For a long time, I thought the worst part was what happened in the ring. How I couldn’t fight back against the men holding me down. The way the cloth felt when they held it over my face and started pouring. The way my lungs burned as I gasped for air against a flood of chocolate that robbed me of my breath.
Justine had to watch it all, held at bay by the latest member of Vickie Hall’s weirdo love cult. Nothing I did, no matter how hard I tried to fight back, would get me any closer to her. What energy I had left at that point was all spent just trying to stay alive.
I thought that was the worst of it.
It wasn’t until later that I started thinking outside the events of that moment, because when you’re alone in a hospital with your partner across the country there’s nothing to do but think.
Justine and I were held hostage in that ring, and where was everyone else?
Where was anyone else?
An entire locker room full of men and women just sat back and let it happen. Too preoccupied with whatever-the-fuck-else to lift a finger. Not a single footstep taken. Save for a passing mention on Jabber, not a single word said.
I was still grappling with that thought when the news of the fines broke, and the little voice in my head – the one that’s always wondered what my contributions to this business are worth – was suddenly made manifest.
When Julian Bathory and that other guy took out Phil Atken, the sentence they were handed was heavy. Close to two hundred thousand between the two of them, and that’s not even taking into consideration the fact they wouldn’t be getting paid for their match at UltraViolence. But the match would still be taking place. Despite their efforts, one of them would still be rewarded with the Universal Championship.
Hell, Sid Phillips had been fined after Culture Shock, when he found an inventive way to use an Enemigo as a means to push a boulder. Powerbombs. Until recently, that was all Sid knew. One Enemigo cost Powerbomb Siddy twenty-three grand.
By comparison, not a single member of the Love Convoy incurred a fine that was anywhere close. Sixty-thousand between the four of them. I know everyone gets all up in arms when we start talking about math, but it’s relevant here. Meanwhile, I get to enjoy the nightmares that surface in the aftermath of being waterboarded on live television. I get to have this conversation with a therapist for the next few years, maybe longer.
“I’m hard on you because I want you to succeed. Not because I dislike you.” That’s what the boss said when I stood in her office back in June. That was her response when I asked if I could give a chance to someone who deserved it for far too fucking long.
The reward for Justine was her first major championship, sure. But her prize also included seeing a friend’s career end in seconds. Having her own eyesight threatened by a lunatic with a rusted nail. Having to watch as Vickie Hall reached for another canister.
“I want you to succeed.”
Thanks, your majesty. But if this is what counts for success then I think I would rather fail.
For twenty-three years I’ve wondered whether I mattered to this industry. I know I’m not Hall of Fame material, never have been, but what is my legacy? What value do I have to the company I work for? Finally – finally – that question has been answered.
Not a goddamn thing.
For the second time in as many weeks, Justine found her weekend officially beginning inside the Sunrise Hospital. While the environment was familiar, the experience that brought her here was frighteningly new. Until this summer the shows that she worked had been small, held inside venues that sat a few hundred people. The personalities that lived in those locker rooms were more grounded, down-to-earth; a far cry from the screaming chaos that the hallways of the MGM Grand boasted. Like any other business, those buildings saw their fair share of backstabbing, of infighting and politicking, but in twenty-plus years she couldn’t recall a single incident of someone going out of their way to try and end an opponent’s career.
Now, over the span of two short weeks, Justine had seen it twice.
She paced the corridors on the way to her destination, stopping once to let an orderly pass, and a second time when her nose picked up the saccharine scent of instant hot cocoa and her stomach turned. The reaction was involuntary, the muscles contracted and sent a shock of pain through her aching ribs and the bruised flesh of her abdomen. The memory of watching those people torture her partner was still fresh, lingering just below the surface. It had already penetrated her dreams, where she saw him trapped in a dark brown lake, unable to punch through the layer of glass that held him under until the last of his oxygen bubbled up and he slipped deeper into the muddy depths.
