“I’m scared of the monsters under my bed, Daddy.”
It’s funny what we remember from childhood. Random flashes of the past bubbling up and popping on the surface after clinging for too long to the bottom of a cold glass. Eddie was probably seven or eight when this memory occurred, and it was one he carried with him even now as an adult.
“You don’t have to be afraid of monsters under the bed. I checked.”
Eddie was sleeping alone for the first time as Junior was at a friend’s house overnight and they were staying with their father for the summer. He and his Papa had a great night, drinking root beer floats and watching their favorite movie, How to Train Your Dragon. Sleeping alone meant a lot of changes were happening, and not all of them were good. Eddie looked around his room once again and found shadows that formed into great snapping maws.
“But what about monsters in the closet?” he asked, hoping maybe his father would understand the possibility that his door was a demonic portal.
“Yes, of course buddy. Here, let me fix it for you,” his father replied while walking over to the closet and closing it tight. He gave the door a good shake to show it was secured. “All good, little man. No monsters are getting through there!”
As his father leaned in to kiss Eddie good night and tell him he loved him, the boy tugged on his shirt and interrupted him.
“But what about the monsters under the bed? Are you sure there aren’t any?”
“Well if there are, I’ll give them the ol’ Cave-In!” his father replied, chuckling a little and scruffing his boy’s hair.
Eddie seemed content with that answer and pulled his covers up around his shoulders. He let out a big yawn and smiled, caressing his father’s back as he received his goodnight hug. When his father walked across the room and reached to flip off the lights, Eddie had just one more thing on his mind.
“Daddy, as long as you are here we’ll always be safe from monsters, right?”
“It’s time for sleep, Atali’i,” his father replied and turned off the lights with a crisp flick of the switch.
Eddie Cross was in a great mood for the first time in what seemed like a very long time. Of course there were some aches and pains, mostly from a collision with Ivan Stanislav followed by a second, more painful collision with a soda machine. He did clean up about seven bucks in change afterwards though, so he had that going for him.
Coming back to the TCS with a win over Mushigihara felt damn good, even if it felt a little too easy. Things seemed to be on the up and up for him in the locker room as well. He had bonded with another student over their mutual love of Call of Duty shortly after the others assaulted him and he exploded in front of everyone.
Her name was Ava Grace, and she actually cared if he wanted to talk about the problems he was facing instead of just writing him off as another spoiled nepo baby. Eddie and Ava talked quite a lot; about gaming, foods they liked, what it’s like to be on TV, the smell of Brandon Youngblood’s personal musk (Eddie thought it smelled a lot like a Disney World Stack Burger), and many other aspects of their young lives.
Even Vivica seemed to be warming up to him being in the gym, and that was perhaps the most welcome change of all. He had made good on his promise to fix the wall outside of the cashiers office, and Viv had noticed that his work wasn’t just good, it was flawless.
His training had begun to mirror his work with the wall. After he had become more confident and comfortable he was able to pick up moves at least as fast as any student she had ever trained. Vivica also noticed he seemed to be happy for the first time since he had walked through the door.
For all the good vibes outside the ring or during drills, sparring was a different story. Something snapped in Eddie as soon as the bell rang. Preparing for the challenge that laid before him at Culture Shock had made him almost hyper-focused and at times even the other students chatting about gaming weren’t able to snap him out of the mindset of preparation.
Vivica spent a lot of time with Eddie, as she knew this was a turning point in his career. The opportunity to vie for any belt, even the Alias, would be a feather in his cap that could set him upon a path of success. A good trainer knows that it is not just a student’s wrestling skills that need guidance.
The problem with special attention is that it never seems to take very long before people talk about the why.
“Hey Cross, let’s talk for a minute.”
Eddie avoided Grant Hampton like he was made of all five varieties of hepatitis. He would purposely shun the locker room when Grant was around, and tried to keep as much distance between them as possible in the gym. Once they had bumped into each other when they were passing by on the way into the bathroom while Eddie was coming out, but it was without incident. This meeting was not to be without incident judging by the tone of his voice.
“Not today, Grant,” Eddie tried but couldn’t make eye contact and headed for the exit door to the building.
