In the fifty-four years since Walter Stracker had converted the old candy factory into a wrestling gym, hundreds of students had walked through its doors. A few dozen had been able to turn their passion into a sustainable career, and out of those a select few went on to truly make a name for themselves.
The first was a French-Canadian transplant named Mr. Tornado, who’d gained notoriety in the early 1980s when his ‘Tornado Twist’ – a theatrical riff on the ‘airplane spin’ – made him into something of an urban legend.
“I saw him spin Connor McKellen fifty times in Ithaca. Damndest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“I heard it was seventy, and he did it in Syracuse.”
“That’s nothing. My brother went to a match outside Cleveland in ‘83 and swears he saw him twist Commandant Krieg for three straight minutes. The crowd counted along, and everything.”
And on it went.
The second was a promising high school stand-out named Gabriel Simon, who’d channeled the loss of his parents at a young age into the brooding, violent Havok – a trope that was all too common in the late 90’s. He saw some small amount of national success, but hung his boots up after a few short years in the business when he learned that his girlfriend was pregnant.
Then there was the third, an artsy daydreamer who lacked either the ability or the willingness to shut his damn fool mouth. He was the one that Walter’s son Darren expected to burn out the fastest, assuming he ever made it through the training, but of all the students to pass through Stracker’s through the years, Jared Sykes was the one with the most longevity, and the most accolades to his name.
Today the prospect of a fourth loomed on the horizon.
“I can’t believe this is actually happening.”
Darren paced around his office with the nervous energy of a child lurking beyond his parents’ bedroom on Christmas morning. Can we go downstairs now? When can we open presents?
“I know you’re excited, but we probably shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves.” Jared sat on the lone couch, a messenger bag on the seat beside him. “I mean there’s a chance she says no.”
“You really think she’d turn this down?”
“I hope not.” Jared hoisted himself out of the cushions and moved to the window, his vision drawn to a new shadow growing longer at the gym’s entrance. “But it looks like we’re going to find out soon enough.”
“What’s your gut telling you?”
Jared shrugged. “No idea. But whatever happens, I’ll trust her decision.”
The conversation started light.
“You heard me,” Justine said. “His name is ‘Hot Berry Daddy.’”
“Jesus, Jared,” Darren said. “I’d say you probably got hit in the head one too many times, but you’ve been a weird kid forever.”
“Truth in advertising?” Jared said, blushing.
Darren grunted. Justine rolled her eyes.
“Anyway,” she said. “What did I just walk into? Why do I feel like you two are planning something?”
“Yeah, about that.” Jared slid to the edge of his seat. It took a fair bit of effort; decades of students sneaking in to use the sofa had ruined the springs. “What would you say if I told you I could get you a spot on the PRIME roster?”
She turned to Darren, smiling. “I think you’ve got it backwards. He hasn’t been hit in the head nearly enough.”
“So am I, but I guess I’ll play along. How exactly would you pull this off?”
“It’s easy. I walk into Lindsay Troy’s office, and I tell her that I’ve got a way to get rid of the mannequin.”
“And then, when she asks me who I’m thinking of, I tell her that the person I’ve got in mind has a history of keeping my dumb ass in check when I get out of line. Sometimes punching is involved.”
“That was one time,” she protested.
“Yeah, but still.”
“And you think that gets me a roster spot?”
“Shit, Cal, I think that gets you into the hall of fame.”
She barked out a laugh. “You’re out of your mind.”
“Yeah?” Jared pulled the bag onto this lap and undid the fasteners that held the cover in place.
Darren pushed himself out of his chair and watched as Jared handed Justine a bound stack of paper, each sheet branded with an infamous blue-and-black logo. He thought of the champagne he’d been chilling in the mini-fridge for the occasion; no doubt they’d be cracking it open any minute now. They’d toast Solo cups, and celebrate a chance for his “kids” to see the big stage together.
He started for the fridge, but a glance from Jared gave him pause.
Justine sat frozen, eyes unblinking on the collection of pages in front of her.
Jared spoke first. “Hey, Darren, can you give us a few minutes?”
