“Here we are, Blueberry. The big battle. The moment where ya march into New York and wage war on me in Jonathan’s name. I’m sure there’s gonna be some huge memorial, some big production because you missed your callin’ as a Broadway choreographer. Those crack addict dancers are gonna contort their bodies to spell “Get Well Soon Jon.”
“Well that can wait, and so can Colossus. First I’m gonna talk ’bout why I paralyzed Jonathan Rhine.”
“Keep an eye on Nora. I’ll get us some drinks.”
Melissa Ray walked away, her fingers tracing Paxton’s shoulder as she went. He watched her go with a smile, his eyes drifting to her backside for a moment before looking out at the playground for Nora.
There she was, climbing up the side of the playground at the Our Lady of Fatima school fair. He gave her a wave when they made eye contact, then looked down at his phone for what felt like a minute.
When he looked up, she was gone.
“Nora?” He walked forward, looking around the playground. Students piled atop the structure, all wearing the blue festival shirt. While Nora was not a student yet, Paxton and Melissa had made the regrettable decision to put her in a shirt the same color that day.
“Nora!” His voice was louder now as he spun around, panicked. He moved past the playground and walked into the street, which was blocked off for the festival. All over there were booths, games, and blue shirts, but no Nora.
“NORA!” Paxton shouted before he was grabbed violently. He looked to his left to see Melissa, her eyes wide and welling up.
“What happened? Where is she?”
“I don’t know!” Paxon shouted.
“You lost her?” Melissa didn’t wait for an answer; she immediately found a festival worker and began yelling. “Is there a lost kid tent?”
“Our daughter is missing. She’s two and a half years old. She’s wearing a…” Melissa looked around and cursed under her breath. “…a blue shirt. Brown hair. Pink ribbon in her hair.”
“What’s her name?” the festival worker asked.
“NORA!” Paxton screamed in response. He spun in a circle, his hand rubbing his clean-shaven face. “NORA!” He walked down the street, and then a side street, and another side street. Finally he found her holding an adult’s hand, tears streaming down her face.
“Come here baby,” Paxton said, running and sliding in front of her, wrapping her in a big hug. “I’m so sorry baby. I’m so, so sorry.”
“Mommy,” Nora muttered through tears.
“We’re here, baby,” Melissa said, rushing in and kneeling down to join the hug.
“We won’t lose ya again, Nora. I promise.”
“Jonathan Rhine. Wrestling legend. Multi time champion. Paraplegic.
“I ain’t been on the shows talkin’ everyone’s ear off ‘cause it ain’t my style. But I wanted to wait until this week to answer the question Nick asked at Ultraviolence and every other roster member has parroted ever since.
“Why, Paxton, why?
“I ain’t really felt like answerin’, mostly ‘cause who the hell deserves an explanation? Jon, and that’s it, but certainly not an announcer or any of the pearl clutchers in the back with their little t-shirts or whatever fake shit they wear to pretend they give a shit ’bout the guy I put down.
“Ya don’t deserve it either, Jared, but since I’m ‘bout to kill ya I don’t mind lettin’ ya in on it.
“The day I found out ’bout Dustin, the first kid that Jon used for his own gain, I was angry, I felt betrayed…and I was already plannin’ on takin’ him out since before then.
“The day of the Foundation Dinner, when Bathory busted in and Foster warned me ’bout Jonathan, and when ya slimed your way into my daughter’s good graces, I was angry, confused…and had been contemplating what it would feel like to break Jon’s neck for months.
“In fact the first day I knew that I was gonna put The New Life on the shelf permanently was the first time we were in a ring together. The first time I threw a punch in PRIME and connected with Trent’s jaw.
“Ya see, Jon did somethin’ far worse than take advantage of my daughter’s illness or turn a tragedy into a business opportunity. No, Jon taught me how good it felt to hurt people in a wrestlin’ ring.”
“I’m so, so sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Ray.” The doctor stood in front of them, his hands folded.
Paxton looked over to Melissa, whose eyes were wet. “She’s only six years old,” she said.
“I want to be clear, ma’am – this is not a death sentence. Remission rates in children with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma have dramatically increased over the last several decades. Nora will have the best care possible with us.”
“How will that work?” Melissa asked.
