“Final four, bay-bee!”
Joe raised his arms in triumph as he and Sid walked into the lobby of the MGM Grand, an hour after ReVival 8 left the air. The excitement was palpable for at least one of the pair. Despite all odds, despite inexperience and despite everything that had gone against them, the Winds of Change were one of the last four teams remaining in Survivor.
And they didn’t need to be from Kansas to make it.
And despite getting covered in pudding, despite Joe’s fierce rivalry with King Blueberry’s super cool tag team partner, and despite clearly being in over their heads, Joe Fontaine was flying high. The swagger in his step that’d been lost the moment that Baron von Blackberry reentered their lives and reminded them just how out of their depth they were had returned.
“All we gotta do now is beat a bunch of homeless dudes, a couple of grifters, Jared Blueberry, and that cursed Canadian mannequin of his in a blindfold maze, and we got this!” Joe said.
“You’re pretty peppy for a guy that got his shit pushed in by an inanimate object for four straight shows.” Sid said.
“Look, most inanimate objects are not forged from pure malevolence, I’m just saying.” Joe said, “I’m going to consult everyone I know about how to deal with this. I won’t rest until I get through a show without getting flipped ass-over-teakettle by something out of a Tijuana Macy’s.”
Joe froze right before they reached the elevator.
Sid stopped and turned to him.
“Wait, if he’s from a Tijuana Macy’s, does that mean he’s not Canadian?” Joe asked.
Sid regretted asking him anything.
As they waited for the elevator to come down, a pair of individuals approached them. One of them broke off and made a mad dash towards Sid.
“Oh, crap!” Joe shouted, “I think that’s—“
He was interrupted when Sid felt a small fist hit him in the ribs hard enough to knock the wind out of him. He staggered backwards, only saved from getting knocked over by the fact that his back hit the wall.
“Hey, Sidney, how’s it going?” Luna Phillips asked her older brother, as casually as though she were talking to him normally.
Sid responded with wheezing.
Luna was tiny, a girl who stood five feet tall in reality but acted like she was 6’5” just like her big brother. Her black hair was almost long enough to reach her waist, adorned with a pair of rainbow hairpins on the sides of her head. Her dark dress also had all seven colors of the rainbow along its hem. Her fingernails were also similarly rainbow-themed. Girl loved her some rainbows, apparently.
She looked up at Sid with her hands on her hips, expectantly.
Finally, he managed to get enough air back into his lungs to say, “Hey, Luna.”
“Hey,” Luna said. “Good to see you.”
Then she turned and grimaced at Joe.
“Oh. You’re here, too.”
“Hello to you, too, dipshit.” Joe said.
“Your topknot is stupid, dickhead.” Luna responded. She stuck her tongue out at him.
“You take that back!”
“Oh, you wanna go?”
Sid put himself between his short tag team partner and his very tiny little sister, knowing full well that Joe would get his ass kicked.
This was how it was between the youngest of the Phillips siblings and the oldest of the Malone siblings. Since the time that the two families became so closely interlinked, Luna Phillips and Joseph Malone Jr. were at each other’s throats. It was inevitable that any time the two came into close proximity to each other that it would devolve into schoolyard taunts, hair-pulling, and eventually a one-sided beating.
Joe was never on the side that gave the beating. That girl was a fucking black belt.
So no, Joe didn’t really want to go.
It’d turn out even worse than the mannequin.
Before the situation could devolve any further, the other individual cleared his throat and got the attention of all three of them doing so.
“Oh, hey Uncle Dan. Could you maybe call this hellspawn back to the flaming bowels of hell from whence she came?” Joe asked Sid’s father.
Daniel ran a hand through his fading brown hair, and grimaced.
“No can do, sport. I’m barely able to keep my darling angel on her leash as it is.” Daniel said. “She’ll be your problem more than mine in a month, you know.”
“Dad, don’t talk about me like I’m some sort of rabid animal,” Luna said, looking up at her father with a pout. “Especially when I’m standing right here.”
“So, what’re you two still doing here?” Sid asked, ignoring the complaints of his sister, “I thought you left like Joe’s parents did.”
Daniel smirked in the way he always did when he wrestled.
“Thought we’d stay and catch the show,” Daniel said, “We’re heading back tomorrow. Luna’s got graduation soon, anyway, so we ain’t sticking around.”