The rule was that every time a training session ended, one of us was responsible for getting the gym back in order. It was sometimes used as a punishment, reserved for people who didn’t pay attention, or needed their attitude checked. I had more than my fair share of late days because sometimes shutting up was hard. Didn’t matter what else you had planned that day, if you were on clean-up duty then you stayed until it was finished. Or else.
I said something dumb, because of course I did. Probably referred to Darren as “Kung Fu Jesus” one too many times. That’s how I got saddled with putting the mats away on my 21st birthday. Not the best outcome for most people, but a minor inconvenience for me. I wasn’t really a party guy. But I did have a ritual; one that required daylight to execute, and the December sun was getting mighty low in the sky.
The last stack of mats had just been put away when Cal approached. Our relationship was contentious when we started our training that summer, but things mellowed a little as the seasons rolled over to fall. It started when she was hard pressed for a ride home and came to me for a favor.
Well, technically I volunteered Mervin to drive. My car was hot garbage, always in and out of the shop, and I couldn’t afford anything better. One ride turned into two, then three, then it became a regular thing.
“Don’t suppose you’d mind giving me a ride home?” I didn’t answer right away; too busy calculating the minutes of sunlight I had left. “It’s cool if not.”
“Yeah, sure. Just have an errand to run. Kinda time-sensitive.”
“Don’t worry about it. I can probably call someone. One of my brothers should be home soon.”
She turned and started to walk away, but a little nagging voice in my head said not to let her go.
She turned back to me, bag slung over her shoulder, and our eyes met for a moment. That’s when I made the decision to trust her.
“It’s nothing crazy. A quick trip to see my brother for his birthday.” This was a partial truth. She would probably think it was very crazy, but I wanted her there with me. It wasn’t until months later that I was honest with myself about why. “I’m happy to bring you home, just need to go out of the way a little bit. Only two stops to make. Is that cool?”
Cupcakes were key, so the first stop was a family-owned Italian bakery called Bianchi’s. It was a tradition that went all the way back to when Andy and I were kids, and could never agree on a flavor of birthday cake. Andy was a vanilla guy, the absolute monster.
The second stop? Well…
“Hey, Jared, why are we at a graveyard?”
Cedar Grove Cemetery sat at the end of a long residential neighborhood. When we turned off the main street, she asked which of the houses were his. I didn’t answer. We pulled the car over just inside the gate, and a wave of guilt crashed down around me. I should have been honest about this from the get-go, but what was I going to say? Want to come sit with me in a graveyard for a few? There’ll be cake!
“I thought you said you were going to visit your brother.”
Honesty time. It was only fair.
“He passed away when we were kids.” I turned to meet her eyes: vibrant, green, and with their own gravity. “I’m sorry. I know this is a lot. I just wanted to make sure I got here before it got too dark and they closed the gate, or before it rained. I’ll bring you home if you want. You don’t have to come with me for this.”
“No, it’s cool,” she said. “It just caught me off guard.”
“It’s not something I talk about all that often.”
“Yeah, umm, Mervin said something the first time you guys brought me home.”
I made a mental note to kill Mervin the next time I saw him. That first ride was awful. She needled me constantly about every subject under the sun while we sat in traffic, until I stormed out of the car and walked four miles home in a thunderstorm. I swore a lot that afternoon. Like, A LOT a lot.
“Can I ask what happened?”
“And you do this every year?”
“Yeah. Ever since I got my license.” My hand hovered over the shift. If she gave the word, if she was uncomfortable with this in the slightest, I would throw the car in reverse and I would come back later. “Like I said, I can bring you home now if you want.”
“Do what you need to do.”
I nodded and threw the car back in gear. We wound our way through the narrow roads until we came to a collection of headstones near a wall of manicured shrubbery. This was always the hardest part.
She followed my gaze to a modest stone set around fifteen feet away back the road.
Andrew D. Sykes
December 14, 1978 – April 11, 1990
His was a man’s courage
I killed the engine and stepped out without a word, forgetting that there was a chance the car might not start back up.
