“Hey, sweetie. It’s time to wake up.”
Mary-Ellen sat on the edge of her son’s bed, tenderly trying to rouse him from sleep. The night had been hard on everyone. The word from the babysitter was that it took hours before both kids fell asleep. Lizzy had been the first to nod off, holding out until close to midnight, but Jared fought until almost 3am doing all he could to stave off slumber. It had been worse for the adults, neither refusing to leave the hospital until Andrew breathed his last.
Jared pulled the blankets over his head and moaned. “I don’t wanna.”
“I know. It’s been a hard night.”
“Do I have to go to school today?”
“No.” A lump formed in her throat. The hard part was here. She reached a gentle hand to the blankets and slid them from her son’s face. “But there’s something I need to tell you.”
“Is… Is he gone?”
“Jared, I’m so sorry,” she said, tears streaming down her face. “I’m so, so sorry.”
“The doctors did everything they could,” his father said. Kevin stood by the wall leaning against a bookcase. While his mother wore her heart on her sleeve, Jared’s father was often emotionless and indecipherable. His expression that morning was impossible to read.
“It’s going to be okay, baby. It’s going to be okay.” Mary-Ellen reached for her son, but Jared was already on his feet.
“You.” The word was a curse, a threat leveled at his father. “You promised.”
“There was nothing any of us could do,” Kevin said. He took a step away from his perch by the wall. “Nothing we could-”
“You promised!” Jared screamed. He struggled against his mother, trying to free himself from her embrace. “Let go of me. Let go!”
He ripped the lamp from his nightstand and hurled it at his father. Kevin ducked and the lamp exploded on the wall behind him in a shower of porcelain.
“Jared!” Mary-Ellen shouted, but her son was already stalking across the room.
“You told me if I got the operation that he would get better!”
The first punch caught Kevin on the jaw. It didn’t hurt him so much as it surprised him, but he staggered back nonetheless. His foot landed on a toy and he lost his balance. When the next punch landed he was unable to brace for it and it sent him sprawling to the floor. Jared was a cannonball of rage and hurt, so he aimed himself at the man who said this would all be okay.
“You promised!” He dove on his father. “You said if I got the needle that he could come home and we could play again and he would be all better and he’s not but you said he would be and now he’s gone and it’s all my fault because you said I had to!”
“Jared, stop!” Kevin cried from the floor, but his plea fell on deaf ears. He was at the center of a storm, and punches fell on him like hail. Most of them were wild, thrown by a boy whose only goal was to hurt, but a few slipped through his guard and found their mark. “Stop!”
“It’s my fault! It’s my fault! You told me I could fix him and I didn’t and now it’s my fault because you said! YOU SAID!”
There were arms on him, pulling him back and restraining him. Jared kicked and flailed as his mother used all of her strength to pry her son away from his father.
“Please, baby,” she said. “It’s not your fault. It’s not. Please stop.”
His scream cut the air. Kevin scrambled away towards the door. He raised a hand to his face and drew it back to see blood. One of the punches had busted open his nose and the blood trickled over his lips and onto his shirt.
Mary-Ellen held her son until he stopped fighting and his body went limp in her arms.
“It’s okay, baby,” she said. “It’ll be okay.”
“I hate him,” Jared whined. The words were barely above a whisper. There was nothing left, all his energy spent. “He lied and it’s all my fault.”
“It’s all my fault.”
Jared tried to pull himself up a second time, but once again his body failed. The ropes provided no leverage, only something to lean against as he slid back to the canvas. There was a searing pain in his right shoulder and a numbness slowly worming its way down his arm. He had Xavier Kannon to thank for that, reawakening an old wound in the first match of the night. With no strength on his dominant side, he reached out with his left hand and saw for the first time the state that Kingsley’s assault had left his fingers in. At least one was broken. Two more had been dislocated.
It was academic now. Only a matter of time before this ended. If he was lucky he might leave this match with his life. Or maybe he would fare the same as Coral Avalon did in his fight with the Pit Viper earlier in the evening, his career presumedly ending when a piledriver from the ring apron spiked him onto the exposed concrete floor.
Kingsley grabbed Jared by the wrist and every muscle in his right arm screamed as he was pulled up to his feet. The end was coming, there was no way around it now. Terrence Kingsley was moments away from ascending to the pinnacle of that god-forsaken company. Another monster in the long lineage of tyrants. He drew Jared in, but reflex took over. Self-preservation instincts flared. Desperate to escape the nightmare, Jared had put the last of his energy into countering with a flash roll-up.
Three seconds passed, and the New Jersey crowd erupted.
It was on her way back from the laundry that Justine noticed that the door to the room where Jared locked away the relics from his career had been left open. She was aware of the space, knew that everything within it had been filed away, but the door was usually left closed. She set the basket down and let curiosity take over.
One of the boxes had been taken down from its place on the shelf and left open. Resting just inside was a small metal tin, the perfect size to hide a ring box. Its lid sat a few inches away. She smiled as she joined the two pieces back together, but then something else caught her eye. The stack of envelopes were all the same size and shape, each one feeling like it contained a piece of heavy card stock inside. Each bore a return address naming the Kensington Foundation as the sender.
