Early Saturday afternoon, May 21.
The gymnasium at the Colton Academy was filled with people. Milling about, chatting, eating cake. It was the normal amount of activity for a Saturday, although the type of activity was different. In fact, the practice ring–normally the focal point–was completely empty.
The reason probably had something to do with the huge “CONGRATULATIONS BLAKE” banner on the wall.
Underneath the banner was a table filled with pictures, trophies, and other accomplishments; with another table nearby where cards and gifts were dropped off. There was a second table along another wall, filled with cold cut sandwiches, chips, cake, and a generous amount of Aunt Lila’s famous cheesy hash browns. Next to that was a cooler full of liquid refreshments for all age groups.
The aforementioned crowd consisted of family, classmates, and other well-wishers. Not many of Blake’s actual friends; they had their own graduation parties to handle. However, almost everyone on his mother’s side made the journey, eager to congratulate him, shake his hand, and comment on how tall he had gotten. From his dad’s side…well, it was Aunt Lila and Dennis. But those were the only ones he knew anyway.
Yes indeed, it was Blake Colton’s big day.
Or at least, it was supposed to be.
Unfortunately, news coming out of ReVival 8 had cast a pall over the proceedings. His brother, Nate, had been seriously injured during the Survivor event and had to be held overnight for observation. As a result, he missed his flight back to Evansville, and wasn’t able to attend the ceremony. That itself was bad enough, but the fact that Nate himself hadn’t checked in yet meant the entire family was on edge.
They all tried to keep their brave faces on, of course. His mother and aunt busied themselves around the hall; his father chatted with Grandpa Dave and nursed his beer, in a desperate effort not to chug the whole thing and grab another.
Blake did his part by plastering on a fake smile, greeting people, and giving basically the same three responses a hundred times.
Yes, it’s good to see you too. Yes, I’m excited to start college in the fall.
No, I haven’t heard anything about Nate yet.
Over the next hour, Blake felt a growing knot in his stomach as he watched his parents try–and fail–to mask their concern. As the possibilities raced through his mind–concussion? stitches? oh god, he’s not going to, he couldn’t–he had to jam his hands in his pockets to keep them from shaking.
“Oh, thank God!”
His mother’s voice cut through the room, and a wave of relief fell over everyone. Nobody knew details yet, but a reaction like that could only be good news.
Mallory Colton rushed through the gymnasium, her purple floral dress catching and nearly tearing on a random table corner. She had a phone pressed to her ear, and asked questions so fast that the person on the other end couldn’t possibly have answered them.
“What happened? How are you feeling? What did the doctors say? When are you coming home? Can you–” she paused for a moment, finally wiping the tears from her face. “Oh. OK, I’ll get him. Please don’t scare me like that again.”
Mallory scanned the room until she saw Blake, then made her way over. “Here he is. So good to hear your voice, honey. Love you miss you.” She turned to her youngest son and handed him the phone. “It’s your brother. He wants to talk to you first.”
Blake nodded, and held the phone to his ear. “Nate? How are you feeling?”
“Hey, little bro. I’m fine. Took a knock on the head at the show, not as big a deal as everyone’s making it out to be.”
“Are you sure? It looked pretty bad.”
“Don’t worry about it. I just feel bad because I’m not going to be there today. Goddamn doctors only just let me out ‘cause they were worried about a concussion.”
“Those are serious, Nate. One of my classmates got one last year and she still gets dizzy spells.”
“I told you, it’s fine. Worst case, it just made me a little dumber. As if that’s possible.”
Blake laughed, taking comfort in the warmth of his brother’s voice. “Could be worse, big bro. You could be Benjamin.”
“Ha! I’d have to get hit a lot harder for that. But you know who’s not dumb? You, little bro! Look at you, graduating with honors and a scholarship and everything.”
A smile spread over the young man’s face. “It’s not that big a deal.”
“It absolutely is! I don’t think I got anything above a B-minus in my whole life. Hell, you’re going to be the first Colton to graduate from college.”
“Is that Nate?” a random uncle said in Blake’s other ear, causing him to wince. “Tell him I said hi!”
“–of you, buddy.”
Blake stuck a finger in his ear, trying to block out the surrounding noise. “Sorry, I couldn’t hear you, bro. What was that?”
“I said I’m so–” But again Nate’s voice was cut off, as more people crowded around.
