“Cancer, I’m about to tell you something I’ve told a lot of people lately.”
“I owe you an apology.”
“The last time we met…accident or not, I didn’t win fairly. Far as I’m concerned, I didn’t win at all, no matter how the record book scores it.”
“Do you actually care about that? Probably not. I know it wouldn’t bug you for a second if you’d won that way…but that’s beside the point.”
“I’ve spent way too much time lately, not being the man I need to be. Most of it you already know, if you’ve paid any attention.”
“So…you probably don’t.”
“Doesn’t matter. I know you’re gonna come into this with guns blazing, ‘cause the Almasy always brings out the best–or worst–in you, and that I ain’t gonna see the same guy I fought at Tropical Turmoil or ReV31.”
“But that’s the thing I need you to understand, Cancer.”
“Neither are you.”
“It took a long time, but I finally got my head on straight. Enought to know that the low blow, the cheap shot…that’s not how I want to handle business. You might go faster by taking the low road…but I know where it leads, and I ain’t interested in going there.”
“No…my road leads somewhere else. Maybe to the finals, maybe not…but no matter where I end up, I’ll be proud of who I am, and where I am. That’s the kind of man Seymour Almasy was, and who I want to be.”
“That’s why you’re about to get the absolute fight of your life. You’ve already seen the worst out of me, but now you’re going to see the best.”
“You deserve that much.”
# # #
Since his sudden return to Evansville two weeks ago, Nate Colton had worked tirelessly to earn the forgiveness of those he had wronged. With many of them, he has done so.
But forgiveness is one thing.
Redemption is another.
At the height of the Colton family’s size, there were six people under one roof–seven, when Denny was over. With that many kids, it followed that there were a lot of fights.
Jake and Mallory usually resolved disputes to everyone’s satisfaction…if by that you mean “everyone stopped yelling and hitting each other.” But as the kids grew older and got involved in what quickly became the family business, there were times when things could be settled in only one place.
This was one such time.
The Colton Academy, known throughout the wrestling world for its fundamentally sound students and weird smell, served as the courtroom. The defendant, Nate Colton, stood alone in the ring, looking down at his shoes. Hard not to, with the shoes he was wearing.
His brother Benjamin stood on the outside, next to their sister Jennifer. Between them was a trash bag filled with popcorn, for reasons that might be explained but will never be clear.
They were not only the plaintiffs today, but also would perform the other courtroom duties–judge jury, bailiff, and probably stenographer. Jenny wore her usual practice gear; Benny wore a judge’s robe. He probably had his own workout clothes underneath, but one could never be sure with him. Either way, they looked ready for action.
Nate was also dressed for action, though a completely different kind.
“Is all this necessary?” he asked, gesturing at his attire.
“Absolutely,” Benjamin replied.
“The most necessary,” Jenny added. “Keep bitching and we’ll make you do the grease paint.”
His final appeal denied, Nate resigned himself to suffering through this farce, dressed as he was. How was that, exactly?
An oversized bodysuit in red and blue stripes. A tuxedo jacket, also too large, in colors that followed no real pattern. An enormous polka-dot bowtie. Giant, floppy red shoes. Topped off with a rainbow wig and a bright red nose.
After months of watching their brother act like an absolute clown, Benjamin and Jennifer forced him to dress like one.
“Why do we even have this thing?” Nate asked.
“That was Dad’s Halloween costume the one year,” Benny said. “Remember?”
Nate did, because he started laughing. “Yes! God, he was mad. I thought for sure he threw it out that night.”
“Mom saved it.” Jennifer said. “Brings it out whenever she needs to mess with him.”
That news set off a fresh round of giggles from the Colton kids. “That’s gotta be an all-timer for our group costumes. Are we doing one again this year?” Nate asked.
“You’re stalling,” Benny said.
“I wasn’t stalling, I was–”
“SHOOSH!” Jenny yelled. Nate shooshed, because one must observe the laws of the courtroom…and anyway, he’d absolutely been stalling.
Benjamin stood up, drawing himself to full height in order to reflect the solemnity of the occasion. Jennifer did the same, but not before shoving a handful of popcorn in her mouth.
“Nathan Christopher Colton,” Benny stated. “You have been charged with the following crimes: treason, dereliction of duty, consorting with an enemy of the state, petty fuckery, grand fuckery, aiding and abetting, and making Mom cry.”
“Fuck,” Nate whispered, and blushed with shame.
Benny turned to their sister. “Has the jury reached a verdict?”
