I was already out of the car and at Cal’s door before the driver rolled to a stop in front the emergency room entrance to the Sunrise Hospital.
“Here’s the plan,” I said. “Jon is my half-brother. If anyone asks why we have different last names, it’s because we have the same father but different mothers, okay?”
She furrowed her brow and stared at me like I was speaking a different language, but it didn’t matter. We had a mission to accomplish. By the time I made it to the ring, Jon was already unconscious. He stayed that way as the paramedics loaded him onto a backboard, and then onto the stretcher. He was still out when they put him in the ambulance and rushed away from the building. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t go with him. Shweta was still in Louisiana with Nora, which meant if he woke up en route to the hospital, he’d be alone.
So we had to get inside, whatever it took.
“And for the next however-long, we’re going to tell people that you and I are married, okay?”
“I’m sorry, we’re what?”
I took her hand and started towards the door.
“In my experience the rules are different for families, Cal. Eventually the staff is going to figure out that we’re full of shit, but right now everything as far as Jon is concerned will be chaos, so they should hopefully just accept this at face value for now. I’m sure someone important will be real pissed at me later, but that’s fine. Wouldn’t be the first time.”
This was a trick I’d picked up during my Sin City days, when half of the people I worked with were bonafide psychopaths, and one of the perks that came with the job was frequent trips to whatever hospital was closest to that night’s arena. Staples. Light tubes. The occasional head-drop onto concrete. Good times. As a rule I hate lying – we can chalk that one up to a few bad experiences I had growing up, but hospitals are exempt from that rule.
They always have been.
He sat in the waiting room; hands folded in his lap over a sketchbook. It still went everywhere with him, even though lately he was finding it harder to draw. In those rare moments when he did put pencil to paper, the things that flowed from Jared’s mind weren’t anywhere near as innocent as the mimes and mazes he used to sketch. No, what came now were monstrosities; vague, shapeless horrors of claws and teeth. His imagination, once an escape from reality, had turned against him.
“You haven’t opened that in a while.” From the seat beside him, his mother tapped the cover of the book. Mary-Ellen was a kind-faced woman, whose chocolate curls had the look of someone that hadn’t slept in weeks. “Can I see what you’ve drawn?”
He lifted his hands and passed the book to his mother. Opening the cover, she thumbed through the first few pages before pausing at a drawing of what appeared to be a large hill. The laugh that escaped her lips was short, and the first sign of joy that Jared had seen from her in days.
“Butt Mountain,” she said. She pointed to the collection of stick figures on their way to an untimely end, blissfully unaware of what lurked around the corner. In this case, what hid just out of sight was a dinosaur whose arms ended in chainsaws. “Who are all these people?”
“Mimes.” Jared’s voice was small, weak; a whisper that was barely audible over the din of the hospital.
“Any particular reason?”
“I hate them,” he said. “They hide their faces. You can never tell if they’re happy, or sad, or scared. I don’t like it. It makes me uncomfortable.”
“And this name. Where did it come from?”
He shrugged. “We thought it was funny.”
The picture had been born out of one of the twins’ Saturday morning rituals, where the boys would scarf down all the sugar that General Mills could get away with while still calling itself part of a balanced breakfast before running into the living room. Andy would park himself in front of the television to watch wrestling, and Jared would take up a seat on the couch to draw. He didn’t much care for the sport, but what was on television wasn’t nearly as important as being near his brother.
Those days were long gone. Andy now spent his days at the hospital, sleeping as the cancer ravaged his small body.
Mary-Ellen flipped through more pages of elaborate mazes, castles, and caves, each of which had a ridiculous name to match. After a few pages the images she saw took on a different tone. They were darker, devoid of any of the mischief those first drawings held. The things that stared back at her from her son’s sketchbook were twisted and sinister. Each face a snarling visage of malice.
The last sketch drained the color from her face. On the page were two boys. One of them was being torn apart by a faceless mass of black. There were no fangs, no eyes, just the shadow. The other boy, his body half buried in the ground, reached out in vain to try and stop it.
