There’s a part of me that thinks this might be the last time I’m able to talk to you like this.
I don’t know what’s on the other side of the next few days, but I know what’s happened to everyone else that he’s tried to hurt, and I know that I’m on the list of people he wants to see suffer.
All I hear from everyone lately is that I’m going to be the one who stops him, who puts an end to this. Like I’m a goddamn superhero in cape and tights who can just swoop down from the sky and make all of it go away.
I’m not that guy. I’ve never been that guy. Every single monster that I have tried to get in front of has shoved me down and stepped on my throat on their way to reaching the next level. And in return I get a collection of scars and a catalog of failures to remind me of every time I wasn’t able to get it done.
“Jared’s going to take care of this shit.”
History says otherwise.
All Jared wanted was to go home.
Home was safe, it was warm there. The beds didn’t have railings, or wheels, and the blankets and pillows were soft, plush. The mattress was thick, and he didn’t have to constantly fidget to get comfortable around a metal beam that always seemed to poke him in the same spot no matter where he moved.
At home people were nice. They were nice here, too, but he knew they were just pretending. All the nurses and doctors, they just kept smiling and telling him that it was going to be okay, and that everything would be over soon.
“It’s just like taking a nap,” they said. “And when you wake up it will be all over.”
He wanted to believe them, but they used too many strange words. Things that he wasn’t supposed to hear. Andy’s leukemia was becoming more aggressive, and so they needed to try a new approach. That’s what the last doctor had said. His parents looked worried. Mom had started to cry.
They had given him a blood test to see if he “matched,” but he didn’t really know why. He closed his eyes tight, and mom held his hand while the doctor poked him with a needle. Needles were the worst.
When it was over, mom and dad had taken him aside for a special conversation. Dad did most of the talking, explaining that this was a chance to help save Andy, and that Jared would be giving a piece of himself so that Andy could fight. Bone marrow was something he learned about in science class, and while he didn’t know exactly how they would get it, Jared imagined that it was going to hurt a lot.
That’s why he asked his father if this would work. Would this mean they could all go home and be a family again? Would he and Andy be able to run around in the yard, and play on the swings, and wrestle in the living room on Saturday mornings?
Dad said yes.
Mom didn’t say anything.
They rolled him into a new hallway, which was a lot colder than the last room he was in. Mom and Dad weren’t allowed to come this far, because of The Rules. Even the man in blue who brought him here was gone now.
He closed his eyes and thought of the photo he kept on his nightstand. It was a Christmas present from his brother, given just after they turned seven years old.
Three short sentences scrawled on the back strengthened his resolve.
I picked a fight because of what happened to Jon, but I didn’t understand the truth of what I was getting myself into. I’ve seen it happen to other people, innocent people. I’ve felt it firsthand.
I’m so far over my head. I did something real dumb because I thought it was the right thing to do, but it turns out I was wrong, and now I’m drowning.
For the first time in years I was happy – genuinely happy. Not just looking for an excuse to bother getting out of bed every day. And I pissed it all away over some pseudo-noble bullshit. All of it. Gone. Coral’s convinced I’ve lost my mind. Darren hasn’t said anything, but his poker face isn’t worth a damn. And Justine…
Andy, what the hell did I get myself into?
She paused on the way back from the kitchen, taking a moment to contemplate something on the wall that wasn’t present during her last visit. At the time she would have sworn up and down that a mirror used to hang in that space. Mary-Ellen looked to that spot now, and her reflection peered back at her.
Her eyes wandered to the corner of the glass, where a photo was tucked into the frame. It was recent, the only one she’d seen in the house of her son since he started coloring his hair a brilliant neon pink. He was smiling, happy; the unbridled joy of the child she raised finally breaking through after ten long years of silence. The green-eyed girl next to him smiled just as wide.
Her gaze found the mirror again and saw that her reflection was crying. Fitting that she would see this on his birthday. She had brought him into the world on a sunny December afternoon, and now, after years of uncertainty, she had him back.
