August 2, 2023
Foster Nackedy slumped in his chair.
Pat Gray, Foster’s trainer and the original owner of the gym, was obsessed with posture. As soon as his students entered the gym, he would yell “POSTURE!” and point to a sign near the entrance that read “We’re already adding two inches to your billed height so stand up straight!” Foster was billed at 6’4 and was likely closer to 6’2 and a half, but Pat Gray taught him to stand straight and look imposing.
But Pat had been dead for almost twenty years, and so Foster Nackedy slumped.
He looked at his phone, opening his messages app for the sixth time that minute, seeing if he’d catch the dotdotdot text bubble. His eyes widened for a moment, then realized he was in the wrong text thread.
Running late, Connor needed stuff for college.
Sighing, he switched to his thread with Paxton and stared at the screen, praying for activity. All that he saw was the same exchange from the day before.
You going to be at the gym tomorrow? I moved your tournament match seven times now.
Foster had come in early today, made sure El Cocodrilo was around, and cleared his schedule for the third day in a row. He knew that Paxton was angry at him, and had noticed Paxton being less connected over the past few weeks, but he had hoped with time everything would go back to normal.
But here he was, waiting like he used to wait for his dad to pick him up from wrestling school, slumping in his chair with no one to tell him to sit up straight.
He jumped as he heard a bang behind him. He swiveled in the chair to see Dith Timble standing in the doorway. “H-he’s here.”
Foster practically leapt to his feet, spinning past Dith and dashing to the gym. Paxton Ray stood in the center ring, leaning against the turnbuckle post. He smiled at Foster. “Where’s the croc? Ain’t got all day.”
“Yeah, sure.” Foster looked across the gym and saw El Crocodilo in the weight room. Speedwalking past the students who were gathering near the ring, he burst into the weight room. “Dilo, you’re up.”
The luchador put the bar back on the machine. “Give a guy a little more notice next time.” The two of them trudged towards the ring as Paxton began to tap his foot.
“Ring the bell, Fos, an’ don’t put the hammer down. This is gonna be quick.”
Foster nodded to Dith, who slid under the ring ropes, and then he readied the hammer and hit the bell with two quick strikes.
El Cocodrilo was one of Foster’s older students, with a lot of time in Mexico. His experience was something he believed helped him against these larger but younger opponents. He rolled to his right to duck under a punch but was immediately knocked down by a back elbow. As he staggered to his feet, Paxton pulled him up and hit the Lullaby, then knelt on his chest for the three count.
Foster looked at the hammer that was still in his hand and gave the bell three deliberate strikes.
DING DING DING
“All right, good match. Paxton is the last competitor advancing to the semi-finals. Now, Pax,” Foster started to say, then saw the Bayou Butcher powering towards the exit. “Wait, Pax!”
Foster jogged to catch up, then slowed down as he saw Julian Bathory looming in the doorway of the gym’s front door.
“Well done,” Bathory said to Paxton. “Please wait for me in the car.” Paxton nodded, shot a smile at Foster, and disappeared beyond the doorway.
“Julian. Surprised to see you. Didn’t think they let line cooks get too far from the chicken fryer.”
The Carpathian Devil grinned. “How I love hearing that silly rumor. Yes, I spend my time frying chicken. I also spend my time molding young minds and hearts.”
“Kind of similar things based on what I’ve heard about MESSIAH. Listen, I don’t know what this gamble is, but Paxton works for PRIME, and so do I. And since you’re too scared to show your face there, why don’t you just leave the Butcher to me and go find your own homicidal meal ticket?”
Bathory began to walk backwards towards his car. “Paxton is making his own choices. I will not take him anywhere he doesn’t want to go, or make him do anything he doesn’t want to do.” Julian then turned and walked away. With his hand on the door handle, he looked over his shoulder. “And please do not mistake my absence from PRIME as fear. I merely realized I could operate better in a suit than in tights. Soon enough the fear, as you say, will be on PRIME’s end.” With that, he opened the door and drove away.
Foster watched them go, then shuffled towards his office. He ignored Dith’s calls, his ex-wife’s messages, and a FaceTime request from his brother who was still in Japan. Then he looked up at a picture of Pat Gray in his office and slumped back into his chair.
Paxton Ray looked over at Julian Bathory as he entered the car. “All good?”