She closed the book and passed it back to her son.
“Do you want to go in and visit?” she said.
Jared kept his eyes on the floor and shook his head “no”.
“I know you’re scared, honey. I am too. It’s hard, but we both need to be brave. Can we do that? Will you be brave with me? I promise I’ll be right beside you, okay?”
“I’ll try,” he said.
The plan was successful, and for a long time nobody at Sunrise hassled us. What followed were some of the longest hours of my life as we sat and waited for information that didn’t come. The only things we knew for certain were that Jon was awake, there had been an injury to his spine, and he required emergency surgery to correct an issue with two broken vertebrae. Anything beyond that was met with vague non-answers.
Is he able to move?
He’s awake and talking, but we need to make sure he gets into surgery soon.
Is he going to recover from this?
We don’t know yet. It’s too soon to say.
What does this look like for him long-term?
We don’t know yet.
None of this made my job any easier, and for the rest of the night and most of the next day I talked on and off with Shweta, relaying what little information I had and hoping, praying that the next time we spoke I would be able to give her more than an endless string of, “I don’t know”-s.
I collapsed into a seat in the waiting room next to Cal. The last twenty-four hours had taken a physical toll on the both of us, and what was left of our emotional energy was being slowly, torturously raked across the coals.
“Don’t suppose there’s any new info, huh?”
“No,” she said. “The doctors haven’t been back since you stepped out.”
“In a way I’m kind of okay with that. If I have to hear ‘we’re not sure’ one more fucking time, I swear to god…”
“Email came through last night, though. After the show. You see it?” I shook my head, and she held up her phone. The same message had no doubt been sent to me, but it was lost among the texts, Jabs, and missed calls. “Looks like you’re going solo again.”
The last time I’d been booked in a match by myself everything had gone sideways. Worse than the match falling apart, Cal had worried what this meant for her future in PRIME.
“Cool. Does it have his phone number in there? Because I could really use something to take the edge off right now.”
The look she shot me would have sunk the Titanic.
“That’s not funny.”
Cal pulled away and stood up, taking a few steps into the waiting room before glancing back and nodding at me to follow. If I was about to get lectured for my attempt at dark humor, at least she was going to give me the decency of removing any witnesses.
I followed her around the corner into a corridor that didn’t have much in the way of foot traffic.
“I’m worried, Jared.”
“Me too. I hate being in the dark like this.”
“That’s not what I mean.” She folded her arms and leaned against the wall. “You’ve been different since we got here. I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s not like you, so I’m concerned. I can’t shake the feeling that you’re about to do something stupid.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“Don’t play with me right now, okay? You know exactly what I mean. Twenty-three years, Jared. I’ve known you more than half of my life. I admit I don’t quite get how your mind works, but I know you’re loyal. I know that you have a hard time letting go. So, I feel like I have a pretty good insight into what you’re thinking right now.” She paused, swallowing hard. “I need you to tell me that I’m overreacting, and you’re not about to pick a fight. I need you to tell me that I’m wrong.”
“Somebody’s got to do something, Cal.”
“But that doesn’t mean it has to be you.”
“I’ve known Jon for fifteen years. We may not have always got along, but he’s family. As far as I’m concerned, he’s my brother. And right now… Look, his future was just taken away. He didn’t get a say, it just happened.”
“And what about Shweta? What about the future she was looking forward to?” The tears were flowing freely now; she made no effort to hide it. It broke my heart to see, to know what her words meant. “What about the plans they had together, Jared?”
“Do you? Because I don’t want that for us. Please, I need you to promise me that you’re not going to do something crazy. Promise me.”
It was too much. I couldn’t let her feel this way, couldn’t stand to see her this raw. I would have done anything to take that away and make her feel safe again. And if that meant telling her what she needed to hear, so be it.
“Okay. I won’t do anything stupid.”
But it wasn’t the truth.