He looked to Joe, then he looked to Sid, and said, “Hey, sport, I need to talk to Sid for a bit. Cool with hanging out with Luna for a bit?”
“Dad.” Luna complained.
“Uh, no, I’m not cool with it.” Joe said at almost the same time. But he saw the way Daniel was looking at him, and conceded, “I’m thinking I don’t have a choice.”
“You don’t.” Daniel said, winking at him from behind his sunglasses. Sid nodded to Joe, and Joe took that as a hint that he had to be the one to take Luna elsewhere. So, Joe let out a long sigh and waved for Luna to come with him. Luna eventually complied, though the moment Joe’s back was turned, she gave him the finger.
Sid and Daniel stood there for a moment, watching the two of them leave.
Then Daniel turned to Sid and made an offer, “Starbucks?”
Joe and Luna made their way to the District, the part of the MGM Grand that was mostly stores. With the two of them being who they were, they found their way to one of the clothing stores. Without even questioning it, Joe followed Luna into the ladies’ wear, and they began to browse the wares.
Luna was halfway into browsing the skirts when she spoke up for the first time.
“You looked like an idiot, by the way.”
“Thanks.” Joe said, rolling his eyes, “Did it really take you that long to come up with that as a critique?”
Luna rolled her eyes.
“You also smell terrible. God. You really can’t get that banana pudding and fart smell out that easily, can you?” Luna asked. “Then again, you always smell terrible. But this is some next level shit. It’s like you opened a hell gate, and the devil of stench cursed you.”
It was Joe’s turn to eye-roll.
Joe and Luna were like oil and water. They would likely even argue about which one was the oil and which one was the water in their relationship. The oil was wearing a dumb topknot and the water liked rainbows and knew how to throw a mean punch.
“How’d you get your old man to come out here, anyway?” Joe asked. He was also looking through the skirts. Just to look at them. Okay, he was fascinated with the rhinestones on this one. Well, being fabulous often meant knowing how the other side lives. He’s not telling Luna, though.
Luna shrugged, “That cute guy with the funny named called him. Coral something.”
“Yeah. I guess. Whatever.” Luna said.
“He did that with my dad when I got sick.” Joe said. “Wonder what he’s been up to. We didn’t see Baron for most of the last week or two, either, so I had to prepare in a, uh… non-standard way.”
He didn’t want to admit to Luna that he and Sid visited a toy store two hours before the show and bought up a bunch of stuff to use in the event. It didn’t help. He was definitely returning the toy Jobberrangs the first chance he got. Those things sucked. They didn’t do anything to that Jonathan Rhine jerk. He also didn’t even get to use the kendama. He had such high hopes for it when he bought it, too, but he took a punch from Paxton Ray and we all know what happens to plans after the first punch.
“Like I said, you looked like an idiot.” Luna said.
“You’re such a turd.”
“And not like one of those normal turds. I’m talking like a diarrhea dump. A really wet one. The kind you fill an entire adult diaper with, and leave in the office of someone you don’t like.”
“Do you say that to all the girls?”
Luna was in her last month as a high schooler, and while Joe hadn’t experienced her behavior in the classroom, he knew that she was the weird girl. Her only friends were his younger sisters, Celeste and Juliet. Those three were as thick as thieves, if thieves were fashion conscious. Joe had taken to calling them the Rainbow Conspiracy, because said fashion usually involved a litany of colors.
Also, he was the only one who called them that.
“So, I bet you only came up here because Uncle Dan didn’t want to just leave you alone at the house.” Joe said.
“You want a cookie for that guess or something?”
Joe lifted his head.
“You, uh… you have one of those?”
“No. Fuck you.”
“Worth a shot,” Joe said, shrugging. Then he asked with all of the grace of a cat , “Enjoying Vegas?”
“You’re asking a lot of pointless questions today, aren’t you?” Luna asked.
“Asking pointless questions is the point of hanging out, I thought.” Joe said. “Like, I know you’re getting out of high school soon. I’m curious if you’ve got plans after that.”
Luna placed her hands on her hips and walked up to Joe, getting uncomfortably close to him as she grabbed him by the lapels of his gaudy suit.
“I want you to understand something, Joe. You are my friends’ shitty brother, not my friend. I am not entertaining your small talk. I don’t like that you took my brother and ran off to Seattle for a couple of months without so much as a ‘see you later’, and I don’t like that you entered some bullshit reality show to humiliate yourselves over and over again.”