“Yeff…shiff, I wuvven rehhy…” Jennifer swallowed a lump of popcorn, while Benjamin shook his head.
“You’re upsetting the dignity of the court,” he said, completely ignoring Nate’s costume.
She tried again. “We have, your majesty. On these charges, we find the defendant…” Jenny took a deep breath, pointed an accusatory finger, and screamed the last word. “GUIIIIIIIIIILLLLTYYYYYYYYY!”
Nate rolled his eyes. “How am I the least ridiculous part of this?”
“SILENCE!” his brother bellowed. “This trial is very serious! Somber, even! Now, do you have anything to say before we pronounce sentence?”
Fuck it, might as well dick around, Nate thought, and responded by mouthing his plea for mercy, but not actually speaking.
“Well played,” Benny said. “Un-SILENCE!”
“Umm…I throw myself on the mercy of the court, I guess.”
“We’ll take that into consideration,” Jennifer said, then she and Benjamin whispered back and forth. They soon turned back toward Nate, sporting a pair of mischievous grins.
This is gonna suck
“Nathan Colton, you have been found guilty by a jury of your sister. You are hereby sentenced to…THE BIG DUMMY DANCE!”
“Oh, come on!” Nate protested. “You can’t be serious!”
“The most serious,” Jenny said. “Big. Dummy. Dance.” Indeed, they both looked very serious…or as much as one can be when saying the words “Big Dummy Dance.”
“I don’t even remember how it goes.”
“Bullshit you don’t,” Benny snapped. “You made me do it two years ago when I took out the mailbox, and you made me start over every time I fucked up.”
“How does it go, then?”
“I’m not the one on trial here! Now get to it!”
“Whatever,” Nate grumbled. This was going to be humiliating as hell…but it was worth it to patch things up with his siblings. If he was ever going to feel right again, he needed to reconnect with them, he needed things to be the way they–
“Are you recording this?!”
“No,” Jennifer lied. They both aimed their phones straight at him, and if Nate knew them at all, this would be all over TikTok within the hour.
“I didn’t agree to that!”
“Should have got a better lawyer.” Jenny said. “Now, dance!”
“Dance!” Benny echoed, and soon they were chanting together.
“Dance! Dance! Dance!”
Nate felt his anger rising. Atonement was one thing, but this was public ridicule…and he’d had more than enough of that lately. Where did these two idiots get off? It’s not like they got kicked out of a locker room, or had their breakup become public knowledge, or got targeted in every goddamn Scandal Sheet article…
And whose fault is that?
The voice of reason cut through his thoughts like a battle axe, and Nate’s outrage faded into something manageable. If he hadn’t been so quick to protect his wounded pride, he wouldn’t be in this mess now.
Just do the goddamn dance. The sooner you start eating your shit, the sooner you finish.
“Fine!” He stepped back until he reached the center of the ring, then hopped on his right foot. After a few hops, he switched to his left.
“You gotta do the arms too!” Benjamin shouted.
Jennifer followed, ‘And sing the song!”
“Gimme a minute!” Once Nate had his hopping rhythm going, Nate flailed his arms in random directions. “My brother and sister are smart and cool…”
“LOUDER!” they yelled.
“MY BROTHER AND SISTER ARE SMART AND COOL!” Nate shouted back. “And I just look like a great big fool!” He twirled around, adding hip gyrations to the mix. Altogether, it looked like an impression of someone getting tased in the genitals.
“They were right and I was wrong!” he continued, flinging his legs out to either side while waving his hands in the air. “That’s why I’m singin’ this dumb old song!” On one of his turns, he saw Jenny desperately stifling her laughter, while Benny had given up on filming and just enjoyed the show.
“I should have listened when they said…”
Nate almost stopped–fuck me, I forgot about this part–but quickly recovered, adding more flailing of all his limbs. “I should take these rocks out of my head!” He bonked his forehead with his palm a few times…completely divorced from the meter of the song, just like all the other motions. It couldn’t be a good dance; that would defeat the purpose.
He spun around one more time, adding in extra butt wiggles. “Instead I’m doing the Big Dummy Dance…” And finally, a few deep squats to close it out. “‘Cause I’m a big dummy with poopy pants!”
In unison, the other two blew raspberries; a fitting end to the song.
The younger Coltons let go of their laughter, and Nate joined in. It had been humiliating at first, but by the end he was actually having a lot of fun. Should have done this in the first place, he thought. Would have saved me a lot of trouble.
Hindsight’s a bitch, ain’t it?
