The question was gasoline, fretting heterochromia the igniter. A blaze of unease rocked the Tower because he was raw and searching and couldn’t wrap his arms around the last four days. The Red Scare paled in comparison to the domain of his life’s central disaster.
“Brandon…what happened between you and Cody?”
He didn’t want to talk about those things. The fight with his son was its own special brand of apocalypse. The after, though, that was even worse.
“I made Phil Atken…” Brandon’s tone was measured, gravelly. Amber and orange flickered from the bed of fir logs tent posting the fire, the features of his face prominent while the periphery ebbed into shadow. A simple layered hoodie, flecks of conifer pulp strewn across. Seated, his palms rested on his jeaned haunches. “Over a decade older than me, but it’s not about age. It’s about who you owe your life to. You financed him, Cecil. You provided the seed money. Without your resources, his belly aches while he stares through his wife and children. It should be you he owes everything to. But what did end up buying?”
The faint chirping of crickets, the rustling of leaves, tree silhouettes blotting out the moon. Autumn was in the air in these woods. His right hand planted firm while the left limply relaxed to his side. No matter how he tried, he seemingly couldn’t hide his wince. “I imagine you’re crafting a nice collage of me. A little snip here, a flourish of glue there. There’ll be just enough truth to go with your gaga that people won’t recognize the whole thing screams serial killer mental stability.”
The fingers of his left hand reached for his chin, a vain attempt at scratching his returning goatee. He grits his teeth, needing to base his wrist with his other hand. “This is so easy. I talk about how Greensboro is the conclusion of a vengeance quest. I spend my time and energy reliving that night.” A knowing smirk. “I’ll refer to it as Thirteen. Then, I’ll counter and remind you that the only stumbling blocks your ‘brand’ has suffered since that night are by my hand. That I took the 5 Star away from Julien, making him watch his great rival, Nate Colton, capture the title. That you and Fontaine’s statement moment before Tropical Turmoil was ruined by me. That I beat the original crown jewel of glue so badly that he pissed off to Naperville for a ‘revolutionary startup’ that’s already gone bust.”
Such wonderful reflections. A bottled vintage only for special occasions. His posture rebalances, his left arm flopping errantly back to his side. Beads of sweat shimmer over his forehead like jeweled apricots. “But you…you see five…six…seven moves ahead, right? You grapple the trope, and you break it apart by the joint. Nobody sees it coming because they think you’re too stupid, or too crazy, or too silly. But you’re not getting that from me. What you’re going to get…is an apology.”
The pause is for effect. “And you know why? Because, like I told Julien…I know a fellow child soldier when I see one. ” A shift in his seat. A stump freshly cut. “I know the history of your first real break in the sport. You and Hank, brought together under the scouting prowess of Dirk Dickwood. Dirk would become a manager of champions, but it was you who buoyed his credibility. Dirk. Not Phil Atken. Not the man people believe is your end all be all mentor. Wonder how Dirk feels about this.” Another hesitation to let salience linger. “Probably just a tinge like you when you found out he was trying to sabotage your career in Chicago to keep you as a client. The same way you’ve taken the Factory mission statement and pissed it away.”
His right arm brushed away the sweat of his brow. A stare off to the distance, followed by recentering. “Glue is now force through numbers under you. There’s no products based on opponents. No through line of focus. It’s just…beat down declarations after or near the end of main events. Tired wrestlers jumped from behind.” The flash of disgust is evident, yet subtle movement from his shoulders tightens his eyes. His nostrils flare, his teeth biting into his bottom lip. Seemingly gathering his strength, his gaze returns to neutral. “When Hank spiked Craig’s head off the canvas against Tapioca, it was Phil acting as herald. That one act carried more mystique and aura behind it than all three of your ‘sticky situations’ rolled into one. Because it was calculated. It wasn’t…derivative.”
With his right hand, he reached for the zipper of his hoodie, pulling it downward. “You’re a ‘leader’ out of your depth. Not because you’re incapable. Your accomplishments and systematic psychological execution of opponents shows otherwise. But that was Mister Finish Line. You’re not that guy anymore. You’ll never be him again. And that’s why I’m sorry. You established yourself as one of the greatest wrestlers of ALL times. Your reign as the greatest champion in Chicago history is held in reverence. You’re nearly undefeated in the last few years. And you gave it all up. For what?”