None of them were open.
Beside them, wrapped in an old towel, Justine saw the only world title equivalent that her love had ever won over the course of his career: the Sin City Championship Wrestling Universal title. She’d seen him carry this belt only once before, on the day that he’d brought it to the gym where they’d both cut their teeth as trainees. She remembered it having a nameplate then, one of the many details she recalled from that afternoon, and one of the few that she hadn’t worked very hard to forget. Now the plate was missing, and in its place were two empty screw holes and a series of haphazard scratches.
She pulled the belt free from its nest, deciding on the spot to bring it upstairs and ask about it when Jared got home.
Justine left the room and set the strap down in her laundry basket, but something inside that room called to her. The siren song of the envelopes was too much to overcome. Knowing full well that it might lead to an argument, she nonetheless tore the first one open.
Nigel Kensington, PhD. & Sin City Championship Wrestling cordially invite you to the First Induction Banquet to honor Clinton Sage…
Her interest piqued, she opened a second and found near-identical wording.
Nigel Kensington, PhD. & The Kensington Foundation cordially invite you to the Second Induction Banquet to honor Jonathan G. Rhine…
And a third.
Nigel Kensington, PhD. & The Kensington Foundation cordially invite you to the Fourth Induction Banquet to honor Kathleen A. Campbell…
She collected the remaining envelopes and added the pile to the basket.
There were difficult questions ahead.
A cloud of invectives hung in the air over the house.
His left hand was useless. There were too many bandages holding the splints in place for him to get any sort of leverage on the belt that sat in front of him. He’d woken up early, careful to not disturb Amy. He’d scribbled a note in case she awoke while he was out, but that only worked if he didn’t get caught in the basement with a desk full of tools and his newly won prize on the surgeon’s table. They’d grown close over the last year, shared some of their darkest secrets with each other, but having to explain what he was up to this early was a conversation Jared would prefer to avoid. Some details were still too personal. He needed to hurry.
For the next ten minutes he struggled over his work. The Sin City brass had refused to etch his full name. No one had their full name inscribed, they said, so a compromise was made that they would at least include his middle initial. ‘Jared A. Sykes’ would have to do. It would be up to him to perform the rest of the alterations.
A thin film of sweat gathered at his forehead as he chipped at the nameplate with his screwdriver. Despite owning the house for over a year there had never been any need to get proper tools, and it was far too early for the hardware store to be open, so the basics would have to suffice. But progress was slow-going, and he was hampered as well by the strength of his right arm.
Jared pressed hard and the tool gouged a line across his first name but got caught in the arc of the letters and he lost control. When the tip of the Phillips-head dug into the bandaged joint of his index finger he had to bite his lip hard enough to draw blood to hold back a cry of pain.
Almost done now, just a little bit more.
I walked into the house to find my life on display in the middle of the living room. Cal sat on the couch with her elbows on her knees as if she’d been waiting for me to come home and find this. I didn’t ask how long she’d been sitting there, but I expected it had been a few minutes.
“So I hope you’re not mad,” she said, “but I may have gone through some of your very old mail. I don’t know what the statute of limitations is, but I think technically I might have committed a felony.”
She held her hands out towards me like someone waiting to be handcuffed, but all I could see was the glint of sunlight reflected off her ring.
“You’re good,” I said.
“For the record I didn’t really mean to go looking, but someone left the door to their super secret stash wide open and I couldn’t help myself. It was a smart hiding spot though.” She held up her left hand and wiggled her fingers. “I never in a million years would have expected to look for this there.”
“Because you didn’t think I’d ask you, or because you thought I’d have hidden it somewhere else?”
“Oh, I’d been waiting for the question for a while now, but I did start to wonder whether or not you were ever going to pick up on all the hints that I’d been putting out there.” She bit her bottom lip and I almost melted into the carpet. “I mean some of them weren’t subtle.”
“Yeah, but I get hit in the head a lot.”
She patted the spot next to her on the couch then picked up a stack of Hall of Fame invitations, all of which she’d opened in the time that I’d been out of the house. Clinton Sage. Jason Cruise. Jon. Amy. Hell, even Wyatt had his name enshrined, because that’s the sort of thing that happens when you win the Universal Championship twice.
“Lot of names in here that I recognize,” she said, and gently waved the envelopes.
“Can I ask you something? How come you never opened any of these? Did you go to any of the ‘induction banquets’, or whatever?”
“I was there when Sage got in,” I said. “Cruise, too.”
Of course, we were all there for that one, since it was the first such ceremony in the company’s history. It took place in late 2010 right before most of the top of the card left for other, far greener pastures. What I remember most about that night is how utterly alien I felt sitting in that room, how little I felt like I belonged.
“And the rest?”
“They happened after.”
I didn’t need to specify what that meant. She knew. Every other invitation had been received after February 2011. After Wyatt and I had our meeting on the catwalk in Las Vegas.
“I couldn’t help but notice there’s a name missing from all this,” she continued. Justine stacked the envelopes into a neat pile on the table in front of her. “One that I honestly expected to be there.”
