The trip to Indianapolis would mark Justine’s first appearance at a convention since the day she started training. She’d attended a few before, but her first chance to be on the other side of the table was something she couldn’t pass up. Given Jared’s insistence on shying away from the spotlight in the years that followed the catastrophic close of Sin City Championship Wrestling, she had expected him to balk. But he agreed, on two conditions.
The first was that they rent a car and drive, turning the event into a road trip and giving the two of them some time away from obligations at home and from the spotlight of Las Vegas. The second was a quick stop in Evansville to the Colton Academy so that Jared could speak to Jake about something. He didn’t say why.
“Justine Margaret Calvin, you absolute fucking nerd!”
Their relationship had rules. Chief among them was that they wouldn’t keep secrets from each other. That Justine helped manage a server for fans of Coral Avalon on a popular chat platform wasn’t anything ground-breaking or earth-shattering, but she regretted sharing it all the same.
When she explained the meaning behind her username, Jared had laughed so hard that he was forced to pull off of the highway into a nearby gas station.
Let him have this one, she thought. It was only a matter of time before he did or said something stupid, and then they would fall back into their natural roles. The odds – and history – were firmly on her side.
“Do they know about your collection of signed photos?”
“It’s not a collection!”
“There are at least three that I know about, Cal. Do you know what we call that?”
“I don’t know what you call it, but keep pushing and the district attorney will call it ‘motive’.” She smiled and glanced out the window. “Maybe you should just forget I said anything.”
“Nope. Gonna remember this forever.”
This was true. The way Jared’s brain was wired prevented him from letting go of anything once it had worked its way in there. It was a vault, one that preserved every memory in pristine detail.
For better or worse.
“I’m going to let Sid powerbomb you so goddamn hard,” she said. “Seriously, I’m going to stand by and watch as he uses you to set some brand-new world powerbomb record. And then, just when he thinks he’s done, I will offer to pay all of the fines he’s accrued if he does it again.”
“You know, call me crazy-”
“You are. Clearly.”
“-but I don’t think this will help us win.”
“It won’t. What I’m describing happens after the match. Maybe during the intermission when everyone gets up to pee, or get more beer, or whatever.”
“Less people to see me get splattered, huh? Appreciate you looking out for me.”
“No, it’s nothing like that. We’re on before the intermission, so it just makes sense. Anyway, I figure I’ll get Joe to dab, and then we’ll all take a lovely picture over what’s left of you. I’ll get my niece to Photoshop a tree and some lights behind us. It’ll be my Christmas Card this year.”
“Remind me to give you a list of addresses to send that to. I know a few people who’d probably write you into their will if they saw it.”
From her seat on the passenger’s side of the car, Justine watched as a combine harvester reaped row after row of corn.
“Hey, Jake knows we’re coming, right?”
“So, about that…”
As far as the layout went, the Colton Academy wasn’t much different than what she was used to. There were two rings positioned side-by-side, and the right side of the building was lined with exercise equipment in various states of disrepair. From the look of things, Justine got the sense that Jake was a man who only replaced equipment when he needed to.
Two men stood ringside, the first she recognized immediately as Jake. The second was new to her, shorter and using a pair of crutches to stand. He glanced in her direction, and then whispered something to Jake. Justine squinted, trying to bring his face into focus.
“Weird, isn’t it?” Jared said. “Got so used to Darren’s place smelling like candy that something about this just feels wrong.”
“That’s not the only difference.” The gym where she worked was notorious for divots in the concrete flooring where heavy equipment had once been bolted. “Haven’t tripped once since we’ve been here.”
Jake had broken off from his training session, and was moving towards them. The expression he wore was a mask of surprise. Behind him, the other figure had begun to hobble away at a brisk pace.
“Hey, Jake,” Jared said. “Sorry to barge in on you like this, but we were in the neighborhood-”
“The ‘neighborhood’, in this case, is three hours out of the way,” Justine said. She nodded in the direction of the other man, who seemed to be struggling with his crutches. “Do I know him? I can’t place his face.”
“Him? Oh, just a scout I know. He’s…” Jake paused, then half-whispered, “He’s gotta use the can.”