She pulled a hand from her pocket, pressing the sleeve of her sweatshirt against her lips as she stifled the urge to gag, though whether that was from the chocolate or the nerves Justine didn’t know. Still, she held her breath the rest of the way to his room.
“I am so happy to see you, Cal,” Jared said. “You wouldn’t even believe it.”
All the proof she needed was in the slowly rising number on the monitor that measured his heart rate.
The sentiment was also reflected in his smile. They’d been brought in together, but assigned to separate rooms. Her injuries, at least as far as the hospital staff knew, could all be treated superficially. There was some bruising of her ribs, and the concern of an elbow sprain, but nothing that couldn’t be handled with a combination of rest, time, and over-the-counter pain medication. What he suffered ran far deeper, and meant a series of psychological screenings to understand the lasting effects of his assault. His recovery might never end.
It should have been reassuring to see him smiling. It should have been reassuring to see him at all.
“How’re you feeling?” she said.
“Better now than I was a few minutes ago. By like an order of magnitude. What about you? Nobody would tell me anything, and you’ve been kinda quiet since we’ve been here. Is everything okay?”
The agreement was that if they were going to work together and carry on a personal relationship that there would be no secrets between them, only honesty. It had held up well enough until the night that Jon was paralyzed, and Jared made her a promise that he was never going to keep. Now it was her turn to bury the truth.
“I’ll be okay,” she said, wincing a little as she leaned against the frame of his bed. “Feel like I’ve been run over by an actual truck, but it’ll pass. Follow-up appointment next week to see if I’ll be cleared in time for the next match.” She offered a weak shrug. “Waiting game, I guess.”
“Cal, I’m so sorry. I had no idea any of that was going to happen.”
“It’s not your fault. I don’t blame you for what happened.”
“Still,” he said. “You didn’t deserve any of that. I wish there was a way I could go and take it all back, or make it so that it never happened…”
“I’m not mad at you, Jared.” There was the first lie. “Look, I’m… I think I need to get out of here for a little while. I’ve been discharged, and I managed to get a flight back home first thing tomorrow. I just…”
She drew a long sigh, and let her shoulders fall.
“Hey,” he said. He kept his voice low, calm. It was supposed to make her feel better, to try and ease whatever tension she felt. Instead, it only dialed-up the guilt. “It’s okay, alright? That was… that was a lot. What happened last night was crazy. I get it. If you need time, then take time. As much as you need, and for as long as you need it, okay?”
“I’m sorry, Jared. I feel like an ass for leaving you alone right now.”
“I’ll be fine. There are people here I can call if things get hard. Promise me you’ll take care of yourself, okay? Do what you need to do, yeah?”
She was about to rise when a doctor entered the room. This was her cue – a way out of the room before the conversation could draw itself out. Before something might slip.
Justine pushed herself up with a groan.
“Hey, safe trip home, okay?” Jared said. “I love you.”
“I know,” she said.
His eyes followed her across the room and through the doorway before his gaze fell to the floor.
The number on the monitor continued to rise.
All those days in the hospital meant I needed a distraction, so I went down a rabbit hole. Schwartz and Freeman, the Masters of the Multiverse, were next on the to-do list.
It was important to me to get this right. It was critical to me that we survive that match. There’s a date that I circled on the calendar after the night Cal and I won, a goal that I set for myself but never told her about.
Wednesday, November 16, 2022.
Why is that date important? Because getting there would tie us with the single longest tag team reign in PRIME history. Getting there would put her in rarified air among this company’s elite; a record-setter. Doing it meant outlasting the rock stars. It meant having to be the ones to slam the brakes on the Winds’ ascension. It would mean reminding Freeman and Schwartz how very real things could get in this reality.
So. The rabbit hole.
With nothing else to do except wait for someone else to come in and check up on me, I took to the internet. I tried to wrap my brain around concepts it was never built to process. Quantum physics. Superpositioning. Nothing I found made any sense, but damn if the comforting voice of Neil deGrasse Tyson wasn’t going to try and convince me.
