From the manuscript of the memoir “Renewed – The Rises and Falls of Jonathan Rhine” – to be released in Fall of 2027
The weeks after the Foundation Dinner were awful. I remember trying to do normal things, like take Jenny Colton on a date and go to a friend’s house to watch a movie. But all I could think about was Julian Bathory and how he crushed the Foundation with one appearance.
The wild thing was that to a lot of donors, nothing was wrong. They didn’t realize how horrible MESSIAH was. But we did. And so began the challenge to distance ourselves from that organization.
But it was hard to do that when Shweta and I were barely speaking to one another.
“Paxton’s not here yet. Go ahead and sit wherever,” Shweta Kallemullah says, not looking up from her computer as Jonathan walks into the conference room of Gray’s Academy.
“Sure. What’s this all about?”
“I’d rather not say it twice, so please just sit tight.”
Jonathan stares at Shweta as she types at her computer. He waits for her to look up at him, but he realizes soon he will be waiting a long time. Finally, he says, “Hey, Shweta…are we good?”
“Huh?” she asks, still not looking up at him.
“Are we good? Things have felt…off. You blew me off for the watch party at Knox and Cally’s, and we still haven’t talked about…”
“Things are fine. We are good. I just didn’t want to pretend to like a movie I had no interest in watching, especially if our head referee is going to quote half the movie.”
Jon laughs. “How did you know he did?”
Finally, Shweta looks up at Jon, but it is not a kind look. “You are all too willing to bring up my past. I think you are well aware of my ability to predict human behavior.”
“Look, Shway…” Jon begins, but he is interrupted by Paxton Ray bounding in, his hand still bandaged but a smile on his face.
“Let’s go, people! Big day for us!” He looks at both Shweta and Jonathan and his smile falters. “What’s up?”
“Why are you so happy?” Jon asks him.
“Listen. I know y’all are mad because the dinner wasn’t as perfect as ya planned. But y’all made a lot of money for Nora, she made a friend, and she told me she is okay with what I do for a livin’. So to me, it was a success all around.” He continues to stare at their dumbfounded faces. “‘Kay, maybe not all around.”
Shweta sighs. “I’m glad that Nora had a good time, and obviously I am proud of the monetary aspect of the dinner. To that end, it was a success. But there have been several reports in wrestling dirt sheets as well as actual newspapers about the Foundation’s affiliation with MESSIAH, which is disastrous to anyone who knows what that cult is actually about. This is exactly the problem with a group such as them; things look above board, and those who know the truth can’t do anything about it because of how careful they have crafted their image to certain audiences.”
Paxton scratches his head. “Lotta words for ‘we’re fucked,’ ya think?”
Shweta ignores him. “In addition to all of that, it is particularly problematic for me as the Chairperson of the Foundation. As certain people are quick to say,” she says, flashing her eyes to Jon quickly before looking at Paxton again, “my past with Alexandra Pierce makes me an easy target for those who want to discredit the Foundation. I am afraid that my reputation along with the events of May 27 have left me with no choice: I must step down from the Fighting For Nora Foundation.”
“What?!” Jonathan says, standing up.
“It is for the best, I assure you. But don’t worry, I have found someone to take over. This should be a seamless transition. The Foundation will be in good hands.” She looks towards the door and raises her voice. “You can come in now.”
The door opens and a tall man enters, gliding across the room. He reaches Shweta before Jonathan recognizes him. “Chet?!”
Chet Fleetwood puts his arm around Shweta and smiles. “Chet and Chairperson begin with the same letters. Match made in heaven!”
Jon and Paxton stare at Shweta and Chet for what feels like hours before Shweta laughs, pointing at Jon. “You believed it! You actually believed it!” When she finally stops laughing, she wipes a tear from her eye. “And you said I have no sense of humor.”
And when we did talk, I wanted to kill her.
“Come on, guys,” Shweta says, laughing. “Do you really think I’d give up that easily?”
“I do want to point out that I’d make an amazing Chairman of the Fighting For Nova Foundation,” Chet says, raising his hand.
“Nora,” Paxton growls.
“Yep, that’s what I said.” Chet squeezes Shweta into him, not noticing as she twists to the side to escape his grasp.
