The headache started after she’d left his kitchen. By the time she reached the door it was on the verge of becoming a full-blown migraine. Her anger, incited by the direction the conversation had taken, dictated that she slam the door behind her. The pressure behind her eyes is what kept her from doing it.
Jared didn’t follow her, and for that she was grateful. As irritating as he could be, the things he’d said rang true. She did twice vanish from his life without warning, and neither time had made any effort to get in touch or reestablish contact. Worst of all, she had used the memory of his brother as leverage to make him realize that what he was doing every week in Vegas was wrong.
She was crying by the time she made it to the car, when she felt her phone vibrate and slid it from her pocket. The text was from Darren, the man who’d trained them both as young adults and the one responsible for sending her on this bullshit quest.
Cal, thanks for doing this. I won’t forget it.
Hope you didn’t have to run him over.
Or punch him again.
Let me know how it goes after you talk.
There would be consequences, of course. Darren might be disappointed, but he knew enough of their history where he should understand how things might spiral. His wasn’t the opinion that concerned her.
Without a thought she cast the phone aside and pounded the steering wheel until her hand ached. The urge to storm back inside and try to fix this was nigh-overwhelming, but a nagging fear said doing that would only make things worse.
Waiting would give everyone a chance to cool off, to settle nerves and tempers, and then she could try to put the pieces back together. To try and make it right.
Hey, Jared, it’s… it’s Cal. Darren gave me your number. I should have asked for it years ago. I’ve never been very good at this, but there were some things that were said when I saw you that I regret, and I was hoping that we could talk. Please call me when you can.
I’m so sorry.
My shoulder was killing me by the time I made it back to my little space inside the MGM Grand. Sid Phillips – the beefy boy member of Coral’s team, The Winds of Change – was a machine with one speed, and that speed was powerbomb. I got too close on a climb up one of the Survivor ladders, and Sid did his thing.
If you’ve never had the joy of experiencing a powerbomb atop a slide, I don’t recommend it. First, it hurts like all hell. Your head bounces off the ground and all the wind is violently ejected from your body. If the situation goes really bad, then it’s not just air you’re releasing. Second, you look like a complete schmuck sliding the rest of the way to the ground all sprawled out like a starfish while a large man cradles you.
Getting tossed around by someone considerably larger wasn’t anything new. I spent most of my career as a cruiserweight back when people still gave a shit about weight classes, so this was old hat. Thing is, until that night I had never been dropped on top of landscaping equipment. No give to that stuff, I tell ya’.
I couldn’t blame the guy. Like I said, the dude only had one speed, plus I’d spent the better part of the night running around using a rented leaf blower to fuck with everyone’s puzzle. Yes, that’s a real thing that happened. No, I didn’t make it up.
Puzzles. Goddamn puzzles.
I think most people would expect me to be okay with this, given some of the more colorful aspects of my history, and the choices I’ve made over the course of my career.
Oh, Jared’s a human spectacle, so of course he’ll be fine with pushing boulders, and putting together puzzles, and eating whatever wild-ass concoctions that Melvin’s “celebrity” chefs can whip up. Remember the time that he dressed up as some guy’s dick on national television?
And then those people laugh, and clink glasses, and talk about how wonderful Jonathan Rhine is, or whatever else it is that judgemental folks do. Sniff their own farts, maybe.
Fuck all of that.
Rolling boulders isn’t what I put my own life on hold for. Solving puzzles on a slide isn’t why I dropped-out of college. Eating someone’s horrifying bullshit isn’t the reason that I stopped drawing, and decided to get my ass handed to me every week for twenty plus years.
My mind was all over the place by the time I met up with Mark. My jaw was sore thanks to a shot from Paxton Ray, and the way my shoulder moved when trying to take the pack off of my back told me that I’d be icing it down for a few days. I was irritated from the punch, even though I knew it was coming – Paxton had told me as much a week before at Jon’s latest “hey everyone look at how great I am” event. Mostly, I was annoyed at being a spectacle on someone else’s terms.
But it wasn’t all bad. The wins had been hard to come by the first few weeks, and even though I hated being part of the Beauregard & Troy 3-Ring Circus it had led to change in my fortune. As nice as it was to be part of the winning rock-rolling squad, it was even better to win the latest round of bullshit, because I was the guy who sealed it.
Plus, knowing that one of my crazy-ass ideas actually paid off was vindicating, even if I was pretty sure most people would forget all about it within minutes.
Strike that. It’s totally the Troy & Beauregard Circus. Ain’t no way the boss gives that asshole top billing.
“You know, I didn’t think this was going to work, but you really had something.” Mark struggled with the pack. The damn thing probably weighed more than he did when it was empty, and it still had plenty of gas left in the tank. I took it from him as soon as I turned around, and felt a twinge in my right arm. That shoulder was definitely going to be pissed come the morning.
“Yeah, well, blind squirrels, broken clocks, and all that.”
I pulled the mask from my head and tossed it aside, remembering that years ago I’d planned on having one made out of a more breathable material, then recalling how I decided against it because I didn’t expect to wear the damn thing ever again. Whoops.
