Benjamin Youngblood didn’t have a long time to think about the end. A brisket in the smoker, a lure in the creek, and as his skin clung to the webbing of his lawn chair, vertigo hit. The blackout robbed him of consciousness, schist gouging his temple in the fall. Coming to, he pulled himself with the help of the chair, limping back to the house. He would have driven to the emergency room himself if he could stop from dry heaving.
Large-cell lung carcinoma. Stage Four. It had spread through the lymph nodes, his spinal cord, his brain. Weeks, not months. Empty platitudes flowed in sterile fluorescence about groundbreaking therapies. He refused; he wasn’t going to be some lab rat for a profession he never trusted anyway. Life had become nothing more than a series of migraines. He’d told nobody he didn’t want to hear the sympathies.
As though he were worth them.
He sat at his woodworking bench in the basement, unfinished projects littering the space. Model aircraft carriers. A piece of crown molding. A canary legal pad weighed down by a bottle of wood glue. One cigarette lit after another. The light bulb from the desk lamp caused his head to pulse. Another dizzy spell. He braced against the table, shaky fingers grabbing for a pen. He wasn’t a poet, scrawling the barest of bones.
When he was done, he reached into the bench’s drawer, put the barrel of the Stoeger in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.
Hammer to the anvil, each strike concussive. Black steel made molten, reformed into the head of an ax through parallel strikes until the filigree was no more.There was no malice feeding the blows, only purpose. Lindsay Troy thought his asking for a piece of the Dual Halo was odd. Idle, annoyed chatter was followed by sobering reasoning. Angelica Brooks had only managed to scratch the surface a year ago. Some things really were better left unknown.
Lindsay had a piece of it sheared off, sending it to him Express.
It was thanks to Travis that he had access to the forge, his ex-wife’s husband having taught him years before how to craft throwing hatchets. He studied the bit, the toe and heel clean. Once cooled, it would be ready.
A cacophony wrested Brandon back into the world of the living. Life was misery, cognition distilled into all encompassing pain. He didn’t know where he was anymore. When last he blinked, the Dual Halo had been down to four; himself, Karina Wolfenden, Angelo Deville, and Emilio Rage. The brainchild of one of PRIME’s principal owners, the Halo was a monstrosity of steel and glass, cages topped off with domes, raised platforms eating into the outskirts of a pair of rings. On a riser, a tunnel, the doors opening at random intervals.
It was insane.
He rose with the last of his reserves. Wolfenden and her whirlwind hues was only standing thanks to the ropes supporting her. Head official Bernie Roberts had her by the wrist. Blood blurred his vision. Commanding his spent limbs, he pushed from the mats, sensing her back was turned to him. Coiling, he readied to strike. Her haptics were in frenzy. When she turned, he latched onto her, throwing everything he had into a declarative spinebuster. After everything, the battle, the madness, she was utterly shattered. He hooked her leg.
Brandon had yet to win anything of true consequence in his career. Not only had arrived, but within two months in PRIME, he was about to send shockwaves throughout the wrestling world.
There was no count.
Pulled away by Bernie Roberts, his voice was tunneled and tinny. It wasn’t his words that made his stomach fall, but the confetti filling the ring.
It wasn’t for him.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Benji Youngblood’s cigarette smoldered, a long ash maintained as he stabbed a worm through his fishing hook, casting the reel towards his creek. “It’s just grabbing at each other, spreading AIDS–”
Gus Windholm belched with laughter. “Wrestling’s an Olympic sport. They test for that shit.” His skin was leathery and pockmarked, even across his gut, gray seeping through his mustache and horseshoed hair. He was a neighbor despite the swath separating their ranches. A high school history teacher and a Varsity coach. “Well we don’t because we run a clean program here.”
Benji gritted his teeth as he looked toward his son, all of ten years old, sitting cross legged on the rocks. He was a mere gangle of limbs and wild hair. He’s like his mother, he thought. So soft. Feminine. There was no fight in that boy. He couldn’t even manage to stick a worm properly. “The last thing he needs is to be hugging on boys.”
It wasn’t like Brandon couldn’t hear him, rather, his mind was on the sickness filling his stomach. A whole piglet in the smoker. His father fancied himself a pitmaster. What was that smell? Always the same, even when he grilled.
Benji swore by the wood.