“You know I’m surprised your friend isn’t here,” she said, and gestured to another photo in his living room. “Figured you two would be celebrating together.”
“Justine? We’re, well…” He paused, trying to find the right words to use. “It’s not what it used to be.”
“Did something happen?”
“Yup.” He pointed to himself with two fingers.
She set her coffee on the table in front of her, noting that something about it seemed to make him uncomfortable. She’d heard about an incident at work, the Rhinestones had told her that much, but they wouldn’t go into detail.
The Rhinestones were a fan club who took their name from the target of their affection, Jonathan Rhine. Among them, Mary-Ellen held a place of honor. She was the only one who could claim to be on Jon’s Christmas Card list, the only one with a direct line to the man himself. That her son had his own career of note was of little consequence to the Rhinestones until Jared started his vengeance crusade.
“I was talking to some of the girls yesterday,” she said. “About what you’re doing. About the fight you’re going to have with that Paxton fellow. They said I should be proud of you for that. Do you know what I said?”
“That you’ll be sure to note that in my eulogy?”
“I said, ‘that’s my son, and I’m always proud of him.’” She felt herself welling up again. “I know why you’re doing this, Jared.”
“Someone has to try.”
“No.” She pursed her lips. “That’s not it. I know about the photo. The one in your wallet that you look at when you don’t think anyone else is paying attention, the same one that used to hang in your room when you were little. I know what it says.”
“I don’t know what-“
She dismissed him with a wave.
“I cleaned your room for years, Jared. I know things.” She watched as his face turned bright red. “I lost one son to cancer. For a long time, I thought I had lost the other to himself. I wish you knew how happy it makes me to see you out in the world again. But you don’t have to keep living for other people. It’s awful what happened to Andrew. It’s awful what happened to Jon. But it shouldn’t mean that your own life gets put on hold. Do you understand?”
“So, I need you to promise me something, and mean it. I’m your mother, and I’ve changed enough of your diapers to know when you’re full of shit.” This drew a chuckle from them both, easing the tension that had gathered in the room. “There are two boys in that photo, Jared. Sometimes I think you forget that. When this is over, I need you to promise me that you’re going to start living for you. Will you do that?”
“Okay,” he said. “I swear.”
“I’m proud of the man you’ve become, Jared,” she said. “You know what? Andrew would be, too.”
Despite everything that’s happened, there’s a jealousy that I just can’t seem to shake. I know it shouldn’t be that way, but I can’t help it.
His little girl, Nora is her name… Man, she has it together so much better than we did at her age. She got sick, but she won. She beat it, Andy. I am so happy that she gets to know what it’s like to just be a kid again. Running, and playing, and making new memories with her parents. Both of them. Even him.
But why couldn’t that have been us, too?
How fucking dare he get to win, and then throw that in the trash like it’s nothing?!
“That doesn’t mean that monsters aren’t real. It’s just that they know how to hide. Their disguises are far worse than anything I could come up with. We know a thing or two about hiding though, don’t we, Paxton?”
She waited just beyond the doorway. Beyond the threshold, Jared sat across from a camera. No matter what had happened leading up to this moment, she wouldn’t let him be alone before meeting destiny in the ring. It wouldn’t be a match, she knew that much. The company had refused to sanction it. This would be a fight, pure and simple. No rules, with a referee present only to end things before they went too far. Assuming any referee could.
She wondered if these were the last words she’d ever hear him say, then fought to push the thought from her mind.
“…a fearless guy who just wanted to do right by his daughter,” she heard him say. “I was proud to play a small part in trying to help. I cried the night I learned she was in remission. Cried like a fucking baby, I won’t deny it. But that wasn’t the whole truth. Now we all see it, the monster that was pretending to be a man. This?”
The last words of Wyatt Connors spilled from his lips.
“This is who you are.”
