Her teeth felt like they could break against each other, but it was necessary to keep from crumbling.
Cold air bit her cheeks as she opened her bedroom window, stepping out carefully onto the rooftop and closing it behind her.
She slowly took a seat on the shingles, hugging her knees. Blue eyes gazed blankly into the void, despite the stars in the sky.
She wouldn’t crumble.
Wide, bloodshot eyes stared back from the glass of his coffee table.
His muscled frame sat hunched at the edge of the couch, dark hair tousled and unkempt, mustache coarse and scruffy. Shirt long gone. Pants kicked into a corner. Only a pair of black socks and boxer briefs to thwart the full birthday suit. The clamor of the Strip carried in from the balcony, but fell on deaf ears.
The light of the cell phone illuminated his face, sitting flat on the table next to a rolled-up hundred. The screen was all teed up for him. Just a swipe of the green icon to make the call.
His hand felt so heavy.
But he found the strength to glide his finger, and he lurched to his feet.
A ring, and he stumbled through the living area.
Another, and he fell toward the wall, planting a hand to catch himself.
“Hi, this is Gregory Hanlon with Hanlon Construction. Sorry I missed you, but leave your name and number and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can,” after the third ring.
“Heyyy, Pops! It’s your boy!”
He lumbered onto the balcony, all but bare-assed for the Vegas Strip to see.
“Got to see ‘Liv the other day! She had some really interesting stuff to share. It’s probably time we had a little talk about it.”
Nostrils flaring, he paced back and forth, his free-arm matching the eccentrics of his speech, waving about in the air.
“Was it you?”
He balanced himself against the railing.
“I kinda need to know, because…man, it’s been really tough with her all these years…”
He stammered, and took a fistful of his hair, pulling it hard.
“What the fuck did YOU DO!??!?”
His voice echoed into the neon-stained night, and he collapsed into a chair, pinning an elbow against his knee and placing a hand against his forehead.
“What could you have possibly done to fuck her up that bad?? So bad to make her hate her own kid?!?”
The phone creaked in his grip, hand trembling as he bellowed into the speaker.
“IS THIS ALL YOUR FUCKING FAULT???!”
He let it fall from his fingertips, clamping his teeth and glaring out into the neon, the screen cracking as it clattered against the balcony.
“Hey bro, it’s me. Hope you’re good.
“I saw Olivia when she was in town the other day, like you mentioned. We got some drinks, and she got shit-faced like usual, and…
“And she said a couple things, man.
“Anyway, she won’t respond to texts or calls, and I feel like everyone knows something I don’t, and…
“Man, do you know?
“Listen, I know you’re trying to lay low for a bit and everything, but I got fucked up and called Dad, and dude…I’m having a pretty tough time. It’d be really, really good to see you.
“Call me back.
Arms crossed at the chest, Hayes bounced the tip of his sneaker uneasily, leaning against the hood of his white Audi.
The rumble of jet engines barreling down runways provided an uneasy white noise while he waited outside the terminal. It had been thirty minutes since he’d received the “just landed” text. Checking his phone every two minutes didn’t magically force an update. He plucked a stray hair from his mustache with his teeth and kept bouncing his foot.
He choked out a fractured chuckle when Paul emerged from a crowd of passengers.
Hayes took quick steps to meet him, The Brothers Hanlon locking each other in a strong embrace.
“Easy, bro. Don’t go get all weepy on me,” said Paul with a couple quick slaps on the back. Hayes pulled away, a shimmer in his eyes and smile as he held Paul at arm’s length.
“I just missed you, man,” he forced, relieved. “You sure Mom won’t…”
“I don’t care and she doesn’t need to know. C’mon. We’ve got a lot to talk about.”
“Damn, five months already?”
Hayes nodded behind his mug, sitting across from his brother at the bar top of his suite’s kitchenette. He wiped a few droplets from his mustache and set his mug down on the counter.
“I know,” he confirmed. “It’s flying by. About to have our second supershow.”
“Great American Nightmare, I saw that,” Paul replied, pulling from his own mug. “And you’ve still got the Five Star! And you’re up against, what’s his name? Rezin?”
“Yeah, he was part of that scramble at Culture Shock. He wasn’t in PRIME before, you wouldn’t know him.”
“You got him beat?”
“I should, but his style is out of control. A lot of top rope and sneaky stuff. Plus he’s been around for a while in other feds, got a lot of experience.”
Paul tipped his head forward with a knowing grin.
“You got him.”
“Yeah, I got him,” Hayes confirmed with confidence.
A comfortable hesitation. Paul fixed the posture of his lanky frame. Hayes fiddled with the strings of his gray hoodie.
“So what did ‘Liv tell you?” asked Paul, breaking the silence.
“Not a lot,” Hayes replied after a sip. “She was vodka-drunk and being a bitch. Something about me not knowing the whole story. About something Dad did.”
Paul hid behind his mug with an absent nod, Hayes trained his eyes on Paul’s. Older Brother didn’t return the favor.
“You know. Don’t you.”
Paul confessed with an exhale.
“What did he do, Paul?” Hayes pressed, pleading.
A long hesitation as Paul spun his mug on the counter, searching for the words.