He struggles to pull the hoodie from his body. With calculated movement, he eases it gingerly from his shoulder, softly pulling his arm free before tossing it away into the shadows. “The Viking mother and politics spouting burnout who was background dressing in a New York City gym when you and Hank were tag champs? Some hapless man saying he wanted to be a people pleaser when his actual behaviors and actual actions proved otherwise? A man who, when he came to you all those years later looking for one last bite of the apple, drove a rustbucket, stinking of desperation and spoiled ham? The man you thought so little of that you said he was dead in a ditch?”
It’s only now that the fullness of visual damage to Brandon’s left arm is for display. Jaundice with purple striping across the crook of the elbow up the bicep. Slight ribbons of green with blotches of blood blistering. “Then he fought me. All the fire in his belly, that drive…and he won. He did what everyone but the man calling him a threat thought was impossible. He climbed The Tower of Babel.”
With careful adjustment of his torso, he draws his right hand over his chest, lightly scratching at the gangrenous bicep. “All those resources…that should be partnership. Bathory and Jiles took Atken out, but the reality is, he’s in a wheelchair because he couldn’t recover from his once in a lifetime fight with me. He won the battle but his body and spirit lost him the war. What it did, though, was form a creation myth. One you’ve fallen prey to more than anyone.”
It appears so hard for him to maintain his composure. His breathing. “Your father never loved you. Deemed you a disgrace. A clown. And as much hatred as that creates, it does worse to our brain chemistry, something you can’t wash or scrub away. Believe me, Cecil, the systematic abuse I suffered from my father is something I’ve made public record. I know. I understand. We struggle to fill this part of ourselves we so desperately lacked. Some are able to grow and move forward without. Others go through cycles, seeking people with traits that remind them of their abusers, trying to make themselves whole. Your dad is dead…but when Phil Atken beat Brandon Youngblood…his legacy became that of a Lord in the sport of professional wrestling. The fit was complete.”
A crack of the neck. “Had I won, all your dollars and emotional bandwidth would’ve bought you a partner. But instead? All you got was another father figure. Another one you’ll never be good enough for. Another one who will work to undermine you. Another one who will never stand the sight of you.”
Unexpected violence distorts in its wake, the senses frayed, a questioning of reality. How can two people who just fought maintain close proximity? The unraveling of lie honeycombed so thick that the center is unknown.
It wouldn’t be for long.
Cody stared out the window of the truck cabin, his throat throbbing, bright red turning stripped purple bruising. His teeth ground as he focused on keeping his legs still. The knuckles of his hands were bleeding. His father’s head felt like concrete. It wouldn’t have stopped any of his swings.
Brandon kept his eyes forward, on the dimly lit subdivision roads, nausea filling his stomach. His left arm burned ceaselessly throughout, his shoulder and the tendons near his elbow feeling the caustic kiss of thermite. His son was strong. Too strong. All the blows, the scratches, they hurt more than he would’ve cared to admit. They grow up so fast. All they shared was silence after their scuffle. “You want to talk?”
His son stared out the window.
Brandon hadn’t seen any of this coming when he tried to pick his son up from football practice. The punches. The threats. The hatred. Things had been strained for nearly a year. The explosion was a dirty bomb. “I just want to tell you that I’m sorry, Cody.”
Those words made the young man’s fist ball up.
“I didn’t mean to–”
A sharp cut off. “Try to kill me?”
The bluntness hit with hollow point precision. “I wasn’t trying to–”
The truck screeched to a halt. Brandon threw the transmission into park, glowering toward his son. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“Don’t talk to–”
“I’m your father–”
At any moment, the pair could break off into another fight. Everything raw. Naked. Cody had plenty more bullets in the cylinder. “You gonna finish the job this time? Third time’s the charm?”
Brandon’s eyes shot wide. “What the fuck are you talking about?!”
“You’ve always been a lying sack of shit–”
“You hit me! I didn’t hit you–”
“–Everything you ARE is bullshit–”
“No!” Brandon punched the steering wheel, instantly crumbling on impact. The left arm. He’d used the left arm. Anger was a great motivator but lacked as a true masking agent. “Fuck you Cody! You don’t know half of what you’re talking about.”