“Man, he really got you good with that punch, huh?” He said. The kid sounded excited – maybe a little too excited. For a minute there I wondered whether Paxton would be getting a ‘Thank You’ card and a fruit basket from Mark later. “Do you want me to grab a mirror so you can check it out?”
“Hard pass on the mirror.”
“Are you sure? It’s already starting to swell.”
“I’m sure.” I didn’t need to see it. There was a throbbing through my cheek and down the jawline that let me know chewing would suck for a few days. Maybe I’d just fill a bathtub full of frozen peas and spend the next day face-down in tiny, thawing vegetables. Or maybe not. I don’t want to think about where I’d be finding peas if I went that route.
Mark crossed the room and held out my phone.
“This thing’s been going crazy,” he said. “Did your number get posted online somewhere?”
I started to answer; started to say that while it happened once, that was 18 years ago and I’d since had the number changed. Besides, I knew who it was. The same number I’d been letting go to voicemail since I flew back to Vegas after things in my kitchen got a little heated. A handful of voicemails, a half-dozen texts, and zero replies. I concede that I probably overreacted in ignoring it all.
As if the phone could read my mind, it vibrated in my hand.
“Can I get a few minutes, Mark? I think I actually have to take this.”
He nodded and slipped out of the room, damn near tripping over the mannequin as he went. I took a breath and closed my eyes. Couldn’t ignore it forever. Brave heart, Jared, ‘ol boy.
It caught her off-guard when Jared had suggested meeting on holy ground, as if they were planning an armistice to broker a truce between them. The idea reminded her of a movie her brothers had been obsessed with growing up, where immortals who dueled with swords were incapable of fighting on consecrated land because of some ancient law. There were wrestlers in that movie. When she looked up the address later in the day and found that Holy Grounds was the name of a coffee shop in a desanctified church it all made sense. Still, she thought, the boy did have a flair for the dramatic.
The plan was to get there early, and find a table before he was scheduled to arrive. This way, when he finally did walk through the door, the difference in height would give him a sense of control. It was one of Jared’s own tricks, one that she’d seen him use when meeting new students at Darren’s, or when talking to kids at events. She’d never attended one of these herself, but the internet had a way of cataloging and preserving even the most minute details in the life of a pseudo-celebrity, especially when that person had a tendency to carry a garden gnome to the ring, or steal construction equipment, or parade around as ruler of the produce section.
Arriving ahead of time had a second benefit: she could take the time to rehearse what she wanted to say, to compose her thoughts. That plan evaporated when she opened the door and found him at a table in the corner, under a stained glass depiction of an angel with its head bowed.
Now or never, she thought, and willed herself to join him.
“You’re here early,” he said.
“So are you. Thought I was going to be the first one.”
He offered a wan smile. “I had to be. If I stayed at home any longer I’d have just started thinking of excuses to stay there.”
“Yeah,” she sighed, and took a seat across from him. “Look, Jared, about what happened at your house, I-”
“Cal, you don’t have to.”
“It’s sweet of you to say that, but I need to do this.”
“Seriously, you really don’t.”
“No, I really do.” This time, when it looked like he was about to interject, she didn’t give him the chance. “I owe you an apology for what I said, and how I acted. I owe you an apology for a lot of things.”
I went in with a plan. Like most of my plans – leaf blower versus puzzles notwithstanding – it wasn’t very good, but at least it was something. In its simplest form it was as follows: go early, find a corner to sit in, and try to not have a panic attack. Some aspects of adulting, like the ones where two grown people actually talk about things like feelings and emotions, scare the hell out of me. It’s the anticipation, I think. The waiting, and the guessing, and the wondering are all murder, and as I sat at the table that morning I died a slow, agonizing death.
“Here’s the thing about that,” I said, “you weren’t entirely wrong.”
Cal was making that face – the same one most people make around me. It’s the expression a dog would make if its owner tried to teach it the foundations of chemistry.
Okay, so this is the periodic table of elements. Over here we have the alkaline earth metals. These are the noble gasses, the metalloids, the actinides, and seriously this is important information so please stop licking yourself, yeah? I’m trying to talk about the many benefits of strontium.
“He wouldn’t, okay? He wouldn’t want this for me. My brother, Andy, he…” At that particular moment, nothing on earth was as interesting as the empty mug in front of me. I focused on it, locked-in, like it was the only thing in the world, because god help me if I look up. God help me if…
Her hand on mine, and the castle walls buckled.
His hand twitched under her touch, but he didn’t pull away.
“I think about that all the time, especially lately.” He didn’t look up. “About what he would think. Not because of the dumb shit I do, but, like, what would he think about me doing this at all. I’m not talking about accomplishments or anything, just… Cal, you’ve got three brothers. What would you think if one of them put their life on hold to chase something that you wanted?”
“I’ve never really thought about it, I guess. I might be proud, because someone thought enough of me to want to do that, but…”
“Yeah.” He cast a glance in her direction, lightning quick, and shrugged. “The ‘but’ here is a real killer.”
“But I think I’d be a little disappointed.”