The crutch on the man’s left side slipped. He attempted to grab it, but overcompensated, having just enough time to curse as he fell to the ground. Jared leapt into action, sprinting the distance between them. What surprised Justine was Jake’s reaction. She knew about his knee problems, but damned if it didn’t look like he was trying to outrun Jared.
“It’s okay,” Jared said. “I gotcha.”
“I’m fine!” the man shouted, a little too loudly. He was trying to push himself up with his arms, but it wasn’t working.
Jared was too preoccupied with trying to help the fallen man to truly notice his behavior. “Are you okay? Do you need me to call…”
He offered a hand to help the man up and froze, all the color bleeding from his face. The man on the floor didn’t look the same as Jared remembered. The face was different; whether from surgery or eleven unkind years, he wouldn’t have known, even if he wasn’t in shock.
The eyes that looked back at him were the same he’d seen on his worst night, a hundred feet above the arena in Las Vegas, and then countless times in the dreams that followed.
A single word escaped Jared’s lips, barely audible in the growing chaos of the gym. “No.”
His hand slipped, and he staggered back, his own legs betraying him in the moment. The world around him grew dark. The last thing he saw was so alien, so absurd, that he assumed he was hallucinating. It was a look of concern.
From Wyatt Connors.
When my senses came back, I found myself alone with the devil.
The other man in the room, Frank Mazurskiewicz, had been a scout for the last five years. He’s the one that helped get Nate Colton his job with PRIME. Frank might have been his real name, but it’s not the one I knew.
“Wyatt Connors” sat a few feet away, but he wouldn’t look at me.
“I need to know this is real,” I said. “I need to know I’m not just hallucinating this right now.”
“You’re not,” he said.
His response was delayed, which surprised me. The man was always quick with a barb, the engine in his head a perpetual motion machine of cutting insults. But this… wasn’t that. It was like he was searching for something, weighing his options.
Then he drew a long, resigned sigh, and offered his proof.
“This… is who you are.”
“You know, I’ve spent years thinking about what would happen if you and I were ever in a room together. Rehearsed what I’d say. And now that it’s here? Fuck, it’s all blank.”
Wyatt shrugged. “If it’s any consolation, I was hoping to be dead by now.”
The emotions swirled like a goddamn hurricane. Anger. Terror. Even compassion. Each one took a turn at the helm.
“I guess that makes sense. Experiment is over, right? Collected all the results. You find what you were looking for? Get the answers you were after? Please tell me after so many fucking years that I didn’t disappoint.”
“I did get my answers, as it turns out. And no, you did not disappoint. In fact, I’m glad to see that what I learned back then is still true.”
There was no way this wasn’t a trap. Twisting thoughts. Weaponizing words. It’s what he did. He knew I’d ask. The reality was I had no choice.
“And that is?”
“That you… you are probably the strongest man I’ve ever known.”
I flexed the fingers on my right hand, the same one that Wyatt had slipped from up on that catwalk.
Most people I talk to think that the saddest part of The Neverending Story is when Artax the horse dies in the Swamp of Sadness, but they’re wrong. No, the cruelest realization that movie has to offer comes later, when the giant Rock Biter realizes that even with all his might he wasn’t strong enough to save his friends from disaster.
They look like big, good, strong hands, don’t they? I always thought that’s what they were.
“Not when it counted,” I said.
“That isn’t true, Jared. You can’t blame yourself for that.”
“No? I didn’t have to follow you. I could have stayed on the ground. Fuck, maybe I should have just left the damn company like everyone else. God, I can still see it. Still feel the heat coming off the lights.”
“I can too. I relive that night every time I close my eyes. There was a time I nearly overdosed on painkillers, just so I wouldn’t have those dreams anymore.”
“The dreams. I get those, too.” I would never admit how much I related to the rest of his statement. “Not as often as I used to. Sometimes the roles are reversed. Would you believe me if I said that those are the good ones?”
“No,” he said. “No, they are not.”
“Really? Because I’ve seen the alternative. I’ve lived the alternative. The railing, Wyatt… It was right there. It was right there!”