His penance complete, he presented himself once more to the magistrates. “Have I pleased the court, your honors?”
They looked at each other, shared a few whispers, and then…
…they threw popcorn at him.
“You suck! Juggle something!”
“Hit yourself with a pie!”
“Make a balloon animal!”
“Balloon animal?” Nate yelled back, in entirely mock outrage. “Yeah, I can do that!” He mimed a series of intricate pulls, pinches, and twists, even sticking his tongue out in a show of concentration. Finally, with a flourish he presented…his middle finger.
“Bravo,” Benny said while applauding–the elaborate finger was an art form well appreciated in the Colton household. “The lock twist was a nice touch. I give it a nine.”
“Seven,” Jenny said. “I like the creativity, but I got bored in the setup.”
“That said, you have served your sentence, and may rejoin polite society.”
Their sister nodded in agreement. “We’ll add you back into the group chats later.”
Nate quipped, “I thought you said polite society,” and got another handful of popcorn in his face. “Thank God. Now I can get out of this stupid thing and…”
Benny cut him off. “Welllllllllllll…not quite yet.”
“Really?” Nate asked, starting to lose his temper again. “I did the damn dance, I thought we were square.”
“Oh, you’re square with us,” Benjamin replied. “But not with him.”
Heavy footsteps echoed through the gym, and Dennis Colton emerged from his unseen hiding place. He made a beeline for his cousin, and Nate’s blood ran cold when he saw the look in the man’s eyes.
Dennis rolled into the ring and took a position only a few steps away from Nate. Easily within striking distance, especially with his long, club-like arms.
“Nathan,” he said. His voice was calm and even, and one could be fooled into thinking that was a good sign. “We should talk.”
“Can I at least take this clown suit off first?” Nate asked.
“You gonna stop doing clown shit?”
“I…can’t promise that.”
“Oh shit!” Benny said, still at ringside. “Big man is laying down the–”
The words died in Benny’s throat as Denny turned toward him and glared. He motioned to Jennifer, then they both backed away, dragging the popcorn bag with them.
Dennis faced Nathan again. Though he remained silent, words hung in the air between them. They were the words Nate said, in the back room at Troy Combat Systems in Las Vegas.
“Stay the fuck out of this, Dennis! You’re only attached to our dad because you don’t even KNOW–”
Even heavier were the words Nate didn’t say, because Benjamin cut him off before he had the chance.
Nate hung his head as he thought of it. “Denny, I am so–”
Denny had a way of speaking when he was angry. He wouldn’t raise his voice, but there would be a force behind it. Like he wasn’t making demands or giving orders; he just told you how it was going to be. Rumor had it that he even did it to Mallory once…and it worked.
“Those early…” Dennis began, but quickly stopped. “All right, lose the nose and wig. That shit’s distracting.”
Nate obliged, casting the offending items into the corner, then waited for his cousin to speak again. When he did, every word hit like a brick.
“Those early years were…really bad for us. I know we all had it rough, with Uncle Jake being on the road. So many times you had to watch him leave, and have no idea when he’d come back.”
Nate knew what was coming next, but that didn’t make it easier to hear.
“But at least you knew he would.”
Pack your bags, Nathan. You’re going on a guilt trip.
None of this was new to him; Nate had long been aware of his cousin’s…unique situation. But that wasn’t the point.
“I’ve never met him. Mom won’t talk about him. If you believe some people in this town…”
Dennis scowled, refusing to give those rumors any more thought than necessary.
“I know it’s not my fault, but that doesn’t make it hurt less when someone asks what my daddy does for a living and all I can say is ‘I don’t know.’ Or when some kid says ‘bastard’ in the middle of Social Studies and the whole classroom looks at me. But hey, at least they weren’t teasing me for being poor.”
I remember that shit too. All the fights you got into…if you hadn’t gotten help, you woulda wound up in prison.
“Now, we owe your folks a lot. Aunt Mal looked after me so Mom could work, and Uncle Jake always made sure we were taken care of. I know he would have done more if it weren’t for my mom’s pride. But seeing you all move into your nice new house while we still lived in a shitty trailer on the edge of town, and being left alone when you went to visit your mom’s side…well. It made me feel…less. Like I wasn’t as much part of the family as the rest of you…or maybe not at all.”
“None of this is news,” Denny continued. “So that’s why I can’t understand why you used that to attack me. Yeah, you were all twisted up, but that’s no excuse. And if you really feel like I’m not a real part of your family…then I wonder if I even want to be.”