“Yeah,” he sighed.
“Because I’d think he was missing out on his own life.”
“That’s what I’ve been wondering,” he said, “whether or not I actually would have disappointed him by trying to be what he wanted to be. Dedicated everything I have to it. Might have been the wrong decision.”
He nodded slowly, and she held tighter to his hand. She wondered how many people he’d shared this with, or if this was something that he’d been so used to carrying that it no longer registered. Something so old and ingrained that it had become mundane, an afterthought – like brushing your teeth, or tying your shoes.
Neither of us said anything for a while. We just sat. At some point a water set down a mug in front of Cal, then refilled mine. Beyond that it was just us. Getting that deep wasn’t part of the plan, but as I said before the plan was trash. At least I’d managed to avoid the panic attack, so that was a plus.
“Are you happy, Jared?”
So. About that panic.
“I want you to be honest with me.”
“Sure. The group I’m part of just won our last challenge. Got to put a puzzle together, and renting a leaf blower turned out to not be a terrible idea. It’s a rare day when an idea is successful. The validation was nice.”
She leaned over the table and tried to make eye contact, so I focused on the cup, the stained glass angel, a large man whose shirt was a graveyard for muffin crumbs, and oh look I didn’t realize there was a mural on the ceiling, isn’t that fascinating – anything I could find to not get drawn in by that tractor beam. I’d never been able to survive it before, and was in no condition to resist it now. Like the Death Star, only not.
What she asked next broke my brain. Damn thing just shut itself off. Hard crash. Complete system failure.
jared.exe has terminated unexpectedly. Would you like to report the problem?
“You know that’s not what I mean. I know I’m prying, but I’m worried about you. When was the last time you were happy? Not ‘puzzles and leaf blowers’ happy. Legit.”
February 2010. Big Bear, California. A spur-of-the-moment trip to visit Amy. Skiing. At least, I tried to ski. A playful slap on the back from her sent me careening down a mountain, because gravity – despite what I can do in a ring – still manages to find new and exciting ways to fuck with me.
Then the aftermath. She kissed me when we were back at her room. Light. Tender. Playful. I put my hand on her waist, and she pulled away. It got weird between us for a while. I planned to leave in the morning, but didn’t get the chance. She showed up in my bed an hour later, things escalated, and we fumbled in the dark like teenagers praying nobody’s parents would walk in and catch us.
“Get it out of our system,” she said.
That night in Hawaii on a Sin City tour. Amy called me to her room and told me she was leaving the company, that she was going to let her contract expire and step away from it all. We’d danced around the thing between us for weeks since Big Bear; around the tension. So I listened to what she had to say, then I got brave and laid my feelings bare.
The first date – the first real date – that I’d had in four years. Nothing fancy, nothing extravagant, just two people talking on a beach at sunset. The last time I’d truly felt safe around someone. The last person I ever felt comfortable being myself around. No judgment, no questions, just me.
No pressure to be anything else than who I was.
Who I thought I was.
“It’s just that…”
I outlasted them all.
No one thought it could happen, no one expected me to do it. Oddsmakers and speculators had me at the bottom of the goddamn list, dead to rights, the first victim of the murderers row Sin City had assembled. “No hope for Jared, but that’s not news.” But I did it. I fucking did it. Desade. Lance Marshall. Baron von Blackberry. Xavier Kannon. Wyatt Connors.
In the end I stood across the ring from Terrence Kingsley. There are parts of me that never healed from that fight. Not just the physical, but bits that still haunt me; that still linger like the cigarette smell in the wallpaper of an old house. Memories creep in sometimes of events I don’t remember, and then my shoulder will ache, or the muscles in my fingers will twitch, and I’ll know it’s real. I’ve never needed to watch it back, never needed to see it and have my suspicion confirmed, because I know.
The final bell sounded, and I held my first world championship. My only world championship. I’d finally honored a promise made in memory of my brother. It was over. Mission complete. I could stop if I wanted to.
I could stop.
She got me. With nothing else to distract myself I let my eyes find hers, and started drowning in a deep emerald sea.
Target acquired. Shields down. Torpedoes away.
Nothing left to do but brace for impact.
She shifted closer, sliding into the seat next to him. If Jared was aware of it he didn’t let on, and he made no effort to move or withdraw. Justine kept one hand on his, her other arm now wrapped around his shoulder.
“It’s been a long time, Cal,” he said. “We’re talking, like… Jesus, this really isn’t how I thought today was gonna go. I mean I didn’t have any expectations, I guess, but if I did this wouldn’t have been one of ‘em.”
“I didn’t know you were this upset.” She squeezed his hand. “I would have never said anything if I knew, Jared. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not your fault. Like I said, you weren’t wrong. You weren’t wrong about what Andy would think, and you weren’t wrong when you asked if this is who I am now.”
“I didn’t mean to-”
His eyes danced around the room for a moment as if searching for something hidden, something secret.
“I don’t have an answer to that question. I used to know. I used to think I knew. But I haven’t been sure since…”
Since the last time I worked out of Las Vegas.
Since Wyatt fucking Connors.