“If you’re thinking about me, then I’m going to recommend we go to the emergency room and get you a CT scan immediately.” She didn’t laugh, and she didn’t move on to the next subject, which meant that I apparently wasn’t done answering. “The short version is that the guy who owned the place, Nigel Kensington, didn’t really like me very much. Never did. Flat out told me that he ‘didn’t get me’, so I would always have a ceiling. Part of why despite being there for almost three years it never felt like home.”
“And what about this?” She slid the title belt closer to me on the coffee table and tapped at the scratches where the name plate used to be. “Is that why this part is missing?”
“No. That’s… That’s for a different reason.”
The car rolled to a stop just as the sun had burned away the last of the morning dew. The spot was familiar, though he wasn’t used to seeing it outside the dying days of late fall. Two objects rested on the seat beside him: a metal serving spoon he’d taken from the kitchen and the nameplate he’d unscrewed minutes before rushing out the door. A speck of blood had dried along the edge from when he’d jabbed himself with the screwdriver, and he took a moment to rub it away with his good hand.
With a final nod of affirmation, Jared shut off the engine and stepped out onto the grass not far from his brother’s headstone.
I explained what happened and Justine was quiet for a few minutes, but the gears were turning. There were subtle shifts in her eyes. I could see the muscles working in her jaw. But she didn’t say anything, she only nodded.
“It was never mine, Cal,” I said. I don’t always do well with silence. “I made a promise, one that I felt I couldn’t break. There are… reasons for that.”
“Anyway, it doesn’t matter now. I’ll put it back in the basement, and go from there. Besides, there are other things we need to figure out first. Joe and Sid, for one. Getting you ready for the battle royal is the other.”
She sighed. I should have been glad, because at least it was something, but conversations about that match always ended in stalemate. The both of us had very different ideas about which of us would be competing. I thought she should have the spot. She disagreed.
“I’m not wrestling in that match, Jared,” she said.
“You say this every time it comes up, but if you really stop and think about it-“
“I officially withdrew from it weeks ago.” Now it was my turn to go quiet. “I didn’t say anything because I knew you’d try to fight me on it, or get me to change my mind, so I figured that one of two things would happen. Either you’d get the same idea and then Troy would be the one to tell you that you were already in the match, or I’d be able to drag it out until it was too late for you to do anything about it. I took the decision away from you, and I’m sorry for that.”
It was a strange cocktail of emotions that I experienced that afternoon. On the one hand, I couldn’t help but be grateful that she wanted me to have the spot reserved for our team, but it’s not how I wanted things to go. She’d had to wait so long to even get on this stage, and opportunities like this aren’t just handed out to anyone. It was ten years before I had my first chance at a world title, but those ten years were spent actively wrestling on the national scene.
She sighed again. “It’s like you said a minute ago. There are reasons for that.”
“Are you going to tell me what they are, or just use my own words against me?”
“I’ve been thinking about a lot of things since we got back from Wisconsin. About us. About my career.” She shrugged. “Maybe a little bit about yours, too. I know you don’t see yourself the way that other people do. I don’t mean the shitheads that lurk online or the Kensingtons of the world. I mean the ones who know. People like Jon and Brandon. Like me.”
I opened my mouth to respond but she raised a hand to cover it. If this was a glimpse into my future then I was destined to lose a lot of arguments.
“People know who I am because of you, Jared. I get recognized on the street. That never happened before. My life is different now. When we graduated from Darren’s there were only two things in the world that I wanted, and now I get to have them both.”
Even if she wasn’t preventing it I don’t know that I would have been able to say anything. She meant her career. She also meant me.
What would I even say to that?
“You said that your mom asked you to start living for yourself, right? Well now’s your chance. So go do it. Go get it, not just because it’s what I think you deserve, but because even though you try to hide it we both know it’s something you want. Together we have the World.” She nodded to the mantle. When she moved in over the winter the replica championship PRIME awarded her joined mine on display. “But the Universe is in your reach.”
“What if you’re wrong?”
She grinned. “They do say there’s a first time for everything, so.”
“I don’t want to fail someone else that I care about.”
Justine pushed a few strands of hair away from my eyes then took both of my hands in hers.
“Go get it,” she said, “because for the first time in a long time, maybe even in your career… You’re home.”
“We did it, Andy. We finally did it. This is yours now.”
His shoulder throbbed through all of the digging, but Jared made it through, finally letting the spoon drop to the grass as he patted down the small mound of dirt in front of his brother’s grave.
“I’m sorry it took me so long.”
He leaned forward and pressed his forehead against the stone. Despite the recent heatwave the smooth surface felt cool against his skin.
This is what he’d left college for, why he’d put aside the inks and paper and foregone the life of an illustrator. All of the days spent training, all of the days spent miserable and away from family on the road. Sleepless nights because the pains of the day made it impossible to get comfortable, and he wasn’t about to stumble into the chemical trap that snared so many of his peers. Ten years of hell had led to the hardest fight of his life, and how he was here, finally making good on a promise he’d sworn as a child.
The debt had been paid. He could walk away, put it all behind him, and live the life he wanted. He could celebrate his own dreams instead of someone else’s.
“Next one’s mine, okay?”