She watched as his gaze drifted to the floor.
“But who the fuck am I?”
She’d heard this before. It was a crisis of conscience that he dealt with during the years of his isolation, when left to the devices of whatever nightmares hid inside his head. He struggled for years trying to learn the answer to that question, and then together stumbled into a gym in rural Indiana where the truth had been buried.
The next steps were ones she and Jared were supposed to take together, and then Paxton fucking Ray had pissed all over their plans. The nightmare of Sin City, the torture and the torment of so many years had been boiled down, refined, and distilled into one man. One who, if he got his way later tonight, would make goddamn sure Jared never took another step again.
He looked away from the camera for a moment and their eyes met. Despite the gravity of the moment, she saw the hint of a smile forming. It offered her no peace.
“I may not be a ‘lost soldier of the highway’,” he said, a callback to the rallying cry used by Rhine in those days after the Highwaymen disbanded, when all he thought he had were Foster Nackedy and Shweta. “I definitely don’t have ‘many sets of eyes with which to see’. But I see you, Paxton. God, I wish I didn’t.”
He raised an unsure hand to his mask, loosening what ties it still had. With a great effort he pulled it free of his face.
Justine took her first step into the room, but one of the production assistants was quick to intercept. Her face flushed red, suddenly irritated that Mark would have the audacity to keep her out right now. But it wasn’t Mark. Of course it wasn’t; he hadn’t been around since Paxton had thrown him through the window back at the Grand. The man pointed to the camera. Video recording had stopped, but the mics in the room were still capturing audio.
“Hey, Paxton. I’m Jared. I think it’s time we met.”
She was at his side the moment the producer announced that they were clear, pushing past production staff and almost dropping the boom operator when he didn’t move fast enough.
He was still holding the mask in one hand. The mask, she had learned, and the persona that came with it, were born of a story that Jared’s mother had read to her boys when they were still young. It was a shield that he had braced himself behind trying to weather the storms that life tended to throw his way, but it had become worn and battered to where no blacksmith could reforge it. Now it was just a rag, torn and stained with blood and chocolate. A replacement for it would never be commissioned.
He cast it aside.
His eyes were focused on the photo in his right hand, the same one he carried like a totem and studied before every match. The picture was of Jared and his brother, taken on their seventh birthday.
“Hey,” she said. She leaned against him, not sure which of them needed the support more at that moment. “Are you ready to do this?”
The response was low, barely more than a whisper. “No. I’m really not.”
He raised his eyes and Justine saw something there she didn’t expect, something that flew in stark contradiction to the image of iron-clad resolve he’d shown for the camera mere moments before. Jared was afraid. More than that, he was terrified.
“It’s going to be okay,” she heard herself say, not really believing it.
“I need you to do something for me, Cal. Three things, actually. I need…,” he started, but the words caught in his throat. “I need you to promise me that you won’t watch this. That you won’t watch what’s about to happen.”
The color bled from her face.
“Justine, please. I don’t know what’s going to happen, or how this plays out, but… just… please.”
She nodded. “Okay.”
“Okay,” he echoed. “This one, umm, this one’s, well…”
“It’s okay,” she said. “Whatever it is, you can say it.”
“Cal, if this goes bad I need you to let me go. If it… If I end up like Jon…”
“If things go that way I don’t want you to have to…”
“No!” Her voice boomed in the quiet. “No, I won’t. And before you think to say it again, don’t. We’re in this together, okay? No matter what happens. You’re going to go out there, because I know you can. And you’re going to walk back here because I need you to.” The facade had cracked. Justine drew in an uneven breath as she tried to steady herself. She couldn’t cry here, not now. It was imperative that she hold it together, as much as herself as for him. “I’m not doing this without you. Do you understand me? I won’t.”
Jared nodded once, but said nothing.