“Your manager is fine. Do not worry about him. Let us talk about Nora.”
“Have your guys found her yet?”
“No, but they will soon. Paxton, I must ask. What do you intend to do when you get her back?”
Paxton looked over at Bathory. “What?”
“We have heard that she is scared of you. That she doesn’t want anything to do with you. You will eventually fight the person who has kept her from you for half a year, and you will hurt him badly. So how will you overcome the hurdle of a scorned child?”
“I, uh…I’m gonna make it right. Gonna talk to her. Make her realize I’m a good dad.”
“I see.” Bathory continued to stare ahead. “Perhaps that will be enough.”
“Ya don’t think it’ll be?”
“I do not know your daughter. Only you know what it takes to be in her good graces again, and if you are capable of doing it.” Julian smiled. “Now, let us talk about MESSIAH.”
Paxton slumped in his seat and looked out at the road.
Foster was still slumping when he noticed El Cocodrilo shuffle past his door. “Hold up,” he said, summoning the effort to extract himself from his chair. The Crocodile was leaning against the wall, holding an ice pack to his cheek. He also had his duffel bag over his shoulder.
“You good?” Foster asked.
“The fuck you think?” shot back El Cocodrilo.
“Hey, listen, I–”
“Nah, man. I came with you to PRIME. I helped with that dumbass plan to attack the only Luchador to give me a shot so far, and it got me dumped out on my ass. And then I come in today and find out my tournament match was happening and I’m the only one who don’t know? You got to control your fucking dogs, man.” El Cocodrilo pulled down the edge of his mask, and Foster noticed it was fraying at the bottom. “I’m gonna call The Anglo Luchador and apologize, see if he has room in his school. I don’t need this shit.” He turned around and walked out of the gym.
“Fuck.” Foster returned to his office and looked at his phone. He pressed a few buttons and in a moment his screen flashed to life with Ian Nackedy’s bruised face. “You look like shit, brother. What happened to you?”
“The fucking Beasts of Tokyo happened,” Ian grumbled, wiping his face. “We’ve been killing this tournament block. Absolutely killing it. We beat the last Flynn champs in our first match and hadn’t missed a beat, and this team has been on a death spiral since losing to the Trash a while ago. And somehow we lost to them.”
Foster smirked. “So you just called me from across the world to vent?”
“Well yeah, because I know you’re familiar with things spiraling out of control.” The two Nackedy brothers traded facial expressions as Ian grinned at Foster’s sudden scowl. “How’s the Murdergator?”
“I hate that stupid nickname,” Foster spat. “And I hate this situation. I have given that boy license to do whatever he wants to do and it still isn’t enough. He fucking ghosts me, only shows up at the show and does some secret shit with a shock collar, then doesn’t talk to me until it’s time to show up, fuck shit up, and bounce. This is probably how it feels to have a rebellious teen.”
“It’s the world punishing you for having a perfect son and still being a bad dad,” Ian laughed. “I don’t know what you were expecting. Paxton isn’t a weapon, he’s not an attack dog, he’s not a tool. He’s an unpredictable madman who’s addicted to destroying everyone and everything in his way.”
“Poor Kenny Freeman,” Foster said. “I don’t know, man. I just…I feel like a shitty gym owner. I see Connor and Roosevelt treat Jon like he hung the moon. And I remember thinking Pat was a hardass but I knew he had our best interests at heart.” Foster looked back at the scowling face of Pat Gray. “It never felt this hard before. I just don’t know how I’m supposed to coach all these new students.”
Ian smirked for a moment, as if he wanted to give a trademark sarcastic answer. Something in his face shifted as he stared at his brother. “Listen to me. There are a lot of coaching philosophies across all sports. But one of the most common ones among successful coaches is that you have to coach to the personalities you have. And everyone’s different. You give tough love to some, gentle encouragement to others.”
Foster nodded. “Yeah, that makes sense. And what kind of coaching does Paxton need?”
“Coach him to get into a large box that you mail to Saudi Arabia, ‘cause that dude is a fucking whacko. Gotta go, bro. Got a tournament to win!” And then Ian was gone.
“Dick,” Foster said, putting the phone down and slumping further into his chair.
Paxton sunk further into his chair and stared ahead at the road as Julian Bathory continued to talk. He barely listened as Bathory began to talk about what Paxton could do for MESSIAH, and what MESSIAH could do for Paxton. He nearly fell asleep as Bathory intoned grand plans. But he finally perked up when he heard something that made his eyebrows raise.