Joe looked down at the tiny girl who could definitely beat his ass senseless.
And then he got it into his head to say, “So, I’m guessing your plans don’t involve becoming a hairdresser?”
Without warning, Luna’s fist connected with Joe’s jaw with an uppercut. He fell to the ground in shock, and a few patrons of the store were stunned into silence.
Luna looked up at the ceiling with her hands on her hips, definitely feeling a lot taller than her height would suggest.
“Stop deflecting,” she said, looking down on Joe as he was sprawled out on the ground, “Don’t turn my words into some joke, you fucking moron. Do you have any idea how worried I was for Sidney? Of course you don’t. You don’t think about anyone but yourself!”
Joe held his jaw, and opened his mouth several times to make sure Luna didn’t break something socking him. The girl punched disproportionately hard for her height. Fortunately for him, he’ll probably experience swelling at the worst.
“Okay, first… ow. And second, yeah. I know.” Joe said. “What’s your point?”
Luna loomed over Joe with her hands on her hips, perhaps another wrong comment away from a combat boot meeting his balls.
“My point is that you’re dragging all of us down with you. I don’t think you ever stopped to consider what Sid gave up to chase this impossible dream of yours. And I don’t think you care. You want to stumble around, chasing shadows, and pushed forward by everyone around you. And you don’t thank them for it. You think it’s all you.” Luna said.
“That’s not true.”
“Isn’t it? How many times has Sid bailed your ass out? And not just in Survivor. In everything. How many times was he there for you? On the schoolyard, how many times did he pick your ass up after he rescued you from the bullies? How many times did he help you study when you didn’t understand calculus? Yeah, he grumbles and complains, but he never asks you to thank him, and you never do.”
There was a long silence.
Joe looked up at Luna, gears turning in his head, but nothing happened. The teeth has eroded away, and left them with nothing to grip.
But before anything further could come of it, a woman walked up to Joe and Luna and cleared her throat. The lanyard around her neck indicated that she was the manager of the store.
“Excuse me. We’d like to ask you to leave.”
Despite the fact that it was night and he was indoors, Daniel Phillips almost never took his sunglasses off. If you ever asked him about it, he’d tell you that his eyes were sensitive. It was a joke that he used to tell people after his informal retirement from pro wrestling: that the bright lights of the squared circle were too much for his eyes.
It made sitting across from him in a Starbucks a little more intimidating for his son than usual.
“Congratulations on making it this far in Survivor, Sidney,” Daniel said.
Silence. A pair of lattes sat between them. The deafening silence between father and son could’ve pushed them out of the way from its sheer magnitude.
Sid spoke first.
“So, what did you want to talk about?” Sid asked.
“That Avalon passed along that your next challenge is some kind of blindfold challenge.” Daniel said.
“Avalon, again?” Sid asked, “Why does he know so much about what we’re doing?”
“Beats me. Couldn’t care less.” Daniel said, “Point is, bumbling around in a blindfold ain’t wrestling. I’m not a big fan of this circus show on the whole. Well, okay, that Jiles fellow is more my speed. Pragmatic. Knows how to push buttons. The horse head’s a nice touch of cruelty.”
He smirked a little.
“Don’t let anyone around here hear that.” Sid said, shaking his head at the admission.
He knew his old man well enough to know that he liked the guys you’re supposed to hate. He saw himself more in people like Jiles than he did in Youngblood. Most people would loathe to see themselves in a man like Jiles. He saw it as a badge of honor. He knew what he was, just as everyone knew what Jiles was – a snake.
The only difference was that the snake that was Daniel Phillips had a family he cared about.
“Whatever.” Daniel said, dismissing his son’s comment, “Look. I don’t really have advice for Survivor. I do have advice about your partnership, though.”
“Okay?” Sid asked, already dreading the direction this was about to go.
“A tag team’s supposed to be an equal partnership. One side makes up for the other’s weaknesses. When it was me and Joey, I was the speed and the cleverness, and he was the power and the technician. It worked until I up and got hurt. Your current partnership, it’s untenable as it is now. You know that.”
Sid looked up at the ceiling.
Man. They really should get a guy with a broom up there, huh?