“Do you remember our grandfather? Mom’s old man?”
“No, I think I was barely born when he died, right? I don’t think I’ve even seen any pictures of him.”
“Gimme your mug,” Paul replied, standing from the counter and extending a hand. “This is gonna get heavy…”
The Axemen of South Eugene took the field, their purple and white uniforms grass-stained from their battle against the Salem Titans. The varsity boys lined up in field goal formation, breath visible in the cold October air. Tie game. Four seconds on the clock. Thirty yards.
Sofia smiled bright on the sideline, standing shoulder to shoulder with her fellow cheerleaders, shaking their pom poms to excite the bleachers filled with parents and students.
The referee whistled. Ball was snapped. A big boot from the Axemen’s kicker.
A slight draw to the left, and through the uprights.
While the rest of the team rushed the field, Sofia jumped up and down with her squad, screaming and shaking their pom poms in celebration, blown-out and crimped brown hair bouncing from her scrunchy. The bleachers howled their excitement as the varsity boys of South Eugene secured their spot in the playoffs for the 1983 State Championship.
“She never did anything wrong. She was just a kid. Her mom, our grandmother, took the easy way out when she could barely crawl. No brothers, no sisters. No one to really lean on. She was doing her best to just…live a normal life. To figure it out.”
“Oh MAN was I pissin’ ‘em off out there! Got around the pads on one’ve their guards and gave his armpit a purple nurple!”
Will Rivers, the Axemen’s six-foot, five-inch center chortled as he wove tales from his pickup’s tailgate. A small group of players and friends laughed at the 300 pounds of man and mullet, including Sofia, a letterman’s jacket draped over her shoulders to fend off the chill of the late evening.
“The hell you did,” contested Aaron Baker, owner of said letterman’s jacket. “Maybe gave him a kiss and squeezed his ass if anything!”
Another round of light-hearted laughter. Sofia glanced up at Lance, the team’s star receiver. He smiled at her behind kind blue eyes, shaking a mop of blonde locks and carefully placing a hand on her back.
“All I know is the Axemen are in the damn playoffs, baby!” Will raised a concealed beer bottle, taking a quick, brazen swig. “State Championship, here we come!”
A few more hoots and hollers. Aaron slid his hand further up Sofia’s back. She shifted slightly away from its pressure. He didn’t advance.
“Alright,” said Will, finishing his beer and letting it tumble into the truck bed before hopping to the pavement. “Field party at my old man’s place! Go snag some beers and I’ll get the bonfire going.”
The group dispersed on that declaration, Will hopping into the driver’s seat and bringing the red pickup to life. He hit the gas hard, squealing out of the school parking lot and howling out the window. Sofia giggled to herself, making way toward the sidewalk. Aaron followed close.
“Are you gonna go?” he asked, catching her in stride. She flashed a shy smile.
“You know I can’t,” she replied. “It’s almost past my curfew as it is.”
“Even just for an hour or two?”
“Alright, alright,” he surrendered, strolling on the street side of the sidewalk next to her. Street lamps came to life as the sun fell further below the horizon.
“Hey,” he asked, turning to face her, reaching a gentle hand to pause her gait. “You know I like you, right?”
She turned her timid blue eyes upward. “I know. I like you, too.”
“This year’s your last chance,” the charming Aaron toyed. “I’m a senior, who knows where I’ll be next year!”
She offered a flirtatious, incredulous chuckle, then pulled his jacket from her shoulders, folding it up and pushing it against his chest with a wry grin.
“We’ll see. But not tonight.”
Accepting his fate, he could only smile back gently.
“What’s heartbreaking, is that she had to figure it out with him.”
Wishing she had kept Aaron’s coat, Sofia hugged her arms as she made her way down the sidewalk, passing modest households in the South Eugene suburb. Home wasn’t far from the school, maybe a mile and a half, but the October night’s chill was setting in quickly.
Rounding a corner, the disheveled white single story where she grew up came into view.
She slowed her pace, and the shy smile from earlier shifted to a steely gaze.
Barely a crawl, her white sneakers turned into the driveway, past the ragged, weed-littered lawn and up dirty stone steps.
“And I’m sure that man was dealt a bad hand, but still…
“…where does that come from? How do you do that to a teenage girl?”
The snores of her father carried through all corners of the home, light from the television flickering against the walls. The stink of their house was impossible to get used to.
Peering into the living room, she spotted the hulking frame of her father, chest heaving up and down with each labored breath.
The floorboards betrayed her, creaking underneath when she turned down the hallway. Still, she moved forward, fighting her lungs to remain silent.
With her bedroom door so close, she reached for the knob.
The slurred, guttural voice from behind froze her. She turned slowly, facing the looming figure of her father at the end of the hall, leaning against the wall for support. She could smell the stale beer and whiskey from twenty feet or more. Probably further.
“The football game,” she answered stiffly, squaring up and standing tall. Chin up.
“Th’game…” he muttered through a heavy black beard, clouded eyes darting aimlessly across the floor. “Fuckin’ late fer a football game…”
He shoved his barrel-chested body from the wall, taking a staggered step forward.