The grass was still damp from a morning rain shower, my socks getting wetter as water seeped through the mesh of my sneakers. Would have to change those for something dry when I got home. I set Andy’s cupcake on top of his headstone.
Above us the sky had darkened. It would be raining any minute now. Since my feet were already wet, I figured I might as well drench my ass as well, so I took a seat on the ground. Behind me the car door opened. I could hear feet shuffling through the grass.
“I don’t suppose you have an extra chocolate one, do you?” she said.
Ink and paper, that’s all it was. Someone in an office – probably a human resources intern – had made edits to a common template, filled in her name, and then had it printed. For that person, whoever they were, it was probably a task so rote, so mundane, that the process didn’t register.
“I hope you know it’s okay to say no.”
The fog lifted.
She didn’t remember moving to the sofa, or falling into it. She didn’t remember Darren leaving or know how long he’d been gone.
“Can I ask you something?” Jared sat beside her, only inches apart. “Were you serious at my house? When you tore me a new one for not trying harder to get in touch with you before I started this run?”
She set the paper aside, careful not to fray the edges else it all came unraveled.
“I was,” she said. “Did you mean what you said about the Greek lady who has my old phone number?”
“I mean she sounded Greek.” The smile was back, not quite the permanent fixture she remembered, but close. “But I’m not great with accents.”
“And you stopped there. You thought if I wanted you around-”
“We don’t need to rehash that.”
“I wish you tried harder,” she said. “I wish I did, too.”
Neither said anything for a while. In a few hours the building would hum with the kinetic energy of students running drills, working on improving their cardio, cracking jokes and laughing as they watched old tape, but now it stood silent as a churchyard.
“Nothing will change between us if this isn’t what you want, Cal. There won’t be any hard feelings. I won’t hold any grudges.” He paused just long enough for their eyes to meet. “And I will never question your decision or judge you for it if you say no.”
“God, why do you have to do that?” She rubbed her hands along the length of her face.
“Be all, I dunno, you about this.”
“I don’t really know how to respond to that.”
“So when did you decide to talk to Troy?”
“The afternoon you found me under the sink,” he said. She held a memory of the day close. There’d been joy, then anger, and then – when she was alone – embarrassment. “After you left. Maybe twenty or thirty minutes later.”
“I wouldn’t lie to you. You deserve a chance. You have for a long time. I’ve been in positions before where I could have called in a favor, or passed your name along to someone, and then maybe you would finally get your shot. But I didn’t.”
“And you’ve done so much for me over the last few months, more than you realize. Too much, if we’re being honest about it. I wanted to do something for you, and everything else I could think of just felt too small in comparison. It was just about finding the right time.”
“What do you mean, ‘the right time?’”
“You’ve seen what I’ve had to do every week. I know you have. The boulders, the puzzles, the food thing. Whatever the fuck that maze was supposed to be. I wasn’t about to put you through any of that. I’m a spectacle, I get it. I lean into it because it’s what people expect from me. Sometimes I lean in hard.”
“Yeah, those pants were certainly a choice.”
“You should have seen some of the messages I got on the socials after that. Some thirsty people out there, Cal. Thirsty, thirsty people.” He exhaled a deep sigh. “Look, the point I’m trying to make is that I can be the circus. But not you. If I was going to go to Troy about this then it had to be when I was close to the end, because you’re not a sideshow, Cal. You’re better than that. You deserve better than that.”
“You’re doing it again.”
“I don’t know how else to be.”
“Remembering who we are, then?”
“I’ve had a little help in figuring that out lately.”
She nodded, the slightest hint of a grin playing at her lips.
“You gonna make me dress up like a berry?”
“About that…,” He started to laugh. “I was thinking of something more peach-themed.”
Justine held up a single finger, then rose from the couch and moved to the small table Darren used for private meetings. It was surrounded by a collection of mismatched chairs, the theme of the office being ‘Yard Sale Chic’. There she retrieved her weapon, a metal folding chair speckled with rust.
“I’m sorry,” she said, testing its weight. “This is for your own good.”