He still wouldn’t look at me.
“I couldn’t. More than twenty years ago, that arm got slammed in a car door. Never gained full strength back. By that point in the night, it was like having a bag of spaghetti hanging off my shoulder.”
“Then this is my fault. If you couldn’t…” They look like big, good, strong hands, don’t they? “Then I failed.”
“Not from my perspective. Jared, it sounds like you remember it all pretty well. But while I was hanging there, with you trying to hold on… do you remember that you were losing your balance?”
“You were starting to tilt forward… didn’t have your feet anchored, and you weren’t holding onto the railing at all. You were so focused on trying to hold on to me that you had no idea you’d put yourself in danger. That… sounds typical, actually.”
A memory flashed of a moment on the catwalk where I remembered being weightless, like someone had turned off the gravity.
“There was a second there, right before… I felt like I was floating. I thought I had imagined that, like my brain was adding details.”
“Maybe you could have pulled me back up… you’d already done about three impossible things that night. But it’s a lot more likely that I would have dragged you down with me. I’ll admit, Wyatt Connors would have thought that was the funniest thing ever.”
He paused. It was obvious there was something else he had to say, but it looked like he was struggling with whether he wanted to.
“But I couldn’t let that happen.”
“So what is this then? Just some mask you put on? ‘Today I will be Wyatt Connors and ruin someone’s life.’”
“That’s… a really long story.”
“Okay. Fine. I won’t push.” It wasn’t for lack of curiosity. There was a different question that demanded an answer. “There’s something I need to ask. About what you said. ‘This is who you are.’ I need to ask because I don’t know anymore. Because I’ve spent years trying to figure that out. I need to know, because not knowing is killing me.”
“I saw so many things out of you that night, Jared. Passion. Determination. Sheer stubbornness. Right before we went up there, I saw a rage so intense that I actually thought you were going to strangle me with your bare hands. But that last time, when I looked up, I finally saw you.”
For most of the conversation, Wyatt had been looking around the room. The framed photos on the wall. The doorknob. A super interesting spot on the floor to the left of my chair. At no point did he look at me, let alone look me in the eye. Until now.
“You had every reason, every right, to let me fall that night, but you wouldn’t do it. You gave everything you had, you risked your own life to stop it from happening. There is nobody else in the world who would have done that. You can say that you failed all you want, but that doesn’t matter. The fact that you even tried… that speaks volumes. That… is who you are.”
I couldn’t speak. Could feel my eyes welling-up. I had spent a quarter of my life locked away from everyone and everything I knew. All of the mirrors in my house had been taken down, because I didn’t want to risk having to look at the reflection of a monster every day. Was I wrong? It might sound strange, but I had no reason to doubt him.
Wyatt Connors was a liar of the highest order, of this there is no dispute. But he never lied to me, not once since the day I’d met him.
It got quiet for a while after that.
“So what happens now?” I said at last.
“I have… a request. A favor to ask. So it’s only fair that you ask for something from me.”
“Is this a ‘deal’?” Yes, I made the air quotes with my fingers. “Or is this on the level?”
“It’s square. Jake can tell you; I made the same deal with him. With everyone who knows, actually?”
“Who else is there?”
“Not many. A couple of people from my old life… my very old life. Jake. Lindsay Troy…”
“You have got to be fucking kidding me.”
“I needed that connection for my work as a scout. She doesn’t trust me, but she does trust my assessments. Of course, I’m permanently banned from PRIME events, and she told me that if I ever set foot in Las Vegas, she’ll have me killed.”
There would be a conversation with my boss in the future; one I was not looking forward to.
“And Alex Pierce,” he continued.
“Oh. Right. The spy knows, because of course she does.”
“Well, I sent her a birthday card. That made it pretty easy.”
I just stared at him.
“So. The favor, like I said. I’m going to ask for mine right now; you can honor it or not. Up to you. And if you need time to think, go ahead. When you’ve decided, we’ll get in touch. And it can be anything you want… you can tell me to hit myself in the nuts with a hammer, or walk into traffic. But something tells me that whatever you ask for will be a lot harder.”