“You said yourself, Ben, he’s got two left feet. Can’t play football with two left feet. And wrestling can fix that. Trust me.”
No bites on the line. Benji ashed his cigarette, stamping it out before reaching into his pocket for a dip of chew. “You know, after church, I sometimes catch him and his little brothers watching that garbage on the television–”
“That ain’t wrestling. It’s shit.” Gus’s tone soured. “Wrestling teaches discipline. I know that boy of yours got some athlete in him. Just got to cut through the rock. Get to the diamond on the inside.”
“If you say so.” An ichor of tobacco from his lips as he chuckled, staining his shirt. He turned to his son, calling out to him. “You want to be a wrestler, Brandon?”
The yell startled him as he tried to bait his hook, the barb catching and tearing into his finger. He yelped, his hand reflexively waving before he began to suck on the wound, biting down on the growing throb. What did he want to be? He wanted to be left alone. To be at peace.
His father shook his head, turning back to his neighbor. “Give you a week before he quits.”
Bandera was a long trek from Eau Claire, yet Brandon was silent, weight shifting as he stretched his legs in the cabin of his truck. The quiet should’ve ate away at him in the empty air, but his head was clear, eyelids heavy as he drove through the hill country under cover of rising sun. Karsts of limestone and caliche, seas of yucca and cacti, the interstate whorling until the lands grew kinder. Prickling familiarity burbled upward, a knowing of these roads despite all the years away. Internal compass guiding the way, a cicada emerging from the mind..
He turned down a trail of volcanic gravel, unevenness jostling him as he ventured down the path. A winding road up an escarpment, he eased down the other side, reaching a level clearing, the route forward blocked by a chain anchored between sagging pillars of rotting oak.
He opened his door, stretching his limbs, his hand fishing into his pocket for the key to the padlock. Rust had conquered it, forcing him to torque his elbow when turning the key. It took several tries, but once successful, the chain sank into the bluestem, allowing him free passage. He returned to his truck, continuing along his way.
Nobody had ever beaten Dallas Stratton in a wrestling match. He was a three time Texas state champion at heavyweight. A monster of granite muscle. He was Oklahoma State bound, whispers even that, perhaps, he was a future Olympian. Brandon had studied him all year, watched him smother and wilt everyone in his path with his immense size. He was only a Sophomore, still coming into his body.
Nobody thought he had a chance.
Everyone else tried to match strength with the Conroe The Woodlands star. Brandon focused on technique, used positioning. Stratton had become such a legend, his mere presence was enough to strike fear in his opponents. As the minutes went by, unable to exert dominance, he grew frustrated.
That’s when all the footwork drills paid off. At first, he hated wrestling. But the more he dedicated himself to it, the better he became. Practices were intense, and he threw himself headlong into them. It kept him away from the ranch and the family he so desperately wanted to be rid from. As Dallas tried to jerk himself free, he left himself open. Brandon pounced, swinging around him, toppling him to the mat. A quick scramble was followed by a calculated bull rush.
If his father’s constant ‘love’ had done anything for him, it was grant him inhuman endurance. He pounced, slamming him once again, blanketing every comeback attempt with deadweight. Dallas tried to escape, his powerful muscles screamed for oxygen, becoming the shackles which drug him into the abyss of points death.
The greatest accomplishment in his life, all a blur, shouting, screaming, students from Bandera going insane. Colleges would offer him scholarships. The first vestiges of The Diamond.
But in that moment, all he could think about, as the medal was put around his neck, was how much he wanted to shove it up his father’s ass.
Nature was reclaiming the land, healing it from those who once owned it. The asphalt was withered, hoary, buffalo grass growing in patches from the loam. The old home’s foundation was scorched to the cinder blocks, exposed to the surface like rotting bones.
A long story. Fall of the house of Youngblood. Huntington’s Disease ravaged his mother. God works in mysterious ways. She brandished the Stoeger at his kid sister Lindsay, forcing her to push her in self defense. Their mother landed head first from the second story. When Brandon finally arrived, the ceramic tile had retted through their mother’s skull. He had to protect his sister. Burn the evidence. For all anyone knew, it was an accident. Tell a lie enough times and it can become the truth.
He stepped forward, trying to orient himself in the center of the space, to resurrect his childhood home from the grave, if only as an echo. His brow furrowed in his struggle. After all, he’d made sure to fill the basement. Part of him wished Amy was there, to have some deeper conversation, to share with her the world he came from before finally putting it to rest.