One thing did stick out, about the creation of other worlds. The person who explained it described it as if time was the flow of a river. For everything that gets in the way the water has to part so it can flow around it. A rock, a stick, whatever. Each of these represent an alternate reality, a different universe based around the outcome of a decision someone somewhere made. An endless number of realities, all derived from an equally endless number of decisions. Branching paths for every conceivable eventuality.
It means that somewhere, out in the infinite possibility of parallel worlds, there’s a universe where Kenny Freeman and Randall Schwartz make me cross that date off the calendar.
But it’s not this one.
It felt awkward to be on the other side of this door and not have a key card. For the last few months, ever since her life changed at the Great American Nightmare, this suite was Justine’s home away from home; a space she shared with her partner both in and outside of the ring.
She knocked and rehearsed what she was going to say, running it over in her mind until she was sure her argument was iron-clad – until she had convinced herself for the umpteenth time that it was the right thing to do.
The door clicked, then swung open, and there he was.
“Hey,” Jared said. He was smiling, a palpable look of relief on his face. They hadn’t seen each other since she left the hospital ten days ago to fly back home. She told him she needed to work through some things, the weight of the previous twenty-four hours having been too much to contend with. Relief turned to confusion. “They didn’t give you a key?” And then concern. “Did… Where’s your stuff?”
What followed were the four scariest words he knew.
“We need to talk,” she said, and stepped past him.
Jared let the door close, and then followed her into the suite, moving with the slow, deliberate pace of a man on his way to the gallows. “Why do I suddenly feel like I’m about to throw up?”
She didn’t answer, not at first. Instead, she took a seat on one of the plush chairs the room offered and waited for him to do the same.
“I need a break,” she said.
His brow furrowed and then relaxed as he processed her words.
“From wrestling?” he said. “I mean, after what happened I totally get it. I can ask Troy to see about maybe pushing the match back with the Masters. Figure she owes us one for everything that happened, and…”
Justine shook her head.
“That’s… not what I mean.”
“I mean that we, you and I… This isn’t working out for me right now.”
“Oh,” he said again.
“I’m sorry. I know this is sudden, and that I haven’t been talking much over the last week or so, but I needed to figure this out. That’s why I went home.”
“I don’t know what to say,” he said. “I just… I dunno. I knew you were upset, I guess I just didn’t know the extent of it.”
“I was upset. I am upset. Jared, you promised in the hospital when Jon got hurt that you weren’t going to do anything stupid.”
“I don’t think anything I did qualifies as stupid.”
“I know you don’t. But you know that I think that’s bullshit.” Justine leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees. The more she spoke the more she could feel her frustration churning. “High Octane, though? You know what happens there, and you went anyway. Despite swearing up and down that you would never sign one of those PWA deals. You still went, and you went looking to pick a fight.”
“I went because I just watched one of my best friends have their career taken away, Cal. I didn’t get to the ring fast enough that night to do anything about it, but… yeah, you’re right. I know what happens in Chicago. That’s exactly why I went there. I knew Tom was going. I knew Ria would want to back him up. And I know Rezin is capable enough to handle himself in a fight, but I don’t know him well enough to trust him. If Tom or Ria went and got hurt… If I didn’t go and that happened…”
“It’s not your job to protect everyone, Jared. And it shouldn’t be your fucking job to be the judge, jury, and executioner over Paxton fucking Ray. Regardless of what everyone else in this company seems to think.”
He nodded for a moment, digesting the words.
“I love you,” he said. “I hope you know that. And you said you loved me. So, what would you do if I was in Jon’s place, Cal? Or what if it was one of your brothers?”
“That’s exactly what I’m trying to prevent, Jared.”
“I’m just asking what would you be willing to do if someone kept hurting the people you care about?”
“You mean like you’ve been doing to me these last few weeks?”
“That’s not fair.”