“What’s the next thing?” she said. “And I swear if it’s anything like the last one…”
He took her hand and pressed the photo into it, gently closing her fingers around it. Justine opened her mouth to speak, but a knock at the door heralded a forlorn-looking production assistant there to deliver the message that it was time to go.
Jared rose from his seat, and Justine rose with him, mirroring his movement.
“There’s something on there that I want you to see,” he said.
“What is it?”
“The only person I’ve ever wanted to be.”
He leaned in and kissed her before she could respond.
“I love you,” he said.
“I love you, too.”
It took everything she had to not tackle him, pin him to the ground, prevent him from leaving. They could run off together. Take an Uber to JFK and get on a plane to somewhere warm. They could celebrate the holiday on the sand away from Paxton Ray, away from all the violence. They could just exist. Happy. She could convince him; knew that he would agree. She also knew that Jared would never forgive himself.
He stepped into the hall, and the walls of the room closed around her.
She uncurled her fingers and took a close look at the photograph in her hand. Once vibrant and alive it had faded with age, and looked to be on the verge of tearing despite the many visible layers of laminate that kept it from disintegrating. Curious, Justine turned it over.
All the breath left her lungs.
I hate that I have these thoughts. I hate that I have to have this fight, and that I had to disappoint so many people to see it get this far. I threw away so much to make this happen, and for what? For fucking what?
I’m scared, Andy.
I’ve tried to play it off like I know what I’m doing, because for every person who thinks this is suicide there’s three more ready to carry my fucking banner into battle the first chance they get. As if anything I do is going to bring some level of justice to all of this. None of them understand.
I’m scared that Justine is going to realize that she’s actually better off with me gone.
I’m scared of what happened to Mark, or Sammy Broadway at the Belmont, or Jon… that this is just the appetizer. That my own fate is going to be far, far worse.
Most of all, I…
I’m scared that I’m not the person you think I am. I’m terrified at the thought that I’m going to end up proving you wrong.
Because if I’m not that, then who the fuck am I?
The living room floor was invisible beneath a blanket of wrapping paper, boxes, and brightly colored toys. Eventually mom would come in with the trash bags and everyone would have to help clean up, but the morning was for playing and presents, and woe betide anyone foolish enough to try and get between two second-graders and their hoard on Christmas morning.
There was one more present that Jared didn’t know about, a secret one that his brother had made and wrapped all on his own. Andrew tiptoed around a minefield of crinkling paper, careful to not alert his brother that something was up. Jared didn’t seem to notice; he was too busy organizing a massive collection of colored pencils.
Andrew pulled the package from behind his back and waved it in front of his brother. “I made you something, JJ! I hope you like it.”
Jared’s face lit up. Presents were always a cause for celebration, but the ones that came from Andrew were special.
“Can I open it?”
The paper was torn away in a heartbeat. Jared unfolded the contents. Inside were two pictures. The first was a photo of the two boys taken only weeks ago on their birthday, faces barely visible behind masks made of frosting. It was taped to a second picture, one that had been drawn in crayon and showed him flying through the sky like a superhero in blue and red. There was a golden “JJ” on his chest.
“It’s not as good as what you can do,” Andrew said, “but I know you like drawing, so I wanted to draw you something. Look on the back!”
Andrew flipped over the photo, revealing a few short sentences.
I love you JJ
You’re my hero for always and ever
“I wrote it myself!”
“You made me into a superhero?”
“Because you are one.”
“I don’t know. There’s a lot of stuff I can’t do.”
“No way, JJ. You can do anything. I know you can.” He pointed to the drawing of his brother in flight. “See this? This is you. You can fly, and you help people and fight bad guys.”
Jared wrinkled his nose. Fighting bad guys didn’t sound like much fun. It was cool when Superman did it, or when Spider-man would catch people in giant webs, but they had muscles, and cool costumes, and powers. They were strong.
He wasn’t like them.
“This is you, JJ,” Andrew said. He tapped the drawing again, the smile never leaving his face. “This is who you are.”