Two shots landed. This time, he aimed for the head. “I heard you beat mom!” The set up before pulling the trigger. “Heard you beat her up! Crying about what she’d done to you! What did she do, huh? You guys always said it was a lie. YOU GUYS ALWAYS SAID IT WAS A LIE!”
“That twitch of your eye when in his presence? How you execute the same game plans as he watches on high? Begging, pleading for affirmation. Walking around, a grown man, trying to fill daddy’s shoes.” Brandon tried to draw his arm up, to flex, his fingers vibrating with quick spasms. “You want to carry his legacy. I imagine, initially, you thought it might be easy. I’m sorry for making it so much more complicated. It’s only after beating me did the ditch man truly become an aspirational monument for you.” An attempt to roll the wrist. It astounded, the difficulty of such simple actions when ligaments are compromised. Only those with intimate knowledge of arm would be so aware. “Phil had plans and purpose. You wear his blazer, but you don’t know how to open the pockets. Hayes asks you about plans. Your teeth chatter and you chew on your nails.”
Rising from his seat, he disappears briefly, returning only after tossing another splintered log onto the fire, sparks rising from the impact. Youngblood once more taking his place upon his throne. “There is no foresight. It’s all fly by the seat of your pants. And that works when you answer only to yourself. But you took on another mantle. And what have you done? Become a ringleader unable to shed his clown makeup for the circus he thinks he controls. It’s not right. It’s not fair. But that’s the choice you made. And here you are, four singles matches into PRIME, arriving at the very same point as Phil.”
Tisks, as if chastising a dog. “Not for me. The weight of my world doesn’t rest on this fight. I don’t need you to establish myself and make me whole. But you…even if you did beat me…I can’t fill that Phil sized hole in you. Why? Because he’ll lord over you how you did it on his terms. And you’ll act like you don’t care, but the reality is, the looking over your shoulder won’t end. You won’t get that fulfilling hug and acknowledgment. You’ll have climbed the Tower and look at the stars and just feel empty…because you didn’t do it for you. You did it for him. You did it for glue.”
A shake of the head. “God…doesn’t that just make you want to destroy everything about them, Cecil?” A moment of hesitation, but then, both elbows found refuge on his thighs, allowing him to bend ever so slightly, focusing on the lens before him. “There was a mesquite tree on my family’s ranch that was planted in his memory, where his ashes were spread. And as some…metaphorical ending of his shadow over my life…I pulled it up from the stump and burned it. I get how freeing that notion can be. It can be a tree. A hedge maze…”
His smile beams with malice, his eyes glimmering sharply in the blaze. “Hell, it can even be a factory…but it doesn’t really matter if you keep burning, only to find yourself in the same damn spot. Still needing that one reassuring moment of silence against the phantoms in your head. Cecilworth Farthington doesn’t know how to do that, though. He grabs the gasoline as he flop sweats and burns all around him down…and then he rebuilds it, brick for brick, branch for branch, the same as it was before. The very same place. The very same prison.”
Clearing his throat, he scratches his arm yet again, his gaze lingering on the damage evident. The very notion that he could wrestle seems foolish from appearance. But to not even hide it… “You don’t get the benefit of the creation myth. You don’t get to come into the ring against me, claiming we share the same bond of resentment towards this sport because of our pasts. There’s no Phoenix rising for you to couch your love for PRIME as your home. Hell, to you, you’re so unable to understand the plot of your legacy project that you think I’m just another fossil standing in the way of the youth, blocking their path.” His nails gingerly try not to peel the wound layers away. “Phil wanted only Vegas, and getting it cost him the ability to walk. Like it was the edge of PRIME’s existence. It’s why glue is bullshit. Why it’s so sad and pathetic you threw away all sense of self to captain this fallacy. And I should know; I’ve done and meant more to your ‘movement’ than you ever could.”
He rose up, the camera following him as he did so. So odd, like a mishmashed Frankenstein, how much his left arm continued to droop. “PRIME is for the world because PRIME is the best in the wrestling world. He didn’t see it, you don’t see it…but touring the US…next year the world…it was always the plan. The destiny. I didn’t win the battle that night…but the war? I’m still walking. Still fighting. The compass for all. The absolute standard. I’m not a what-could’ve-been; I’m the greatest wrestler ever in the greatest promotion ever. Look at the shiny belt you have. The bounty placed on your head. You hold the championship I am the embodiment of. You can only do, in this tournament, what I already accomplished. Those aren’t shackles around your ankles; they’re something you have to fight to achieve.”