The doctor nodded. “The good news is that the cancer hasn’t spread, so we can begin with targeted therapy. Chemo is on the table, but we would prefer to keep it there until we really need it. We’ll have you guys back in the next week to talk about all of our options. In the meantime, just try and keep her in good spirits.”
“Do we…” Paxton looked up at the doctor, scratching his goatee. “Do we tell her?”
“It’s up to you, but in my experience, being honest is always best in these situations. She’s young, but I think you’ll find she’s stronger than you give her credit for. And in the coming months and years, you will all need that strength.” After a few moments of awkward silence, the doctor muttered “sorry” again, and left the room.
Paxton put his hand on Melissa’s, then scowled as she immediately took it away. “We gotta tell her ‘bout that, too.”
Melissa frowned at Paxton. “One life-breaking piece of news at a time, Paxton.”
A few minutes later, Nora entered the room and both parents surrounded her with a hug, one on each side. The conversation was brief and difficult.
“Am I going to be okay?” Nora asked, tears forming.
“Ya bet,” Paxton said, closing his eyes as he pulled her closer. “We ain’t gonna lose ya.”
“I fought in the pits, but that was different. There ya were fightin’ fellow desperate men, people who needed that money for somethin’ more than a down payment on an Infiniti or a smoothie machine for their state of the art gym. When ya hurt those people, it felt wrong, but it felt like survival.
“Hurtin’ the well off men and women in the ring, though? The ones who know nothing ‘bout real struggle? That felt like beatin’ cancer. Over and over and over again.
“But that ain’t the only reason I did it. No, I did it because once I knew what kinda monster he made me, once I realized how much I liked hurtin’ others, I needed more targets. And toilin’ away in a tag division with some sad sacks and a rock band wasn’t gonna get me the feelin’ I craved.
“But when ya take out a legend, everybody and their uncle is gonna want payback. So now I have a buncha men and women wantin’ to teach me a lesson. It’s like the witch with the candy house in Hansel and Gretel. I ain’t gotta do a thing. Y’all are jus’ linin’ up to give me what I want.
“Jon was beloved. He was well liked, respected, and he made other members of the roster feel like he was a close, trusted friend they could depend on. The only problem is it ain’t true.
“Jon, like any con artist, made people feel like they were the only person that mattered, when in fact he didn’t give a shit ’bout ’em. Ya can see the Luchador lose his mind over it jus’ because Rhine called him by his real name a couple times.
“Jonathan Rhine was a liar. He was a thief. And worse than that, he was Victor Frankenstein. He created the man who is going to destroy every last one of ya chumps.”
Paxton watched Nora try to reach the monkey bars at the playground down the block from their Lafayette home. “Ya ain’t there yet, sweetie. Few more inches.”
“You told me never accept the word no, daddy,” his daughter answered, hands on her hips.
Paxton chuckled, running his hand through his beard. “Guess I did, didn’t I?”
“Nora no lie!” She said, giggling.
“That’s a great lesson to teach your daughter, Paxton,” a voice behind him said. Paxton turned around to see a man with blonde hair and a scar around his eye walking up to him.
“Who th’ fuck are ya?” Paxton asked, stepping towards him.
“Woah, easy,” the man said, raising his hands. “I’m a friend. My name is Jonathan. I just wanted to talk to you a bit.”
“‘Bout what?” he asked, looking out of the corner of his eye to see Nora walking closer.
Jonathan put his hands down and smiled. It was a friendly smile, a charming smile. “I run a wrestling gym in New Orleans. I heard from a f…from someone I know that you do a bit of, um, fighting in the city.”
Paxton’s jaw clenched, matching his fists. He looked over to Nora and curled his lips as much as he could. “Hey sweetie, daddy’s gonna have a grown-up talk for a minute. Hit the slide a few times, ‘kay?”
“Okay,” she said, bounding off towards the play structure. Paxton watched her go, then wheeled on the man. “I ain’t gonna fight anyone fronta my daughter, but ya better start talkin’ quick before I change my mind.”
Again Jonathan’s hands raised, and again he flashed that smile. “I’m not an enemy. Like I said, I run Gray’s Wrestling Academy. I heard about you. They say you pack a mean punch.”
“Whoever said that must not have fought me. They usually don’t talk much after.”