“Ya weren’t hangin’ ‘round any’ve them boys now, were ya…”
Another step. She stood her ground.
His mouth hung agape, like he had suffered a stroke, his dark eyes clinging to consciousness.
“I ‘on’t b’lieve you…”
She clenched her fists, and set her jaw.
He unhooked his belt and ripped it from the loops.
“What does that do to a person?”
Glowering into the night from the rooftop, she hugged her knees close. White sneakers dug into the shingles to keep from slipping.
And then a terrible howl into the void.
Tonight, like many nights, she would scream.
But not crumble.
Hayes didn’t bother to wipe the well of tears in his eyes. Neither did Paul. Their coffees had long gone cold.
“…why didn’t anyone tell me?” Hayes finally asked, quiet and confused.
“I don’t know,” was Paul’s empty offer. “But you were always a sensitive kid, Hayes. And this stuff went on for…a long time.”
“Not his fault. Nothing to do with it. And not your fault. Nobody’s fault but our granddad’s.”
There was so much to take in. So much for the young Hanlon to absorb, hands stuffed into his hoodie pockets, hunched over in his stool and staring at the ground. Paul gave him the timeuntil his younger brother was ready to lift his head.
“Why does she take it out on me?” he asked, tired and puzzled.
Paul begged his heart to find the strength.
“I don’t know,” another empty reply. “It’s hard to say, and it’s way more complicated. But Hayes, I have seen pictures of our granddad…”
Paul stood and joined his brother on the other side of the counter, sitting next to him and placing a hand on his shoulder.
“…and you look just like him.”
Bathed only in the light of one dull lamp overhead, The Event Horizon sits on the apron of the ring. Deathly quiet, save his own voice. The darkness concealing the mat and the seats. No fans. No crew. Just him. And the Five Star Title draped over the top rope.
“It hasn’t been a smooth ride for us here, has it?”
He fixes his posture, pushing his hands through the thick hair on top of his head.
“Early exits in the tournament for both of us. Cluster matches, interferences, Time Lords, and two guys looking to find their place in it all, just for very different reasons.”
He nods, pushing out his bottom lip in faux-contemplation, peering around the empty arena. He reaches behind his back with one hand, and digs into his pocket with the other, retrieving a freshly rolled joint and a black lighter.
“But it’s funny…” he says, looking down at the joint and sparking a flame, flaring it across the tip. He brings it to his lips, giving it one pull to start the draw, then lets it dangle from thumb and forefinger.
“To most, we probably look like opposite ends of the spectrum. There’s me. Young. Big. Strong as fuck. Easy on the eyes and I shower every day.”
He points the joint at the screen.
“And there’s you. Pushing forty. Small. Squirrelly. Dirt in your nails older than I am and barely able to finish a sentence without coughing your lungs up. But that said…”
He hops off the apron, slowly ambling across to his right, taking his time.
“…I don’t think we’re all that different. I’m even a bit of a punk rocker myself! New Found Glory was my jam back in junior high.”
He smirks, reaching the steel steps before pausing a moment.
“Parents, am I right? And wrestling provided an escape for you, didn’t it? Me too.”
Black dress shoes take a couple of patient steps upward.
“You want to put on God. Damb. Show. At least in your own special way. Me too.”
He reaches the top of the steps, one hand resting on the turnbuckle.
“You feel like PRIME and the powers that be just haven’t taken you seriously. Me too.”
Stepping calmly through the ropes, the Five Star Champ walks toward the center, meeting his belt in the middle and leaning over the ropes.
“And sometimes, you feel like it would be so much EASIER just to burn. IT. ALL. DOWN.”
With a hard, heavy SNAP echoing through the arena, all the lights burst to life, illuminating every corner of the building. More specifically exposing the ring littered with half a dozen red gasoline canisters, all twisted open and spilling their contents, flooding the mat in one giant puddle.
Hayes presents the joint, holding it just off to the side of his face, still pinched in his fingers. He provides a sinister smirk before flicking it over his shoulder.
It spins end over end in a gentle arc, landing dead center in the ring with a light splash…
“But here’s where we’re different, Erik.”
Pushing himself off the ropes, The Event Horizon retrieves his belt, slinging it across his shoulders and holding the straps on either side with each hand.
“…you’ve had a lot more time to get jaded in this business. And buddy, I’m sure I’ll get there. I’m sure, someday, I’ll take enough hits and spill enough blood that I’ll want to see this place crumble.”
He shifts the belt over to one shoulder, proudly showing off the golden faceplate.
“But not yet.
“And that’s where we have our problem, Erik.”
He takes a few steps back and extends his free arm. He turns steadily, and as he turns, the arena seats fill with roaring fans, like a broad brush stroke completing a painting.
“Because I’m just getting started!”
He completes the rotation with a pseudo-pirouette, the cheers and bellows from the brushed-in crowd filling the air with magnificent crescendo.
“I can’t let you burn it all down, Erik!”
The camera floats close, and the Event Horizon lifts one side of his mustache with a confident grin. Right before another hard, loud SNAP silences the arena, restoring it to the void.
“Hey, Mom? It’s Hayes.
Can we talk?”