Pawing away at the shoulder, he winced, knowing what he had to do. “And in the end, I’m sorry you won’t be able to. Not for my sake. For yours. Because there won’t be answers for the lost parts of your makeup. You won’t be able to extend the hold of glue over PRIME. And when you go home, you’ll have to come face to face with your worst fear.”
With much effort, he rolled his left shoulder, seeming to snap it back into place. Finally, his posture was level. “Or maybe not. Fourteen months, Financier. That’s a lot of time. Phil took everything you had and used it to pay for one night in Vegas, always knowing he wouldn’t be around when it was time to collect. Your new father figure is coming to Greensboro…and he’s coming to collect his debt.”
Bleeding out, Brandon tried to defuse. An explosion from an opened time capsule. This was why he told Melissa he wanted his son to know the truth. “…look–”
There was no stopping Cody, though. “NO! FUCK YOU! It was about ME! You wanted to kill HER BECAUSE OF ME!”
“I HEARD IT–”
“HOW?!” There was no restraint in the bellow of his question.
Slinking back in his seat, Cody pushed himself against the window. Sickened. He wanted to get as far away from his father as he could. “So it’s the truth, huh? Wanted to come back like you were dad of the fucking year. Did you threaten her again, is that why you’re here–”
A barrage of air strikes, white phosphorus. Indiscriminate. “I hit her! I did! I don’t know–”
“–you piece of–”
Nothing he said would be good enough, he knew, yet it poured from his lips all the same. “I DON’T KNOW WHAT HAPPENED! I DON’T KNOW WHY! AND I DON’T WANNA KNOW WHY! Had I known–”
“You’d go for the stomach–”
“ARE YOU LISTENING TO YOURSELF?! I wanted you to know. When I came back, when I was finally ready to be the man you–”
“I wanted you to make that judgment. But your mother didn’t want that. I’m sorry for what I did. I’m sorry for all of it. I love you. We’re going to talk to your mother–”
“We’re gonna talk to her–”
The give and take was over. “You’re not going anywhere near her. Near us.” Cody’s growls were feral. Territorial. “I don’t want to see you ever again.”
The shift was alarming, but Brandon wouldn’t be daunted. He stood his ground. “That’s not going to stop us from–”
Unclasping his seatbelt and throwing the door open, Cody ripped at his gym bag on the floor, pulling it out with him. There was no coming back. “You ever come around us again…I’ll kill you.”
When the fire fades, the Lords will abandon their thrones. Brandon’s parting words to Cecilworth were more than thirty second past. His head remained low.
Instantly, Brandon drew his head up, looking toward the woman behind the camera. “That’ll do the trick.”
Pulling the small camera from the tripod, Amy turned it off and put it back in its nylon case, kneeling in the leaves in the process. “You sure this is the smartest strategy? Because from everything we’ve seen–”
“Some water, babe?” He asked her. Reaching inside the backpack to put the camera case inside, she pulled a bottle out, tossing it in his direction. He snatched it with his left hand. “Appreciate it.” He pulled the cap off, taking a swig before pouring it over his bicep and elbow, reaching for his hoodie to wipe away the melting makeup and cosmetic effects. “Shit was starting to itch like crazy.”
“You’re literally painting a target on your arm. Your whole strategy is saying ‘hey motherfucker, that thing you’re the best in the world at, I bet you can’t do that shit to me!’ And we both know it’s not–”
Scrubbing away at arm, he wrings it, easily closing his fist. “Yeah. It ain’t great. But it’s a lot better than it’s been in a bit. I’d say seventy-five, maybe eighty percent…” he chuckled to himself. Surely lower. Toradol helped mask the worst elements. “Fact is, he’s too good not to take some piece of me. But with the bullshit going on in his head, I want those two parts of his wrestling identity to put him in a state of confusion.”
Rising from the ground, she slung the backpack over her shoulder, rolling her eyes. “Speaking from experience there, Pariah?”
“Exactly.” Standing up, he grabbed the handle of a gallon bucket of water, dousing the fire to embers. “And while he’s trying to figure out if he’s Financier or Finish Line…I’m going to take those seven moves ahead he thinks he sees and grapplefuck and smash him with everything I got. He can try taking my arm. But he won’t get it. In the end, I’m collecting my fucking debt.”