Jonathan laughed. “So I’m here for two reasons. One, yes, we want you to fight with us. We can take your talent, turn it into something more polished and make you a professional wrestler. You’ll strike it big somewhere and make a ton of money. The second reason…” He trailed off as he looked at Nora, who slid down the slide and onto her bottom.
“Yes. I know about her condition. I’m so sorry.”
Paxton cocked an eyebrow. “Are ya a wrestlin’ coach or a private investigator?”
“We work with someone who’s good at finding things out. I’m sorry that we had to dig into your life, but I promise you my intentions are pure. If you enroll in our school, we will make sure her cancer treatments are taken care of. We’ll give her the best care possible. We’ll make her the face of child cancer, a story of perseverance and victory. She won’t lose this battle with us behind her.”
“Won’t lose…” Paxton muttered, then looked back at the play structure and stood up suddenly. “Nora?”
Jonathan looked over, his eyebrows raised. “Where is she? Is she lost?”
“Not again,” Paxton muttered, running over to the play structure, ignoring Jonathan asking “Again?”
He leapt over the fence and ran to the other side of the structure, sighing with relief as he found her on the ground, holding a leaf. “There ya are, baby. What are ya doin’?”
“There was an ant moving back and forth near the grass. It couldn’t find its way back home. I was going to put it on this leaf so it could find its way again.”
Jonathan hung back, waiting for Paxton to walk back towards him. When he did, the gym owner smiled. “She’s special, Paxton.” He reached down to the backpack at his feet and unzipped it, then offered a gray shirt to Paxton. It had the academy’s logo on it. “Let us help her.”
Paxton stared at the shirt for a few moments before gently reaching forward to grab it.
“But that don’t compare to the worst thing Jon did. The worst thing he did was become friends with ya again, Jared. For your sake, at least. If ya still think he’s a selfish piece of shit when I make my move, we ain’t here today. Maybe ya convince yourself ya would be, but ya wouldn’t put everything on the line to face me. He turned ya into a martyr. He showed a soft side to ya and then when I ended his career, it made ya feel ya had to do somethin’ ‘bout it. All because’a some punk that don’t give a shit if ya live or die.
“So here ya are, double bookin’ yourself, beggin’ to step into the ring with a lunatic, all in the name of somebody who doesn’t even care ’bout ya. That’s who ya should be mad at, Jared, not me. Be mad at the guy who indirectly fed ya to the Bayou Fuckin’ Butcher. Be mad at the man who ruined your relationship with your woman ‘cause ya get so blinded with anger that ya can’t control who ya are anymore.
“But ya won’t do that. Nah, you’re too noble for it. At least that’s what ya think is the reason. Ya hear guys like Anglo and Youngblood talk ’bout themselves as the hero of PRIME, when really you’re the one who thinks he’s the savior. Ya come out to save Jon ’bout three minutes too late. Ya become a fuckin’ maniac when someone raises their fist to your precious Justine. Ya put so much weight behind your place in the company, and ya think it makes ya strong. Ya think it makes ya a hero.
“But the truth is you’re jus’ lost, Jared. You’re a lost little kid and ya have been since your brother died.”
December 4, 2022
Paxton Ray pulled on the doorknob of his daughter’s home in Lafayette and cocked his head, surprised that the door didn’t open. He grunted, putting the envelope he’s holding under his arm as he dug in his pocket. Pulling out keys, he unlocked the door and walked in only to freeze in the doorway.
He scanned the room, finding nothing. No sofa, no liquor cabinet, no half-broken dining room table. He ran up the steps, taking them two at a time, and stopped in the doorway of Nora’s room, which was not completely empty.
Sitting in the middle of the room was a small book. As Paxton walked over to look, he shook his head. “Motherfucker.”
The book was Hands Are Not For Hitting.
Bending over, he picked up the book and gripped it tight, then screamed as he ripped it in half. He saw an envelope fall to the floor and stared at it for a few moments before picking it up. He began to walk downstairs, holding the new envelope in his hands. His fingers slipped as he opened the envelope, and he grimaced as it slit the tip of his finger, causing a tiny drop of blood to come out. He put the finger in his mouth as he walked out of the house and read the letter standing on the doorstep.