“There’s nothing that I want. Already have everything that I need.”
The thing about Wyatt, is he’s perceptive. I was thinking about Justine when I said it, and I must have let my eyes wander to the door, because when I looked back he was smiling. It wasn’t the same smile I knew, the kind you’d see when he was thinking about drowning a bag of kittens, or hitting someone in the crotch, or handing TJ Ratigan a live microphone. No, this one was real, genuine. Which made it the scariest thing I’d ever seen him do.
“Well… the offer’s on the table. If you change your mind, we’ll talk. Now… normally, all I ask for is silence. I know I need to have these talks with people, but that doesn’t mean I’m in any hurry. But this time… I think I need something different.”
I leaned forward in the chair and took a deep breath.
“You’ve certainly got my curiosity.”
“Jared, I am… I am so sorry for what I put you through, and everything that happened because of that. Seeing what I did to you, that hurts more than anything else I’ve suffered. The fact that you’re still standing tells me that you’ve got a strength I can’t even comprehend.”
I had a feeling that strength was about to be tested. Cal likes to joke that she hates it when I’m right. Sometimes, so do I.
“But… it’s over. Wyatt Connors can’t h- I can’t hurt you anymore. It’s okay now. You can let go. Please… let me go.”
They pulled into a rest area just outside of Bloomington to stretch their legs and get a breath of fresh air. Given everything that Jared had told her in the car after leaving the Colton Academy, Justine didn’t protest when he said he needed a few minutes and wandered off to collect himself.
She found him alone at a picnic table, slumped over on his elbows as he watched an ant struggle to carry a peanut M&M along the tabletop.
“Think he’s going to make it?” Jared lifted a lazy finger towards the ant.
He straightened as she slid onto the bench beside him.
“Yeah, I think so. It’s a lot to carry, but by now I think he realizes that he doesn’t have to do this alone.”
“You’re not talking about the bug, are you?”
“You know, it’s cool if you want to head back home. No one would blame you for needing some time after what happened today. It’s just that…”
“Promise me that you won’t lock yourself away again. Not from me.”
“I’m not going home, Cal.”
“You’re stubborn; I get it. But the convention can wait. Maybe we’ll book another one later. And if what you said about Troy is true, about how she knew where Wyatt was, then maybe she can put the match with Joe and Sid off until you’re ready. I know today’s been a lot.”
“I promise. It’ll be fine.”
“I’m just saying that if-“
“I love you, Justine.”
The admission seemed to come from the aether, catching her by surprise and stunning her into silence. She leaned in closer, resting against his shoulder to try and hide the smile that had formed on her lips; one that grew wider the longer he spoke.
“I appreciate that you’re trying to give me an out,” he said, “but I don’t want it. We’re not missing your first signing because of this, because you’ve waited long enough, and it’s an honor that I get to share that experience with you, okay? And don’t worry about titles, or matches, or any of that. I told Coral that when that bell rings his kids might have to kill me. You know why?”
“Yeah.” It was barely a whisper. The memory of Minnesota was still new, his words still fresh. My first commitment – the only one I care about – is to you.
“So don’t worry about me,” he said. “I’m not going home, because I’m exactly where I want to be.” He took a long, slow breath and slumped back towards the table. “Sorry, it’s been kind of a day.”
“Don’t apologize, Jared.”
“You know what he said? We were sitting there, Wyatt – or Frank, I guess – and he says to me that he’ll never be able to earn redemption for what he’s done, but that…” His voice began to crack. “That if he learned anything from me, it’s that even if something seems impossible, that he still has to try. So do I.”
“Hey, Jared?” She reached a hand to his face, turning it towards her.
“I love you, too.”
Later, he would feel the weight of the day as wave after wave of conflicting emotions crashed over him. The nightmares, quiet these last few months, would return. There would be more conversations to have, more reconciliation with the biggest devil of his past. But now, despite the darkness of the day, a little light had returned.
“Should be careful saying things like that around me, Cal.” Jared wore a grin of his own. “I have it on good authority that I have a hard time letting go.”
She pulled him the rest of the way into a kiss.
“Then don’t,” she said.