He never wanted his son to know of this place.
Past it, a thicket of leatherstem, trailing off before a depression gave way to a creek. On the fringes of the brush stood the reason he’d come here.
An ungodly time to receive a call in Sapporo. Brandon reached for his phone, his eyes laced with rheum, flecks of his hair brushed aside as he turned on the table lamp next to his hotel bed. It had been years since he’d heard from his mother. There was no love lost, not after his youngest brother had…
A world away. Perhaps it was culture shock that made him answer the phone. “Brandon, I don’t know what time it is over there…Candace told me you were somewhere with the…Prize Wrestling…Prime Wrestling…I…” He said nothing, letting her speak. “I know you don’t think much of us, and it hurts me to say that…” her raspy composure was a lie, her quavering lilts giving her away. “It’s about your father…”
Less than two days away from the Halo. He had no time for this. “What about him?”
“He’s…he’s gone, Brandon. Your father passed away.” Even in mourning, she couldn’t help herself. “It was peaceful. He’d just gotten diagnosed with cancer. They hadn’t caught it until now. But he fought it, Brandon. Fought with everything he had. It was…it was peaceful.” If his father’s worst trait was sociopathy, then his mother’s was delusion.
He didn’t know then that she was lying, only that her histrionics hadn’t moved him beyond a disaffected proffer. “Okay.” Slowly, the news was sinking in. There was no celebration, no sense of loss. Only a gnawing numbness. Empty. A black hole stealing all light. No calm. No peace. Just…existence. It was disconcerting.
“If you could fly back…we’re going to have a celebration of life for him. Plant a tree for him and scatter his ashes. It would be nice to get the family back together. He’d love that.” Twisting of knives. “And I want you to know…in his own way, he loved you very, very much.”
The phone shattered as it crashed into the wall.
Mesquite was a cancer to the land, stealing life from those around it. His mother didn’t know just how fitting this shrub was as a gravemarker. The tree had splintered, a singular thick trunk jutting from the ground, a foundation to half a dozen smaller ones in tight proximity. Was it supposed to grow this fast? He gave the mesquite a final survey before making his approach with the ax.
When he got home, he gave himself a few moments before going down the stairs, to open the closed door to the basement that had always terrorized him. Opening the door, he was hit with the must, ever varnished with his own stale urine. When he opened the door, he saw his father, ashing cigarettes into the copper tray he’d had to swallow from so many times. There was no love as he took the medal from his neck, no moment of exuberance. He merely dropped it onto the workbench in front of his father, offering up like a bounty. “So much for quitting, huh?”
His father hissed, and yet, he shrunk under the glimmer of gold. The physical abuse had stopped. After all he’d done to him, how hard he’d pushed, he’d forged the diamond. He was afraid. “Jesus Christ…you really did it.” Not knowing, Brandon anticipated the faintest bit of humility, perhaps even begrudging pride. What he got was a serrated blade ripping through his stomach and lungs. “You went on and became a full on queer.”
“IT’S NEVER ENOUGH!”
Jason Snow had never seen Brandon like this. It wasn’t the stalking intensity, not even the bursts of rage; it was the desperation in The Diamond’s wails that showed him that something was truly, deeply wrong.
“It’s just…never enough. Never enough. NEVER ENOUGH! IT’S NEVER FUCKING EVER ENOUGH!”
Not even the night before, after he’d somehow managed to roll up his Standard Of Bastard’s brother, was the reaction this visceral. In some fashion, The Universal Champion knew there was at least a grudging acceptance of the result of their encounter. A modicum of belief in himself. Snow knew; it wasn’t a matter of if Brandon was going to take PRIME as his own, but when. After all, it’s why he’d mentored him, nurtured him when all others refused. “It’s the Halo, Brandon. Olsig got lucky. We hadn’t gameplanned for him. It’s–”
“NEVER. FUCKING. ENOUGH!” Their locker room in Wembley shook at its very core. “I wanted this. I NEEDED THIS JASON! YOU…YOU’LL ALWAYS HAVE THAT–” his finger stabbed at the Original Villain’s Universal Championship, “–but I’m always chasing. I’m always chasing. And that fucking Halo…THAT FUCKING HALO…Olsig…FUCKING OLSIG?! IT’S NEVER ENOUGH!”