I am afraid that you and I have been on opposite ends for so long that this will look like just another round of Melissa vs. Paxton, that I’m taking one more step in the dance we’ve danced since first deciding to separate.
“That don’t sound like her,” Paxton said, shaking his head.
Please believe me when I say that is not the case. This is a response to you and what you did on television with our daughter watching.
To try and end any man’s life is an act I can’t understand. But to do it to a person who only tried to help you and our daughter has convinced me that you are not only not the man I married, you are not even a man anymore. You are something else entirely, something scary and unrecognizable. And I cannot in good conscience let you see our daughter anymore.
Nora was scared of your wrestling career, and so was I, and now we know that we were right to be scared. They call you a Butcher on TV, and you wear it like a badge of honor, but to the only women who ever loved you it’s a curse worse than any word you ever said that caused Nora to scold you.
Do not try to look for us. Shweta will make sure any attempt is unsuccessful.
“Shweta. I fuckin’ knew it.”
Please just forget about us and please, if you don’t do anything else, please turn away from this self-destructive path and get help.
I’m so sorry it turned out this way. What feels like forever ago, you told Nora that you wouldn’t lose her. But you lied. You lost her, you lost me, and you lost yourself. I hope one day you find peace. But don’t try to find us.
Paxton stared at the letter, rereading it again and again. He flexed his fingers one by one, then looked down at the ground. He found a brick and with a yell hurled it at the front door as hard as he could, splitting the wood in the middle. He then sent a left fist at the door, and a right, continuing to assault the door as blood trickled and then gushed out of his knuckles.
Finally he sat down in exhaustion, letting his bloody hands rest on the grass. He looked down and saw an ant bounce against his shoe twice as it tried to find its path, circling around before once again colliding with him. He sighed and looked out to the street to see a man sauntering towards him.
“Ya fuckin’ Gray’s Academy guys,” he spat at Foster. “Always showin’ up wherever tragedy strikes.”
Foster laughed and stood over him, holding out his hand towards Paxton, the same hand Paxton shook that night in September when the entire world changed for Paxton, and Rhine, and everyone in their orbit. “That we do. But we also help make it better. Come on, kid. Let’s go find something else to believe in.”
After a moment, Paxton reached out a bloody hand and let himself be pulled up, then shuffled towards his car without glancing back at the place that would never be home again.
“That’s why ya bounce around from place to place, puttin’ on a mask, doin’ wild ass shit with forklifts and mannequins. It’s why ya seem to be two people, the goofy fruit with the silly names and the ridiculous music, and then the broodin’ crybaby who wants to avenge his friends and save everyone.
“Ya ain’t ever been able to find somewhere ya fit in, even as ya win titles, even as ya earn respect as one of the best wrestlers in this business. So ya look for validation, for a place to stop bein’ someone ya hate. It’s why ya seek comfort in women like Amy Campbell and Justine Calvin, and why ya turned away from Jonathan Rhine for twelve years because he dared tell ya once that he was wrong for puttin’ ya up on a pedestal.
“Yeah, I know ‘bout all that – your brother, your fights with Jon, your career. When ya come to the ring wearing a shirt with his name on it, jus’ remember who it was who gave me the fuckin’ ammo.
“Only someone lost would watch a man destroy his tag team partner, send him to a life of wheelchairs and assisted bathroom breaks, and think that was a place he’d want to go too. Only someone lost would think steppin’ in the ring with me and with no rules sounds like a good idea.
“But I get it. I’ve been lost too. I tried to find my way to help my daughter, and it made me more lost than ever. And while I don’t regret what I did, it cost me everythin’, and I mean everythin’. I’m startin’ to find my way now, and lemme tell ya, it feels good. It feels free.
“So I’ll cut ya a deal, Jared. Ya come into the Garden as a lost boy, and I’ll help ya find some peace. I’ll give ya a reason to finally stop lookin’ for somethin’. It won’t feel good. In fact it’ll hurt like hell. But when it’s all over, ya won’t be worried ’bout Jon. Ya won’t be worried ‘bout puttin’ on a mask. Ya won’t be worried ‘bout defendin’ your title the next day. Ya won’t be worried ‘bout nothin’ at all.
“And remember, when it’s all said and done? Ya asked for this, Jared. Ya asked for it, and I’m gonna give it to ya.”