“Dad, what am I supposed to do?” he asked. “If someone isn’t around to rein in Joe, he’s going to light himself on fire and try to superkick someone. He’d pick a fight with Balaam and get shattered into pieces the moment he gets touched. He’d join a cult. Hell, he’d start a cult. He’s just… he’s going to do something monumentally stupid even by the standards of this place.”
Daniel shook his head.
“I get that. Joey was almost the same way, back then.” Daniel said, “Drove me insane. Probably actually drove me insane for a while, come to think of it. But that’s the thing. Joey could more than handle himself, even when he was doing the stupidest shit imaginable. Joe can’t, can he?”
“He’s getting bodied by a mannequin, so you tell me,” Sid said.
The breath let out by Daniel was a scoff for the ages.
“That’s Joe doing Joe shit. What about when he’s trying to fight the other, non-inanimate wrestlers?”
“It hasn’t gone great.” Sid admitted. “Well, the marbles worked. Not anything else he did, though.”
Daniel placed a hand under his chin, and grew silent.
It was not a good sign when Daniel Phillips was silent.
“Alright. You need to ask yourself two questions,” Daniel said, sliding his sunglasses down to the tip of his nose, “First, do you really think it’s good for Joe if you keep spoiling him? I’m talking you and his folks. The boy don’t act it, but he’s supposed to be an adult now. You keep letting him get his way, and he’ll turn out even worse than he already is.”
How many times did Joe suggest something that he went along with? Too many. This Survivor venture was only the latest in a long line of mishaps through the fifteen years they’d been friends.
“And the other?” Sid asked.
“Are you really going to spend your whole life worrying about what Joe does, rather than yourself?”
Sid had no answer for that question.
Daniel recognized this.
He pushed his sunglasses back up his nose.
“Look, I get it. Joe’s an idiot, and he’s something like family for us. He’s my dipshit nephew from a blood brother. Really, I understand. But you should understand that I want the world for you, and for Luna and Erin, too. If at all possible, I’d want that world to be of your own making, whether it’s wrestling or football or whatever you end up doing with your life.”
The palm of Sid’s hand passed down his face.
He wanted to slam his head into the table. He opted instead of slump down and stare at the latte in front of him.
“The problem is, I don’t really know what I want to do,” Sid said, “I never had a plan that I really liked. It’s been a lot of fumbling in the dark since getting out of school.”
“Well, then at least you’ll feel at home in that blindfold maze.”
The silence between Joe and Sid as they rode the elevator up to the 28th was uncomfortable.
Sid only broke it with a single question.
“Luna punch you?”
Joe’s jaw throbbed and was noticeably discolored from where her fist had connected, “Yeah.”
“Sorry about that,” Sid said.
“Don’t be. Pretty sure I said something she thought was dumb.” Joe admitted.
“I swear on my mom’s grave that Luna is a sweetheart until she gets around you.”
“Stupid Rainbow Conspiracy.”
The doors opened, and the pair walked towards their hotel room.
Both were exhausted after the night’s festivities. Both felt like they needed a second shower after all that banana pudding. Who the hell filled a car with banana pudding, anyway? And who knew that Bobby Dean had the NHL-level goalie skills?
“What’re we going to do about Survivor, by the way?” Joe asked. “Blindfolds and a maze? How do we deal with something like that?”
Sid held his hands up in a shrug, “You know that I only have one solution for anything in this profession, Joe.”
Joe rubbed his face, still wincing from the pain of his earlier ill-fated conversation. He considered the idea of Sid powerbombing the very concept of darkness. No, too abstract.
“Man, nobody’s going to be able to see my fabulous drip next show.” Joe said. “And I hope that rainbow-colored demon didn’t just leave me with a bruise. That’s the last thing I need.”
“Uh, you’re the one that’s getting blindfolded, not the audience.” Sid said.
“Yeah, but I want to look so good that even the time-displaced hobos will be like, ‘gods damn’, you know?”
Sid thought about the next contest more seriously.
They wouldn’t be able to see anything. Neither of them knew how to read braille, so they’d have to study up on that somehow. Sid wasn’t sure how he could powerbomb anyone without his vision. If it was about fumbling around in the dark, though, there were few more used to that than the Winds of Change.
When they reached their door, Sid hesitated.
He thought back to his conversation with his dad.
“Hey, Joe. You know I’m with you until the end, right?” Sid asked.
Joe hesitated, letting the question linger in the air for more than a few seconds.
“Yeah. Of course, man.”
He thought back to his conversation with Luna.