He stepped into the room and stopped just beyond the door, not wanting to move any closer. The room felt small, like the walls were closing in around him. He’d been in here before, but that was days ago, before Andy went to sleep. That was all he did anymore.
At the side of the bed sat his father, only looking up to offer a weak smile. It was rare for his parents to be in the same room together since their divorce, and being around them both should have been reassuring, but it only made the experience more alien.
Mary-Ellen felt a tug on her hand and turned to see that Jared hadn’t moved.
“It’s okay, honey,” she said. “I’m right here.”
He inched his way closer, afraid to look deeper into the room. Whatever was in that bed, it wasn’t his brother. It had the same face, but the eyes were sunken. A knitted blue cap sat where his hair should be. It didn’t move except for the slow, rhythmic rise and fall of its chest. Andy could never sit still that long. He was the energetic one, always running around the house and jumping off furniture or diving elbow-first into the cushions of the couch. He would describe the costume he planned to wear when he became a famous wrestler, and Jared would tear pages out of his book so that Andy could tape them up over his bed.
Wherever Andy was, he needed to hurry back. Little League was starting in a few weeks, and mom would need to make sure they were on the same team again. After that would be soccer, and then together they would count down the remaining days until summer vacation when the real fun began.
The silence was maddening. There should be laughter, and tears, and cries from the kitchen to knock off all the horseplay before someone gets hurt. Instead there was just the staccato rhythm of the monitors, and the soft, steady sounds of his breathing.
In a few hours not even that would remain.
I hesitated at the doorway, afraid to cross that threshold. Here, in the hall, I could still imagine a world where everything was fine. Where the things that we’d been told weren’t true. Jon would be sitting on the edge of the bed, Shweta beside him. They’d both be smiling, or laughing. Maybe we’d interrupt a tender moment, and then a new inside joke would be born between the four of us.
For all the good they may do, hospitals are built on a foundation of lies.
This won’t hurt a bit.
Everything is going to be okay.
We’ll get through this together.
Worse are the lies we tell ourselves to cope.
Cal and I stepped into the room, and I knew that I had just traded one set of nightmares for another. There would be a new face staring up at me on the catwalk when I closed my eyes at night.
Jon just laid there, not moving except for his eyes. One of the most athletic people I’d ever shared a locker room with, a true prodigy in the sport, and he couldn’t even bend a finger or wiggle a toe.
Jessica, Jon’s sister, stood by the window with her arms folded. She and I had never met, and given the situation we were in all social graces had gone right to hell. It would be hours before I remembered to introduce myself.
Shweta was despondent. She sat by the bed, held tight by the shock of it all. I’d known her as an agent of Alex Pierce, then as the spearhead of the foundation for Nora. Always composed. Always put-together.
“I don’t know what to say.” It was the truth. I’ve never been good at this. Don’t have much of a bedside manner. Worse, it was damn hard to keep my own emotions in check. “Fuck. Jon, I don’t know what to say. I’m just really glad to see you right now.”
“Hey guys,” Jon said. “Did we win our match?”
The air left the room.
“Yeah. Yeah, you did,” Cal said, then darted a glance up at me. “Do you not remember?”
Jon looked lost in thought, like the memories were there just beyond his reach, hazy and out of focus.
“I remember hitting the Rewind. I remember landing on my ankle funny. And I think I remember hugging Paxton.” I could taste acid at the mention of his name. “But… I can’t hear the bell. Or Vince. Or anything except…”
He trailed off. It was a small mercy that he couldn’t remember, a gift from on high that he couldn’t recall the attack or what followed. For his sake, I hope those memories stayed lost to the aether. For his sake, I hope he never watched it back.
“So, uhh, how are you feeling?”
“I don’t… really… know?” he said. “They said the surgery was good, so I guess I feel… better than I did?”
Shweta shuddered in her chair, sucking in a sharp breath to try and get her own emotions under control. Justine let go of my hand to be by her side.