“So if ya ain’t leavin’, then what are ya gonna do about the cult prick?” Paxton asks.
“I have some ideas, some releases that distance ourselves without getting into an incendiary war of words that we cannot win. In the meantime, Jon has vowed to deal with Bathory in a more…direct manner.”
Jonathan looks to Paxton and nods. “I’m gonna beat his ass.”
“Good plan,” Paxton says.
“With our plans combined, I think we will be able to survive the initial backlash without causing too much damage. As you pointed out, Paxton, there were things to be happy about regarding that night.”
“Yeah,” Chet said, “it gave you a detour down Chet Boulevard that you wouldn’t have made otherwise.”
Jon looks at Shweta and mouths “Chet Boulevard” as The Chairperson grimaces. “So why are you here, Chet?”
“Came to see my son kick some ass,” he says. “Shway was gonna show me around.”
“Unless, of course, you’d prefer to,” Shweta says, raising her eyebrows.
“Ah, I’d love to, but…” Jon starts as someone knocks at the door. The door opens and Jenny Colton walks in, waving. “…I actually gave the guys a free day to train independently. Gonna take Jenny around the city, show her some stuff she didn’t get to see last time.”
“Hello again,” she says, eyeing Chet cautiously.
“Hey Janie,” Chet says, waving cheerily.
“We’ll see you guys later,” Jon says, guiding Jenny out of the door. Shweta watches the door for a moment, then looks at Paxton.
“Pax, do you want to s-”
“Pass,” Paxton says, leaving the room.
But it wasn’t all that bad. After all, Jenny Colton was around.
It was really nice getting to know her. She was much younger than me, which I know bothered a lot of people. But it was just nice having something casual and carefree after being terrified of the opposite sex for over a decade.
The night of the dinner was awful, but Jenny made it better both afterwards and the next day as I took her to brunch. We texted every day for the next week, and even though I couldn’t be there for her match I had some flowers waiting for her in the locker room. So the next opportunity we could see each other, I flew her out to New Orleans so I could show her around. We talked about me visiting her family, but the prospect of a half-dozen Coltons interviewing me about my intentions didn’t really feel like a great idea. At the time, I figured we’d build up to it eventually.
“Okay, so that’s why you invited me out here. For a second I thought there weren’t any other grocery stores near your wrestling school.”
Jenny smiles as she and Jon walk together out of Breaux Mart, the run-down grocery store in Arabi, Louisiana.
“Yep, I worked here for about a year after I dropped out of Rice and came home. I was enrolled at the wrestling school and my parents wouldn’t let me move back in, so I had to do something.”
“Harsh. I worked at a Starbucks for a while in high school. Mom and Dad thought it would ‘teach me discipline,’ but it turned out everyone else cared even less than I did.”
“Yeah, those jobs never do the things our parents intended. It’s not about responsibility or work ethic, it’s about getting money and maybe meeting new people.” Jon looks down for a second, eventually slowing his walk.
Jenny notices and grabs his arm. “Come on, I’m sure there’s more to the Jonathan Rhine Magical Misery Tour.”
Jon looks up at her and tries to hide a smile. “Am I really that depressing?”
“If you were really that depressing I wouldn’t be here. Now let’s get some food.”
Jenny was refreshing. Her youth, her energy, her general readiness for life. There were a lot of words that could describe her, but refreshing was the most appropriate.
Terrifying was the second most appropriate.
It had nothing to do with her, of course, and everything to do with me. I had spent so long putting up walls – not just to women, but to everyone. And when I eventually opened up again to Foster, to Paxton, to Shweta, it felt more natural. Because these were either old friends or new work partners. Dating women – hell, even talking to women was just a completely different animal.
What do you even do on a date? Where do you go? What do you wear? What do you talk about? Stuff like that comes naturally to a lot of people, and I think it came easily to me as a teenager too. But when you stop doing it, it feels impossible to begin again.
So here was Jenny Colton, young and beautiful, friendly and eager, and I just had no idea what I was doing.
“I can definitely get used to this,” Jenny says as a waitress arrives, bringing a plate of blackened redfish to Jenny and paneed rabbit to Jon.