“Come on, don’t be like that. We just want to chat a little.” Of course he was flanked by his two henchmen, whom Eddie had taken to calling Rod and Todd behind their backs. Their actual names were far less interesting.
Eddie kept walking, choosing to ignore them, stepped out of the door and continued on toward his car. Ava was approaching the building as Eddie was leaving and didn’t know Grant and his goons were in tow when she saw her new friend looking troubled.
“Eddie, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing, I just need to take a drive and think about the show coming up.”
“Can I come with you?” she asked with concern in her voice.
“Hey asshole!” Grant shouted as he stepped outside of the building, not realizing Ava was standing there. For a moment he was taken aback, not expecting someone else to hear him.
“What do you want?” Eddie shouted defensively. “Why can’t you just leave me alone?”
The three tormentors stalked EC, closing the distance and moving to within the danger radius of the young man. “I thought we were clear the last time we talked that this is a mutually beneficial relationship. You help us, and we leave you alone. You haven’t helped us out sooooo…”
Ava stepped between them and snapped at Grant. “Leave him alone you leech. Nobody here likes you.”
“Oh, I know,” he hissed. “If I were here to make friends, I would be, well… you. Sad, lonely, clinging to this failure.”
The first blow came over her shoulder and bloodied Grant’s nose. The older student stumbled back. Immediately Rod and Todd jumped on Eddie and started hammering on him, laying boots and fists into his side until he was covering his face with his hands. One of them grabbed Eddie and slammed his head off the hood of the Honda. Ava tried to jump on Todd’s back but was swatted away easily.
“Ow, my nose! You fuck!”
The trio laid into Eddie, one of them knocked his shoulder through the front driver’s side window with a crash. They split his lip open with a knee and one of the goons, Todd, laughed as he crushed Eddie’s glasses beneath his boot. Finally, Grant motioned for them to grab Eddie, and they did. His head hung as blood dripped from his lip.
The leader smacked Eddie several times across the face to get his attention. “I have been working on that bitch for three years. You show up and have personal lessons inside of a couple months. Does that seem fair to you?”
Grant wiped his nose and looked at the blood. This had gotten out of hand, but it was too late now. He was going to have to make it look like Eddie had another one of his little “incidents”, and the only loose end was the girl. Rod grabbed her as she screamed at him and he covered her mouth with his hand.
“Maybe I’m getting the lessons because I’m better than you,” Eddie shot back, hitting his mark.
“Oh right, you fucking moron, I’m sure that’s the answer.” Grant scathingly replied.
That word seared Eddie. His eyes burned, but he couldn’t catch his breath and the sharp pain when he inhaled made him want to pass out. The other students called him that word in high school on account of needing special classes and his friends. It was ugly, like Grant Hampton’s motivations.
They were all so caught up in the moment that they barely heard the warble of an exhaust leak coming from a mid nineties Ford pickup truck as it pulled into the parking lot behind them and shuddered itself nearly to death.
The truck door flew open with a pained squeal as the annoying buzz of the pickup’s door alarm followed by the clip clopping gallop of a pair of cowboy boots filled the air as something Old School this way came.
“Holy shit it’s Dav… “ Todd spit out before Mr. Old School dropped him to the asphalt with a tire iron into the ribs. He flung the hapless goon into the fender of the Honda and watched as three of his teeth bounced off the pavement like little pearled marbles.
Rod let Ava go and she ran to the gym. Dave ducked under a wild swing and grabbed the young man’s arm. With a quick movement he twisted into an arm ringer and dropped his weight against Rod’s elbow, dislocating the joint and sending him to the ground screaming. Dave lifted his cowboy boot up and stomped down on Rod’s crotch like he was pounding in a sand point well in his backyard.
Grant instinctively held his hands up to ward off the irate Mr. Old School. “Hey, I don’t want any trouble man,” Grant stammered, the false courage a minute ago turned to liquid baby shit inside of him as he pointed at Eddie. “He hit me first!”
Dave looked back at Eddie and snarled “Is that true?”
Eddie nodded and held his side.