“That’s good to hear. That’s the fi-” I caught myself. It’s cruel how the mind works, sometimes. One of my best friends, my family, was right there unable to move and the first thing my brain wanted to say was ‘first step’. Just another layer to add to the mounting guilt. “That’s a strong start. Jon, I’m so sorry I couldn’t get there faster. I didn’t… By the time any of us knew…”
“Stop. I know. None of us knew. If I did, I certainly wouldn’t have hugged him.” He sighed, deep and heavy. “I never realized how often I shake my head until… yeah.”
“Will that come back? Did they say what happens next?”
“The head movement? Yeah, that’ll come back soon. So will the arms eventually. Which is good, because the remote is all the way over there.” He glanced in its direction. It was all of two feet away. “And Shweta watches nothing but soap operas.”
“You are painfully unfunny,” Shweta said. They were the first words I’d heard from her in hours.
“Better than what I have to sit through,” Justine said. She looked at me, a wan smile playing at the corner of her lips. “There’s only so many times someone can watch ‘The Notebook’. He cries every time.”
“Is there anything that we can do?” I looked at everyone in turn. “For any of you? I want to help however I can. We both do.”
“Do you remember Katie’s funeral, Jared?” Jon asked.
“All of it.”
Including the parts I would rather forget, like Lane Stevens parading around with a bag of popcorn like it was a fucking celebration.
“I was so nervous giving that speech. And you told me that I could read from the phone book and everyone would still love me for it. I hadn’t thought about that in a long time until I woke up and looked at those.” There was a table in the corner of the room, but it was barely visible under the mountain of flowers and cards that covered it. “You reminded me twelve years ago that I was loved, and over time I forgot. But right now, with everything I have to face going forward… it’s good to know I have support.”
“As much as you need. For as long as you need it. But you don’t know the half of it. I’ve had to recharge my phone like three times today. Tom, Timo, Youngblood… that’s barely scratching the surface of people who’ve been asking for info. And you wouldn’t believe me if I told you some of the folks I’ve tried to reach out to. Everyone’s worried. This isn’t fucking fair.”
“You’re right. It’s not.” Those were the first words I heard Jessica speak. She looked over from her spot by the window, her face tight with anger and concern. “I can’t believe after all this your first question was if you won a damn match. Why does it matter if you won? You nearly lost an eye a decade ago, and now you might never walk again!”
“I know, Jess,” Jon said. “But… wrestling is all I have ever known. It’s what I lived for. I know it doesn’t make sense to everyone. But I know Jared understands.”
“I do.” I understood all too well. All too fucking well. “But, she’s got a point. When is it enough? And why does it have to take so fucking much?”
The despair hit me. We had both offered our lives to this profession, and it had taken them greedily. Eagerly. Hungrily.
“We’ve lost years off of our lives. This job, this business, whatever you wanna call it… It ends relationships. It strains families. It took my best friend.” The emotion was hard to hold back. Tears stung the corner of my eyes. There was no catharsis in letting this out now. No joy. Just the realization of what had been lost. “For a long fucking time it robbed me of who I was.” The sobs crashed over me like waves. “And… and… and it shouldn’t get to fucking take you, too!”
How long until it takes you, Cal? Until it takes me?
“I know,” he said. “But I have to feel this way right now. I have to feel it was worth it. Because, otherwise…”
Because otherwise we’ve thrown our lives away.
That afternoon, Cal had shown me my next booking assignment on her phone: Hayes Hanlon, one of the fastest rising stars in the company. A PRIME superfan-turned-superstar who’d grown up watching and knowing that he’d be The Guy on television one day. I wondered if he had a “Saturday ritual” the same as I did. The same as Andy.
I wondered what the shape of his future would be, what course his career would take, and what the impact would be that it had on his life. He was young, talented, with the whole world ahead of him. He could have everything he ever dreamed of. He could hold this company in the palm of his hands and forge a legacy in gold.
Or he could be like us.