“You seem to be more adventurous with food than I expected from a Midwestern girl,” Jon says.
“Oh? Are you saying we’re picky?”
“No,” Jon says, laughing. “It’s just New Orleans food can be considered…weird if you aren’t from here. For example,” he gestures to his dish.
“Fried rabbit is odd, but no more odd than other fried food.”
Jon shrugs. “It can still get weird reactions. For example, my…” he stops quickly, then looks down at his lap. “My brother came here once and when he saw my sister and I ordered the rabbit and the venison, he cried ‘You ate Bambi and Thumper!’ at the top of his lungs.”
Jenny laughs. “That’s kind of cute, in a way. How old was he?”
Jenny wrinkles her nose. “It’s a little less cute now. But honestly sounds like some of my brothers.”
Jon nods. “What’s it like, having so many?”
“Loud. Between Benny and Nate, it felt like there was a lot of competition for…well, everything. I learned pretty quick that if I wanted something, I had to go for it as hard as I could.” She smiled. “Fortunately, I never had a problem with that.”
“Yeah, I can see how that could happen. And I can also see why you chose wrestling.”
“Of course. Couldn’t let those boys go around thinking they were better than me.”
“I get that,” Jon says, cutting a slice of fried green tomato and passing it to her plate. “Are your brothers also where you picked up that Beatles reference from before?”
“Beatles reference?” she says, looking up. “I got it from some cartoon.”
Jon laughs, then shakes his head. “Your house seems like a wild one, but also a unified house. My brother and sister and I…we couldn’t be more different. And I was definitely seen as a black sheep when I wanted to become a professional wrestler. It would’ve been nice to have that support.”
“But you have the support now, right? Shweta, Paxton, your students. Seems like you’re in a good place now.”
Jon nods, then reaches across the table and grabs her hand. “It’s getting better, that’s for sure.”
Luckily, I found out it was like anything you’ve done before. Everyone says “it’s like riding a bike,” but I got into too many bicycle accidents as a kid to really appreciate that reference. To me it was more like reading an old book that you haven’t touched in a long time.
It feels foreign as you open the first page, and you struggle to remember some of the characters. Early on it feels so wrong you think about putting the book down and forgetting about it. But then something hits you – a scene you forgot, a line of dialogue that you once put in a letter to someone you liked – and it starts to come back. Not all at once, but incrementally. You go from struggling to read five pages in an hour to finishing a chapter in half the time, and before you know it you’re back in the world you completely forgot about.
It was starting to feel that way with Jenny – at one point I brushed her hand, and she looked at me and smiled, and in that moment I felt the same butterflies I felt holding a girl’s hand for the first time in sixth grade. Even though we had already done more than hold hands, that moment felt innocent, and powerful, and right.
Everything was coming back to me. Perhaps too fast.
“Are we supposed to be back here?” Jenny asks as they jump over a levee wall and land on the trampled grass leading towards the Mississippi River. They stand together and look out at the brackish water as it churns around cruise ships, riverboats, and buoys.
“Not really, but it’s not like we’ll get arrested. They’ll just tell us to leave.” Jon leads her to a spot a few feet down where a blanket is waiting.
“Wait…” she says, stopping and dropping his hand. “How did you…?”
“Lot of friends in the city,” he says, gesturing for her to sit down. They sit and he grabs a bag next to the blanket and takes out two packages. She opens it to reveal bananas foster.
“So this is why you didn’t want dessert at the restaurant.”
“I had something better in mind,” he says, smiling.
They stare out over the river for a few moments before Jenny says, “I think I see a log down there. We could put it out in the river and have you train for your last Survivor task.”
Jon laughs. “No way. This isn’t the same Mississippi River you can jump across in the Midwest. If you land in that water you’re gone. The current just drags you away.”
“So what you’re saying is you don’t think you’re going to do well on the log, then.”
“Not well enough to bet my life on it.”
Jenny laughs, then takes a bite of bananas foster. “This is incredible. The whole day has been, really. I gotta say, Jon, you didn’t need to go this hard to get me to sleep with you.” Jon stops mid-laugh, then looks down and sighs. When she sees this, she stops laughing too. “What’s wrong?”