“Why the hell didn’t you finish it then, Ed?” Gibson turned back to Grant and eyeballed the young man, staring deep into his cowardly guts. “Well? You ain’t so tough without the two shitheads are you?”
Grant stumbled as he backed away slowly shaking his head. Rod and Todd groaned on the ground. Dave lunged forward, shooting on the young man. He moved like a python, wrapping up his prey in a fluid movement until he had a standing sleeper choke locked in. The young man tapped out immediately, but Dave didn’t let go. Instead, he squeezed his throat tighter with every bit of resistance.
“Enough!” Vivica’s voice cut through the air and Dave reluctantly let Grant go. The latter coughed and wheezed from the ground. Viv looked over at the old man who stood before her and then looked at Eddie and the other boys. “Let’s see, beat up Ford truck, Just For Men color in need of a touch up, and some of the dirtiest moves I’ve ever seen. You must be Dave Gibson.”
Gibson nodded. “Guilty, but I don’t know you.”
“Vivica J Valentine,” she motioned toward her building, her bi-color hair falling over her shoulder as she did. “Come with me, I have something to discuss with you. Eddie, Ava, you come too. The rest of you…” she glared at Grant and the goons, “An ambulance is on the way. You’re banned from any and all TCS facilities. I don’t ever want to see you again.”
As they made their way toward the gym, Dave pulled Eddie to his feet, fixed his hair, and leaned in to his pupil. “That’s Vivica?”
Dave licked his thumbs and ran them across his eyebrows. Eddie rolled his eyes and followed the procession inside.
“It’s good to finally meet you.” Vivica said. “I’ve heard a lot.”
“Likewise, I suppose.” Dave replied. “Fine mess, all this.”
“Tell me about it,” She said as she widened her eyes and blew out in exasperation. “How the hell did we come to this point Dave?”
“What do you mean? I drove here, whooped some ass, and you asked me inside.”
She appreciated his bluntness, but it wasn’t the answer she was looking for. “No. I mean me, an authority figure. Of all things.”
“Ah, and me looking after a stray. I figure sometimes life has a way of punishing us for our past sins.” Dave sat down in his chair with an old man’s grunt. He took a deep breath and gestured toward the parking lot. “About those kids. They were a bunch of grade A shitheads and had it coming.”
Vivica groaned. “Well I’m just glad you did it in the parking lot and I don’t have any liability. I wouldn’t worry too much about yourself, either. TCS has top level security cameras and they will show the whole thing going down.” She pulled a couple glasses and a bottle of dark reddish-brown thunder water from a drawer. “Want some?”
“No, but thank you for the offer.” Dave answered. He waited as he turned a thought over in his head. “You didn’t call me in here to get me liquored up and flirt with me. I know that much.”
“No, I didn’t,” she replied curtly. “You knew Desade, Amy Campbell, maybe even Terrence Kingsley.”
“I knew a lot of people. I don’t really anymore.”
“Well, now you and I have yet another mutual interest.” She nodded into the hallway where Eddie sat in a chair with Ava next to him tending his lip. They appeared to be deep in some sort of conversation.
“The boy.” Dave said.
“Indeed,” came the reply. “Dave, I have to tell you something and it might be hard to hear.”
“Shoot, I’m all ears. Lay it on me.”
She paused and furrowed her brow, not really sure what to say. “Have you ever noticed Eddie is… different… than the other students?”
Dave turned and looked at Eddie and Ava in the hallway. “Hold on a second, Viv, that boy is about ten minutes and no clothes away from a bad decision with that pretty young lady out there. I don’t think that’s a problem.”
She chuckled. “No, not that. Those two have been making eyes for a couple weeks.” She dug into her drawer once again and pulled out a pen and paper. “I’m not an expert… but the video games, the awkward social skills, his medications, the way he picks up training like nobody I’ve ever seen, the mood changes when his routines and expectations aren’t met.”
“What about it? I just figured he’s a twenty year old boy and who knows what the hell is goin’ on in their head? Well I mean beside the obvious.”
She searches for the words she wants to use, as it is a sensitive topic.
“Dave, I’ve done a lot of charity work with people on the spectrum, and I think Eddie has a lot of similar traits.”
