conceive. First there were the doctor visits to make sure they were both healthy enough that there were no complications. The barrier, everyone said, would be their age. To hedge their bets, the couple had met with an adoption agency and been given their first real, concrete bit of hope. It was tangible, something they could hold on to in the face of overwhelming uncertainty.
For six months they tried, keeping the entire ordeal to themselves. Justine had seen what happens to people who announce their intent, only to struggle. That wouldn’t be her; they would wait until they were sure, and then – only then – would they let their families know.
And for six months they’d endured quiet heartbreak, counting down the days every few weeks until the truth revealed itself.
Until one morning when a second pink line appeared.
She brought the stick with her in a gallon-sized freezer bag, having made sure to squeeze all the air out before sealing it up. If they asked, she could hand it over like evidence to help prove her case. Sure, that would mean she couldn’t wrap it up in a little box and surprise Jared with it, but that sort of thing was best left to the Instagram crowd.
It didn’t matter how she told him, only that she would.
There would be conversations to follow, names being the one her mind kept coming back to. Boys’ names were free rein in the Calvin family, but there was a tradition for the girls. For generations, all of the women on her mother’s side were given names beginning with J, and that would have to continue.
She conceded that this would mean the end of her time in PRIME, and likely the end of her in-ring career, but she could make her peace with that. It had already been months since the last time she stepped foot in a ring to compete, a fact that Joe Fontaine was all too eager to point out. Still, no amount of gaudy green suits would ever compare with the gold on her mantel.
It would also, she knew, mean the end of Jared’s time as a wrestler.
Visions danced in her head of what their time together in retirement would look like. Maybe when things settled down she would go back to training part-time, or reduce her schedule to a few days per week to have more time at home. Jared could dust off some of those creative skills and get back into drawing.
She was just starting to picture using their first few days to paint the nursery, wondering what color the walls would be, when she heard a light knock at the door that startled back into reality.
“Y-yes,” she said. “You can come in.”
She held her breath and waited. The door opened, and Susan stepped in holding a yellow sheet of paper. She offered a wan smile – one that quickly fell, and closed the door softly behind her. Justine didn’t need to wait for the result.
Six months became seven.
Justine sat by the window of the room Jared had turned into her own private library, staring through the door to the room across the hall, the one that had been earmarked as a nursery.
The only noise in the house came from just down the hall, where Jared was cursing at something under his breath. He appeared a moment later, adjusting the sleeves of his sweatshirt. No matter the weather, the man was incapable of dressing appropriately.
“This shouldn’t take too long,” he said. “I should be back in an hour or so. Hour and a half tops.”
She nodded an affirmative, and then looked past him into the empty space. The sun was getting low in the afternoon sky, and it bathed the room in gold.
“Hey, is everything alright? You’ve been kind of quiet today.”
Justine swallowed hard. “I took a pregnancy test the other day.”
“Oh,” he said. “I’m guessing it was negative.”
“No. No, this one was positive.” She met his eyes for a moment, and then looked back at the empty room. “So I called my doctor, did all the tests. The one they did in the office came back negative, but I thought maybe that one was wrong. Got the call with the results of the blood test this morning.”
Slowly, she shook her head.
There wasn’t room on the chair for another person, so instead Jared took both of her hands and knelt in front of her.
“Cal, I’m so sorry.”
“I didn’t want to tell you because I didn’t want you to get your hopes up. I figured if it was just me-“ Her statement ended in a shrug.
“Trying to carry something like this on your own never ends well. Trust me, I’ve got a lot of first-hand experience in that department.”
“This sucks, Jared. And the worst part is that there’s nothing we can do. We just have to wait, and cross our fingers, and hope it all works out. I’m trying not to let it get to me, even told myself that it was going to take time, but…”
“But it’s hard not to hope.”
“Right?” She sniffed back tears. “And even if we can’t get pregnant and end up adopting, how long is that going to take? Years? Jesus Christ, how do other people do this?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I know this doesn’t change anything, but we’re not alone. There are other people, other couples… I bet everyone else who was at that info session has had this exact conversation. Trying to start a family… I think most people take it for granted, just expect that it’s easy because people are supposed to make more people, but…”
Justine pushed herself to her feet and stepped past Jared towards the door, leaning against the frame and staring across the hall.
“I’ve been thinking maybe we should close the door to that room,” she said. “For a little while, at least. Every time I walk by it I start thinking about everything that belongs in there, but it’s still just an empty space.”
She closed her eyes and waited for his response, one that she expected would include a plea to leave it open. Instead she felt a gentle hand on her waist and the warmth of his body against her back.
“If you think it’ll help, then that’s what you should do,” he said. “I know we’re both processing this differently, but we’re still a team, so I’ll support your decision. Always. I can’t promise I won’t peek in there every now and again, but… I’ll make sure I close up afterwards.”