“No, it isn’t,” she said. “Do you remember the conversation we had on the plane when we flew to the fundraiser a few months ago, when you said you thought the window was closed on your future? It didn’t have to be, but you kept pushing this…”
“I can’t just do nothing.” He was becoming more animated. “I can’t.”
“Yes, you can!” The words escaped her lips, and Justine was surprised to realize that she had shouted them. More, she had risen to her feet and had begun to pace a steady line in front of her chair. “Because there’s nothing else to do. He’s fired, Jared. You were in the ring with Troy when it happened. The bad man is goneI”
“Yeah, well, maybe he shouldn’t be.”
She froze in her tracks and leveled him with a withering glare. Someone else might have buckled by now, but not Jared. He was too damn stubborn or too damn stupid to know better.
“Are you fucking kidding me right now?” He opened his mouth to speak, but she didn’t give him the chance. “No, of course not. I forgot that this is your thing. Find the biggest, fastest train you can, and then throw yourself in front of it. Never mind what it does to the people who care about you.”
“No. Don’t. Just fucking don’t. Jon might never walk again. How does that not fucking register with you?”
“It does, I just-“
“Just what? What do you need to prove? And who the fuck do you think you’re proving it to?”
She barked a laugh.
“Then maybe what everyone says about you is true, and you actually are insane. We’ve been stumbling blind from one disaster to another. First Wyatt, or Frank – whatever his name is, and then Jon. But now you’re creating new ones where they don’t need to be. Do you understand me? High Octane. Fighting Paxton. You want to self-destruct? Fine. Apparently, I can’t stop you. But that doesn’t mean I’m just going to stand by and watch it happen.”
He sank back into his seat and shook his head. The words were just above a whisper, but still loud enough to hear. “Fucking typical.”
“What, you don’t think I figured this was coming eventually? It’s what you do, Cal. You run. It’s happened twice before, so I figured it was only a matter of time before it happened again. At least this time I got the benefit of a conversation, so that’s progress, I guess.”
“Am I wrong? Things get too hard, or too complicated, or whatever, and you run.”
“Too hard?” she said. “Too hard?!” She stormed to the door, tearing it open. “Jared, what the fuck part of being with you did you ever think was easy?”
The water collides with a rock or a root, and another world is born into the multiverse.
Here, in this reality, there’s a box that I’ve kept hidden. It’s small, discreet enough, but still something that needs to remain out of sight else the surprise is ruined forever. Finding it isn’t the kind of moment you can walk back. There’s no swimming upstream against the current and the tides to find the stone where that path branches and undo it. It’s immutable, a fixed point. That’s why I hid it somewhere no one would ever look, in a part of the house I rarely visit.
There’s a room in the basement where I keep the things I’ve collected over the course of my career, including a frightening amount of office furniture that I’ve stolen from the people I’ve worked for. It’s all chairs, really. One from Billy Page in the original SCCW. Another from Eugene Robinson during my time in Minnesota State Wrestling. I would have taken one from Hawaii if the owner had been anyone other than Akane, but something about stealing the chair a woman spent most of her time in felt wrong on a fundamental level.
This is the room where all but one of the championships I’ve won are kept.
Normally I stay out of this space, because despite having a decent enough career it’s not the sort of thing I tend to look back on fondly, but there have been two visits of note over the last few months.
The first was when I rifled through those old belts looking for small gemstones I could pry free without it being obvious, one each from every belt that had them.
The second is when I brought those stones back, now embedded inside a tiny silver ring. Cal’s never been a fan of gold.
Hidden among my collection is a small box, two inches on each side. It’s not the kind of thing that you can return.
I sat alone in my room overlooking the Vegas strip wondering how far back I would need to go to find the point that meant hiding that box forever. Which is the closest universe where I don’t run off to High Octane? Where is the world where I don’t try and pick a fight with Paxton Ray? Where is the reality where the event that triggers all of this doesn’t occur?
Which is the universe where Justine and I never met to begin with?
The one where she’s better off.
The one where she’s happiest.