Gibson allowed the moment for the statement to settle under gravity. “Are you saying the boy is… you know…?”
Viv sighed and leaned back. “It’s not really that simple. At this point it might be hard to get him to agree to the testing. Even if he was, he’d be very high functioning and might be hard to diagnose.”
“I don’t know Viv, his Daddy never said anything,” Dave replied suspiciously.
“Look, I’m not an expert. All I’m saying is maybe you should consider building a positive environment and some routines for him.”
Dave leaned back for a moment and contemplated what she was saying. He sure did like to run up that mountain every morning, and let’s face it, the kid is temperamental. It all made a lot of sense the more he thought about the situation.
“Goddamn.” He shook his head. “I thought maybe he just needed to clean the pipes out or something, you know, get that energy out so he can focus on what matters.”
She laughed with a slight snort, and then shook her head. “No, right now he needs stability, focus, and individual attention. Things I cannot give him. Above all, he needs a Father. That’s something I can never be.”
Dave looked confused as he turned and looked at Eddie again. He was bruised and his lip was split open. He turned back to Vivica “Yeah, that’s no good. The kid and his Dad have big problems. I’ve tried to mend the fences, but some hollers are just too deep, as they say back home.”
“You don’t even know who I am talking about, do you?” She reached forward and touched his shoulder reassuringly as he looked at her, unsure what to think. “Dave, it’s you.”
He took another look at Eddie as Ava put her head on his shoulder and he closed his eyes. “Nah, I don’t see it.”
“You don’t see it?” Vivica authored a response. “I admit I don’t know you from Adam, but he talks about you constantly. He mimics your accent. He fights like you. Well, maybe not as dirty…”
“Eh, he’ll get there.” Dave mischievously replied. “I don’t really know a lot about having kids in my life, Viv. I’m a leaf on the wind.”
“Oh really?” she asked with motive in her voice.
“Yeah, really,” he retorted. “I come and go when I want, I ain’t beholden to nobody or no one.”
She took a drink of her whiskey, finished off the glass, then popped the cork top off the bottle with a satisfying “thoop” and poured another couple fingers. “If that is true, then why are you here right now?”
His mouth opened, but he didn’t have an answer.
“Yeah that’s what I thought,” she said as she scribbled a phone number and her name on the paper. “This isn’t for you, it’s for him. You have that silver fox thing going for you, but you aren’t my type.”
He reached out and grabbed the number. “You’re exactly my type,” Dave stood up and walked toward the door. “Trouble.” Before he left the room he turned back and winked with his Carolina charm. “Woulda never worked between us, but thanks for takin’ care of him.”
She saluted him with her glass and a mischievous smirk, “Fuck off, Dave.”
Eddie slept in the passenger seat of the old pick up truck on their way back home. Dave stole a glance. He thought that Eddie looked at peace, which was rare. Maybe this wasn’t the right life for him, after all. People in this business would chew on him and make him go half insane trying to understand his feelings.
Didn’t matter though. It was about what Eddie needed at the end of the day. It’s about whether or not Eddie could overcome the challenges he had in his life to be more than, to be something Dave never could be… a champion.
One thing at a time, Dave. Get the kid ready for the next show. Get the kid ready for that meat grinder at Culture Shock.
Eddie stirred and opened his eyes, staring at Dave with a gaze that must have stretched all the way to his ancestors in Samoa.
“You never answered my question,” he mumbled.
“What are you talking about Eddie? You ain’t asked me nothing.”
“Monsters under the bed.”
He must be talking in his sleep? Dreaming? Dave wasn’t sure, but this seemed important.
“As long as you are here we’ll always be safe from the monsters, right?” Eddie asked, absentmindedly and drifted off once again.
Dave watched stoically as Eddie closed his eyes and leaned back on the window. If Viv was right about him, someone was going to have to be there to make sure the kid gets a fair shake. Dave flipped on some music and smirked as Father and Son by Cat Stevens played.
Fuck, even the radio is in on this shit.
He grabbed an old plaid flannel and spread it on Eddie and watched the kid comfort himself by pulling it around his shoulders.
“Yeah. I reckon so.”