“Thank you.” Across the hall, some of the glow had started to fade, the sun on its way to rest for the night. “You should probably go so it’s not too dark when you get there.”
“Yeah.” He stepped around her into the hall, and then paused. “We should go somewhere when I get back. Like a little celebration. Nothing fancy, just a night out. I think we deserve one.”
“What would we be celebrating?”
He thought for a minute, and said, “Us. Because things are hard right now, but we’re still going. Because that door won’t stay closed forever.”
She pulled him in for a kiss, then nudged him towards the stairs.
“I’ll be here when you get back,” she said. “And Jared… Tell him I said hi.”
Winter had come early to New England, bringing with it an early chill and scent of snow on the air. In truth, the skies could have opened and blanketed the earth in white, it wouldn’t have stopped Jared from making this visit, the same one he took every December.
The grounds in this corner of the Cedar Grove Cemetery were always immaculate, a fact that always caught Jared’s attention. He suspected that it was because the groundskeeper knew there were children resting here, and he wanted to give them plenty of space to play.
The modest stone was only a few feet away from the road.
Andrew D. Sykes
December 14, 1978 – April 11, 1990
His was a man’s courage
In Jared’s hand, as was tradition, was a pastry box containing two cupcakes.
“Hey, Andy. Sorry, but we have to celebrate a little early this year.“ He raised the box and gave it a slight shake. “I’m going to be out of town next week, so I won’t be able to come by on Thursday. Justine says hi.”
He took a long breath and sighed a cloud of vapor into the air.
“There’s something I need to say – something I need to get off my chest,” he continued. “I think you’re the one who needs to hear it.”
It’s kind of funny, I guess, in a twisted sort of way. Last year, back when I was still doing the Berry thing, Vickie Hall got in the way of a match between Hayes and I. Among everything else she took that night was the chance to see whether I could hang with someone on their way to the top. Afterwards, he tried to be a voice of reason.
“We’re the good guys.” That’s what he said, twice. First one was the week after the attack, and the second happened after last year’s Colossus. He’d just won his first Universal championship, and I’d just survived all the wrath Paxton Ray could throw at me.
I’d just put the mask aside for the last time.
Here we are a year later, and Vickie’s at it again. This time taking away a chance at the finals of the tournament they hold in Jason’s honor, and guaranteeing that Hayes and I have to fight.
Andy, I don’t want to.
It would probably sound insane, but this is something I’ve been trying to avoid. By all rights I should want this, yeah? I tried to help the guy, and then he left me laying in Chicago. I said the reason that I’d kept my distance, the reason why I never just popped off and hit him with a chair, or anything, is because I didn’t think he was worth the effort. That he was a “substitute Tyler” with his new friends.
I just wanted him to go away.
I think I deserve whatever happens in New Orleans. Not because of what I said, or because I overstepped my bounds.
I never saw Hayes for, well, Hayes.
What I did see was a guy who spent his life watching this sport, who grew up with it all around him. He saw his heroes on television – guys like Nova – and knew… he fucking KNEW that’s what he wanted to be. That’s the type of guy who runs downstairs every Saturday morning, grabs a bowl of cereal out of the cabinet on his way to the living room, and who loses himself in the spectacle of professional wrestling.
I don’t see him, Andy. I don’t see Hayes Hanlon.
I see you.
And how the fuck do I fight that?
How do I fight the kid who spends a whole week trying to convince Dad that it’s not weird if he goes outside in just his underwear and cowboy boots, because “that’s what sheriff Dixon wears.” The kid that begs Mom to stay up late on Sunday and order a pay-per-view on cable, because Doctor Tornado said he was going to airplane spin Rick Reckless so many times that he might actually start flying.
How do I fight the boy who had me draw him in the ring, standing there in all his glory, so that he could hang it over his bed?
And, I know…
I know that this isn’t fair.
It’s not fair to him, because all he wants – all he deserves – is to live on his own terms. To make his own career. He was right when he said I shouldn’t get involved, but I couldn’t help myself, Andy. I just couldn’t.
It’s not fair to you, because you should be the one in this spot… in my spot. You should be the guy who doesn’t need a Golden Ticket, because he’s too damn talented for the world to ignore. I should be watching you next week. I should be sitting in that crowd, and I should be watching you. And then we’d all celebrate, and we’d go back to your mansion that you begged me to design for you – the one that even has a trapdoor in one room, not because you wanted it, but because you knew I’d always dreamed of adding one.
And it’s not fair to me, because I can’t move on.
Thirty-three years, and that room is still empty, because I don’t know how to close the door. Because I can’t just accept that this is a part of life, and so I’m stuck with this void. This black hole.
Thirty-three goddamn years.
We were supposed to be the good guys, Andy.