I wish you’d have just beat the shit out of me. Would have hurt less.
Dennis finally fell silent, but Nate could see the pain under his cousin’s normally stoic expression. Even for the strongest, some burdens are too heavy.
Nate carefully assembled a response in his head. A single wrong word, and he might lose his cousin forever…a loss too great to bear.
Just the right words, Denny.
The ones you deserve.
“Dennis…” he started, “…what I said was fucked up and awful, and I wish to God I could take those words back. That I ever made you feel like that, and for such a stupid reason…Jesus, I’m so goddamn ashamed.”
If he was getting through, he saw no sign in Dennis’ face. If anything, he was finding it harder to look his cousin in the eyes. Yet he continued.
“You and Aunt Lila…you’re the bedrock, man. Hell, there was about a year where I thought you and Benny were twins, the way you ran together. You’re closer to my brother than I’ll ever be. Even beyond that…every birthday, holiday, camping trip, whatever…it wasn’t for real until you got there. Anything with Mom’s family, no matter how well it goes, we always say it would be way better if you and your mom were there. So don’t ever go thinking that you don’t count as family. ‘Cause without you guys, there ain’t no family. Couldn’t imagine one without you, and I don’t want to.”
The bigger man thought for a moment, and though he didn’t speak, Nate could see his expression softening. The hateful words Nate shouted back at TCS still hung in the air…but they seemed a little lighter now.
“Mom’s canning vegetables this weekend,” Denny said at last. “Normally I’d help, but we’ve got work in Las Vegas.”
Nate understood the implication. “I’ll be there.”
Dennis nodded, and though he made no offer of a hug or even a handshake, a satisfactory conclusion had been reached.
Benjamin and Jennifer returned to ringside, hopeful looks on their faces. “We cool now?” Benny asked.
Denny cocked an eyebrow and glanced at Nate. “It’s a start,” he said.
“Huzzah!” Jenny shouted, and threw more popcorn into the air. It was meant to be in celebration, but most of it still hit Nate in the face.
Soon, they were all in the ring. While Nate stood slightly apart from the others, he no longer felt that way. “I have missed you guys so much. I know I’ve apologized a thousand times already, but I mean it. I want to be better for you all from now on.”
“Awwwww,” Benny said, as he and Jennifer tried to squeeze the life out of him from either side. “We missed you too.” Behind them, Dennis smiled a little bit.
“I’m glad you’re gonna stop being such a big dummy,” Jenny added. “Hope you keep that up with your shitty ex.”
“That’s…complicated. I feel like I still need to–”
The younger Coltons, unconcerned with the complexity of the matter, shared a look. And then…
…Nate was assaulted by popcorn again, as the others scooped it out by the handful and flung it at him. He tried but failed to protect himself, especially when Denny picked up the bag and dumped it over his head. The whole scene quickly devolved into a brouhaha of popcorn and giggles.
“What the hell is going on here?”
Jake Colton, who had arrived unseen, was far less amused.
The kids stopped in the face of sudden parental intervention. “Sorry, Dad,” Nate said. “We were…working some stuff out.”
“That’s what the machines are for. Now quit screwing around. Nate, bring my office chair out here. Rest of you, get that shit cleaned up…and Lord help me, if anyone slips on butter in there, it’s your asses.”
“Yes, Dad,” the younger siblings chimed. Nate clomped out of the ring, making sure to step on as much popcorn as he could and smirking back at the others as he did so.
“The fancy chair, eh?” he asked. “What’s the occasion?”
“Frank Mazurskiewicz is coming in today. He’s gonna look over this year’s class to see who we should send to the Belmont and what they need to work on. Helping with some other stuff too.”
“That’s cool of him.”
“Yeah, Frank’s a great guy. He–” Jake stopped in his tracks, right as he finally looked around and saw what Nate was wearing. “New plan. I’ll get the chair; you take that goddamn thing off and throw it in the trash.” He stormed away to his office, still seething.
“And make sure it fuckin’ stays there this time!” Jake slammed the door, causing the glass to rattle. The noise echoed through the Colton Academy…but once it faded, it was replaced by peals of laughter.
Nate sat down and untied the giant shoes, a warm feeling spreading to his heart. The rift between him and his siblings was mending. Things might never be the same with his cousin…but with a little work, they could be better. Even his dad, who’d been treating him with kid gloves since he came back home, was getting back to normal.
True to his word, Nate would make sure the costume ended up in the garbage…but something told him it would still find its way back to its hiding place in the attic.
It might come in handy again someday.