“What did ya say?”
“You will make a fine representative of MESSIAH in PRIME, the perfect soldier to hold our banner.”
“Stop the fuckin’ car.”
Bathory’s smile did not waver, but he pulled the car over and looked over at Paxton. “What is the problem?”
“The problem is I ain’t a soldier. Not for ya, not for Foster, not for nobody. Listen, I respect ya. I saw what ya can do in the ring, which puts ya ahead of that dumbass back there, wearin’ a shiny helmet ‘cause his poor little head keeps gettin’ boo-boos. But I ain’t representin’ nobody but me.” Paxton looked out of the window. “I know ya see me like Ivan sees those multiverse fuckups he keeps around. Lackeys, underlins. Ya do somethin’ for me, and in return ya want me t’what, be a fuckin’ cult member? That may work for a little nothin’ like Kenny Freeman who can’t do anythin’ on his own. But I ain’t takin’ direction from ya. Ya wanna help find my daughter, and worm your way inta the gym as a result? Hell yeah, I’m with ya. Sink your tentacles all over that fuckin’ place. But I don’t give a shit about your organization and I damn sure ain’t puttin’ on for it in the wrestlin’ ring. When I face Kenny Freeman in a couple weeks, he’ll be fightin’ for the Red Army, but I ain’t gonna be fightin’ for nobody but my goddamn self.”
Julian’s smile grew wider. “Your fierce independence is my favorite quality of yours, Paxton. I am not here to get you to do anything. I am here to help your daughter. If you do not want to be a willing soldier, that is fine. There are plenty of parts you can play just being, as you say, your damn self.”
Paxton stared at the Hungarian, trying to get behind his eyes to find meaning behind the smile. When he could not, he shrugged. “Yeah. Good. Well, I got one more thing I need from ya.”
“Lemme out here. Gotta go somewhere.”
Nodding, Bathory pressed a button to unlock the doors, and Paxton exited the car and looked down the street. “Here goes nothin’.”
Foster thought that if he slumped any further in this chair, he would slip inside of it and be stuck in it forever. As he began to contemplate the logistics of being a chair person, he heard a knock on the door. Wheeling around, he stared up at his son. “Hey Connor. Got everything for college?”
“Yeah. New Macbook, some new clothes, some workout gear.”
Foster raised his eyebrows. “A Macbook? Do you know what credit card she used?”
“Nope. That’s between you two.”
“You’re right,” Foster replied, smiling. “What do you need?”
“Oh, uh…I wanted to get some work done in the weight room. Jon usually helps but he’s at physical therapy right now. I wondered if you would check my form for me?”
“Oh yeah?” Foster stood up, fighting against the chair as he did so. “Yeah, I can help you with that.”
The walk across the gym to the weight room was silent. Foster tried to think of subjects to broach – about school, about his decision to stay in New Orleans, about how Dustin was doing – but instead he walked.
The silence continued as Connor put weight on the bar and began lifting. It continued, save for a few grunts from Connor, as the younger Nackedy moved from station to station. Finally, Foster asked, “Hey, Con. Am I a bad trainer?”
Connor looked over suddenly, which caused him to temporarily lose control of the bar on his shoulders. He quickly recovered, then walked back to the squat machine to set it down. His shoulders hunched, he approached his father. “No. I think you change your approach a lot. But I think a lot of us are doing well, and you’re part of that.”
Foster nodded, looking at the ground. “And am I…am I a bad dad?”
“Guess that’s a pretty clear answer,” Foster muttered, not looking up.
“I don’t want to call you a bad dad. It’s been pretty challenging, not going to lie. Growing up has been tough enough with my…” Connor stammered, then shook his head. “It’s been tough. But I know that no matter what we’ve been through, you care. And I keep that with me.”
“Thanks.” Foster smiled, then looked up. His smile vanished. “Hey, your posture.”
Connor tilted his head to the side. “My what?”
“Your posture! You’re slumping! You look like you’re 5’7!” Foster stood up tall and began to shout louder. “We’re trying to become wrestlers here, not be Oompa Loompas in the new Wonka movie!”
“Dad, what–” Connor started, but Foster walked over to him and shoved his shoulders up.