“Okay, okay,” he said, backing himself into a corner of the sofa. He raised his hands in a feeble attempt at self-defense. “Better idea. I’ll be King Blueberry, and you can be my royal knight, Sir Thiccs-a-lot.”
She jabbed him in the ribs.
“Maybe change up the theme music. Shawty had them Apple Bottom jeans-”
She raised the chair high over her head.
“I’ll do it,” she said, but the smile betrayed her intent. “You know I will. Darren will understand. He’ll even help me hide the body.”
Then things took a turn I didn’t expect.
“Here’s a thought: what if I said yes, and instead of the fruit costume we went out there as just you and me? No mask. No hiding.”
“You have no idea how much I would love that.” She perked up at this, a tiny glint of excitement in her eyes. Unfortunately there was really only one way I could answer that question. “And I really wish I could.”
“Why can’t you?”
Ah, yes, the million-dollar question; the one I’ve only half-answered for the last decade.
“I’m just not there yet. The last time I wrestled without a mask…”
“I know. I’ve seen the video.”
That stopped me cold. I assume most people who follow the sport are at least familiar with what happened between Wyatt and I, and I’ve always taken it as a given that some of the people I know have seen the video. Deep down I knew Cal was one of them, but the admission still hit like a truck. It rattled me, causing my defenses to buckle. Before I knew it the words were falling out faster than I could think.
“That’s fine, but you don’t know the half of it. What happened on that catwalk. What he said. The way he…”
It wasn’t much, but there were secrets there that only two people knew. Hopefully, she didn’t catch on.
“What? What happened? What did he say?”
“Jared,” she pressed. Cal wanted answers I couldn’t give; that I wasn’t ready to give. Soon, maybe. But not yet. I still couldn’t show my face in the ring in front of a crowd. Could still barely look in the mirror. How could I explain that? That’s what I thought, anyway.
The problem was the castle walls had already been breached. You know that scene in one of those Tolkien movies – The Two Towers, I think – where everyone is all, “our city is impenetrable, hooray!” and then some orc with a torch runs into the sewer and blows up the walls? It was kind of like that, except without the orcs or torches, plus neither of us had killed Sean Bean.
“The point is that I’ve spent the last twelve years dealing with a pretty vocal part of the internet that thinks I tried to murder someone in a wrestling match. Then there’s the group who shows up and says, ‘it should have been you.’”
“Jesus Christ,” was all she said.
“And I don’t know which is worse: all of them, or the people I deal with that have actually thanked me for it. Those people don’t just hang out on the internet, Cal. Nope. I’ve run into some in locker rooms. Leonard Aarons said it not ten minutes after it happened.”
I’d just been taken down from the catwalk by three EMTs. Two men – Barry and Steve, and one woman – Aileen. She said that I was in the early stages of shock, so they were going to get me out of there as fast as possible. While they were helping me into the back of an ambulance, Lenny rolled up in a shimmering purple shirt with patterns like light dancing across an oil slick.
That smug, self-important son of a bitch. He thanked me, fucking thanked me, as if I meant for any of it to happen. As if Wyatt deserved that.
See, around seven years before the events of the “Lost Episode”, Wyatt Connors made it a point to pretend that Leonard Aarons didn’t exist, or that he didn’t know who he was. To Len this was justice. To him I was a hero.
A hero would have stopped it.
“You don’t have to answer now,” he said. He rose to his feet and ran a hand through a mop of pink and brown hair. The roots were visible a half-inch deep; it would need to be recolored soon. “Take as much time as you need, okay? I’ll give you space to figure it out, if you want. I’d totally understand.”
“I don’t want you to do that.”
“I just don’t want you to feel pressured, is all.” Jared closed the distance to the door, and took the handle in one hand. “I’ll be back in a minute. Just going to let Darren know that we didn’t defile his office, or anything. He’s very sensitive about that couch.”
Justine only nodded.
“I mean it, Cal. Anything you decide to do is going to be the right decision, okay? You have my word.”
The door closed behind him, and she exhaled a breath she didn’t realize she’d held. Only then did she reach to pick up the contract, now all the heavier in her hands.