Seeing his brother so rankled made it hard for Jason not to tell him how he’d commanded the wherewithal to survive The Pariah’s onslaught. That, in a career of performances that may well quantify him as the greatest to ever enter not just a PRIME ring, but any ring, he’d saved his very best for his very last. “He got lucky! You have to be bigger than this. PRIME is yours now, you hear me? And it’s going to need you more than ever to be the standard.”
Youngblood slumped lifeless into his locker, Snow’s words never resonating. Losing another chance at the Universal Championship was hard enough. But the Dual Halo? It simply marked his fate. Bridesmaid. So close. No matter how hard he trained, no matter how beyond the physical and mental breaking point he pushed, he would never attain what he wanted so desperately. “I’ll…I’ll never be enough.”
It wasn’t legacy or fame that guided him.
It was the hope that victory would, finally, grant him peace.
He gripped the handle of the ax, each strike cutting at the thicket of branches crashing into his arms. The thorns could have their taste. This wasn’t for training or sport; the needs were different, the trunks too narrow. Thanks for everything. It could have been any other tree, any other ax. Two lives; the ring and outside it. Each swing brought the pair into harmony. Yokes carried around the neck for ages. It was time for them both to finally die.
His father took his own life. The Halo? It had been processed into scrap. That should have meant the chapter was closed, but instead, their their specters refused to rest in Hell. Anxiety, depression, the scars of abuse might heal, but they’d find soft spots to arise if sadly possible. The Halo was a simpler matter; a spiritual successor. Culture Shock once again.
Once he’d sheared the limbs from the mesquite, he got into his truck and backing it up. Dropping the tailgate, he unspooled a log chain with a choker hook. He fastened it to the deepest part of the stump’s base, revving the engine. The wheels spun as the chain lost its slack. The hearty sound of cracking wood. Pushing down the accelerator, the trunk of the mesquite started to give way, as did the land underneath. Like broken bones shifting, the tendrils jutted to the surface, spindled and curled. The poison removed. Gas canisters in the truck bed.Everything he had would go into do this right, no matter how long it took.
A year ago, thirty-one others fought under the honor of the late Seymour Almasy. Round by round, their numbers dwindled, winnowed away, until only one remained standing as the standard of the ReVival. This isn’t my way of proclaiming dominion. PRIME has grown so much since then, becoming so much more rigorous. And I love that it blossomed. Part of me wants to take credit for why we’re touring again, why we’re in a position to fill stadiums. Why we’re the greatest promotion professional wrestling has ever known. Maybe it’s true. Maybe it isn’t.
I don’t care.
This battle royal…it’s not about any of that. Some of you are coming to prove yourselves. To make your mark. For some, it’s vanity. To answer niggling questions of your self worth. Some are seeking enlightenment through violence. Some want to claim their crowns. Others will skulk out, unknown, from the shadows. Some will use it for propaganda. Some, well, they’re just fucking crumbs. It’s all valid. Your motivations are your own. And I won’t fault you. This challenge is so daunting and we have to give it our all if we are to take from it what we want.
But I’m not like any of you.
When I stood in the light at the end of Culture Shock last year, PRIME’s Champion, I found, for the first time, something I’d sought my entire life.
It was fleeting. On to the next show. The next defense. I wanted the feeling to last forever, but it ebbed away before I could appreciate it. So many times, so close, and even when you’ve surmounted, all I felt is the ‘what’s next’. Chasing it.
It won’t be a tournament this time.
To get what I need, I have to go through everyone. Not a single person leaves until we are all in those rings, face to face. Nothing has ever been handed to me here. I want it this way. So think long and hard about your legacies, your hopes, your dreams, your faiths, whatever it is that brought you here.
Know that I will crush every single one of you to drink just one second of that relief one more time.
For me, that’s the greatest Golden Ticket I could ever imagine.
Brandon stayed with the mesquite for as long as it needed to burn. Chopped into fine pieces, its embers were small enough to fill a scullery. Now, his father had no signature to show he’d ever existed, his ashes scattered, his gravestone burned away, forever to be lost. All that was left were the memories.
They only had as much power as one would afford them.
There was no returning to this place. To him. All that was left was the silence of oblivion. All that was left was the ax, and as he threw it onto the coals, it, too, would fade away.
And good riddance.