“You have to take this seriously! I know you’re excited about Tulane, and living with your friend, but when you’re in my gym, you should want to become a fucking wrestler! Posture is important! Form is important too, and don’t think I didn’t catch you slipping on those squats!”
Connor tried to stand up straight, but as his lip quivered, so did his posture. He slumped, then walked out of the room, his hands immediately going towards his eyes.
Foster stared at the doorway, then laid down on the bench. “What the fuck is wrong with me?”
Paxton exhaled slowly before walking through the double doors. He looked up at the front desk and saw the receptionist was looking down at her computer, so he walked by and opened the swing door into the back rooms of the hospital. He maintained a quick pace and didn’t make eye contact with anyone, hoping no one recognized him from the last time he broke in. After opening two empty doors, he turned a corner and looked through the window. Closing his eyes for a moment, he barged in.
“Wha–?” Nurse Julie turned around and dropped her clipboard. Behind her, Jonathan Rhine stood against a walker. His eyes narrowed as he looked at the man who put him in this hospital room.
“Hey. Sorry t’interrupt, but I gotta talk with ya.”
Julie looked at the phone on the wall, which was close to Paxton. She turned around and looked at Jon. “Which one of us?”
“The cute one.” Paxton walked across the room and sat in a chair in the corner. Julie and Jon looked at each other, and after a few moments Julie helped Jon back into his wheelchair. “How is all this goin’?”
“Like you care,” Jon said.
“This is very inappropriate, Paxton,” Julie said. “This is my job, and Jon’s therapy. We can’t–”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. I’ll make it quick. I got a question t’ask ya: am I a good dad?”
Jon laughed. “Are you serious?”
Paxton looked over at Jon and his lips began to turn downward, but he shook his head and looked back at Julie. “Forget ‘bout everythin’ else. Forget ‘bout him in the chair, forget ‘bout what ya saw in the gym a few months back. Think ‘bout what ya saw last year, and what I told ya on our first date.”
Julie closed her eyes for a few seconds, trying to remember. “You said you would fight anyone to get Nora back.”
“I know I did a lot of terrible things. I ain’t gonna pretend I didn’t. But think about how I’ve talked about her, how I brought her t’every appointment, how even now I won’t let anyone distract me from the fact that she’s the only thing I want in this world. I ain’t a good man. But am I a good dad?”
Julie sighed and looked around the room, the pulled a chair next to Rhine and sat down by him. “You were. I know you love her. I believed you when you told me what you told me, and I believe you now, even after you proved I shouldn’t believe a word you say.” She frowned. “But being a good dad doesn’t exist in a vacuum. You don’t get to hand-wave everything else away. Nora cares about the people around her, and you hurt them.” She looked over at Jon, who hung his head. “You want me to say that you’re a good dad and that you’ll be able to win her back, but I think it’s going to take a lot more work than that.”
Paxton didn’t immediately answer. He looked at his fingernails and started to pick at a speck of blood stuck under one of them. Then, he looked up. “An’ what if I told ya I was willin’ to do that work to get her back?”
Jon’s nostrils flared. “I’d say bullshit.”
“Well,” Julie started, standing up. “I’d say that there are people who can help. It starts with talking about your anger, and figuring out why you feel the way you do towards everyone except your daughter.”
“What?” Julie stammered.
“Everyone ‘cept my daughter an’ ya.”
Julie looked at the ground. “I’m not a therapist – not that kind of therapist, at least. But I know a few. I have a friend who would talk to you. And if you’re interested in actually trying, maybe one day you can get in a room with Nora again and prove to her that you’re a good dad like you say you are.”
Paxton stood up, still playing with his hands. He walked towards the door. “Yeah, uh, sounds good. Just send me the info. Sorry again for interruptin’.” He opened the door, but stopped as Julie held up her hand.
“Wait. Why did you ask me? There are plenty of people you could’ve talked to. Your trainers, your coworkers. Why me?”
Paxton rubbed his beard. “Simple. Everyone around me says they wanna help, but everyone wants somethin’ in return.” He shot a look at Jon who wouldn’t meet his eyes. “But ya just helped me because ya wanted to. I appreciate that about ya.”
He walked out of the room and slunk through the hallways, his shoulders hunched. But as he exited the hospital, he smiled and stood up tall, shielding his face from the brightly shining sun.