“That’s…” Jon looks up at her with a frown. “That’s not what I want.”
A wave of silence passes, the only sound being the steady rush of the water and an occasional foghorn. Finally, Jon speaks. “I haven’t been very fair to you, Jenny. You’re young, and you just want to have fun. But that’s not what I’m looking for. You had fun today, and so did I, but everything we did was haunted by the last woman I loved, a woman who died 12 years ago.”
Jenny doesn’t respond. Jon stands up and walks to the levee wall, leaning against it. “The grocery store I took you to wasn’t just where I worked; it’s where I met Katie. The restaurant was our first date. She was the one who made the Bambi comment, not my brother. And here,” he points, “a few feet down, is where she and I decided to join FUSE together. We even ate bananas foster to celebrate.”
Jon walks back over and sits down next to Jenny. “I have been terrified of getting to know any woman since she died, and I always thought it was because I wouldn’t know what to do again. But I know exactly what to do. I know exactly what I want. What I want is to find love again. Not just a few weeks of fun, not just a date to take to dinners and wrestling functions. I want a woman who I can take on all-day dates, show my life, explore hers, and end up living together. Having kids together. Having a future together. That’s what I want, and I am sorry I wasn’t up front about it, but I didn’t realize it until now.”
Jenny looks away from Jon. “That all makes sense. And yeah, you’re hot and nice. But like you said, I’m 21. I’m just trying to figure stuff out.” She looks at him. “This was fun. I hope you find who you’re looking for.”
“Me too,” he says, looking out over the Mississippi River.
When you read that old book, you remember exactly who you were back then, the feeling of excitement as you discovered a new world. I realized that I didn’t want to read anything new. I didn’t want to start over again. Jenny was a lot of fun, and I’m really grateful for the few weeks we spent together. But sometimes people just want different things. And sometimes it’s important to find that out so you know what you’re really looking for.
It’s late when Jonathan makes his way back to the Academy. He isn’t sure exactly what he’s doing there, since almost everyone is usually gone this late. But as he walks through the front door, he notices that not everyone is.
In one of the offices that Shweta had co-opted as hers, he sees Shweta sipping a glass of wine, smiling. He smiles as well, and starts to walk towards the door. Then he sees someone else enter the view of the doorway.
Chet Fleetwood leans forward and kisses Shweta, causing her to bend backward and lose a grip on her wine. It smashes to the ground, causing both to laugh.
“Shit,” Shweta says, giggling. “Guess Dith will have to clean that up later.”
“Forget the glass, give me that ass,” Chet says, grabbing her.
“You’re the worst,” Shweta says, but kisses him anyway.
Jon immediately turns and walks in another direction.
Paxton enters the locker room of the Academy, wiping down from a long session. He sits at the end of a bench, running a towel over the back of his neck. As he tries to stretch out, his foot hits a box in the corner.
He looks at it for a second, then looks away. However, something catches his eye, and he looks back at the box. Using his foot, he kicks it closer to him and opens it up.
On top is a banner that has been folded up. All Paxton can see are the letters GHTIN. Lifting the banner out of the box, he begins to unfurl it on the floor. When it is fully rolled out, Paxton bites his lip.
“Son of a bitch,” he utters.
The banner reads FIGHTING FOR DUSTIN.
Digging through the box he finds more: coozies, hats, pictures. Paxton doesn’t recognize the teenaged boy who is in every picture, but he does recognize other faces. Connor Nackedy. Shweta Kallemullah.
And of course, Jonathan Rhine.
Foster Nackedy’s words ring in Paxton’s head. “You should ask him about Dustin.”
Paxton stands up and rushes out of the locker room, rushing down the hallway. He looks left and right, not sure what he’s looking for. Finally, he screams and punches the wall, creating a hole. Before he can focus on his already damaged hand, he hears a scream down the hallway.
Looking up, he sees Jonathan Rhine screaming and punching the wall as well, causing splinters to fly. Jonathan looks up as Paxton storms up to him. “Guess we’re still the Anger Bros, huh?” he says, but his smile falters as Paxton grabs his shirt.
“Who. The fuck. Is Dustin?”