“Nate! Good luck in your next match!” “How are you liking Las Vegas?” “Can you get Lindsey Troy’s autograph?”
“I’m sorry, I’ve gotta let you go,” Blake almost shouted into the phone. “Love you miss you, big bro.”
“Lay off the pudding, Nate!” “–you miss–” “Can you get the mannequin’s autograph?” “–tle bro–” “Kick some ass at the next show, cousin!”
Blake handed the phone to a random relative and pushed his way out of the tightening circle. He shook out his head and arms in order to blow off the nervous energy that had built up, then worked on catching his breath. Fortunately, everyone else seemed too preoccupied to notice.
He turned toward the wall where his life and accolades were on display, listening to the crowd with half an ear. They sounded more relaxed now, and in a much better mood. After all, the crisis had passed. Everyone could breathe easy and just have a good time.
But that’s the thing about Blake Colton. He always saw the world a little differently.
“You see the world a little differently, don’t you?” Hark lambasted Nathan Filmix.
It was too dark to tell where Hark and Filmix were but it was clear that being booted from PRIME Survivor was not serving The Wrestling Junkie well.
“I say that with two different meanings. I think you’ve learned lots from teaming up with Colton. Before him, you only viewed the world with one lens. Give him credit, he opened you up to many new experiences,” Hark revised.
Damn near comatose, Nathan Filmix just sat there. His entire body was covered in sweat which probably came from a combination of a workout and panic attack.
“Look at me,” The Coach beckoned.
Nathan’s eyes took their sweet time to rise from the ground. He had it all and his chance was over now.
“You should talk to him,” He suggested as he presented Filmix with a phone.
Like an olive branch, Hark had his arm extended forward. Nathan needed a bath and treatment to recover from, well, everything. Hark’s hand began to tremor but only because he was so old and couldn’t hold out his phone for much longer.
“No?” Hark asked, “Then think about it.”
Coach headed for the exit, but not before setting the phone on a stack of towels by the door. He glanced back one last time before leaving.
“You have so much more left in the tank. Don’t let this defeat drag you down. I’ll be around,” Hark indicated.
Nathan was left in silence. His stare locked in on the phone. He knew what he had to do.
Monday morning, May 23.
Nate Colton had dealt with a lot of headaches in the last few days. Concussion testing, transferring plane tickets, checking out of his suite at the Grand on short notice, and shopping for a combination graduation/apology gift for his brother.
By comparison, the pain in his actual head didn’t seem so bad.
Now he found himself with a new headache: frantically searching for a date to the Fighting For Nora Fundraiser.
How are you feeling?
And occasionally dealing with concerned texts from his tag team partner.
pain and swelling r down
How long are you staying home?
through the weekend
got that fundraiser on Friday
still need to find someone to take along
He’d spent the morning looking through contacts on social media and his phone, but it seemed like everyone he knew was married, or in a relationship, or a fellow wrestler, or in one case, in jail for her actions at the Capitol.
I have an idea for that.
Nate took a drink from his morning coffee as he looked at the picture Filmix had sent him…
…and promptly spit it all over the wall.
After all, it’s not every day that your tag team partner screenshots a flier featuring a mostly naked woman with stars over her nipples, along with a phone number you could call to set up an…appointment…with her.
can’t believe you kept that
Ah. I thought you needed someone to escort to the party.
not what that means bro
“Better have saved some coffee for me, boy,” someone mumbled. Nate turned to see his father enter the kitchen.
Nate pointed to the half-full pot. “Nice bed head, dad,” he said, as he sent another text.
anyway it just needs to be someone to bring along
doesn’t need to be anything serious, not a real date
“My hairdresser has the day off.” Jake poured himself a cup and gave his butt a good scratch, which drew an eye roll from his son. “Got any plans for the next few days?”
“Gotta line up a date for this stupid fundraiser,” Nate answered. “I’ll probably mow the lawn tomorrow.”
The old man frowned. “I asked Blake to do that, not you.”
“Least I could do after missing his graduation.”
“He’ll be fine,” Jake said. “It was a freak accident; he knows that.”
“Right. But you know how he gets. Blake’s a little…sensitive.”
His dad let out a heavy sigh. “Don’t I know it. Sometimes he’s the toughest to teach out of all of you. But he needs to learn.”
“I agree, but…look, just let me do this. Besides, he’s going to be busy enough this week filling out all those thank-you cards. If I don’t help with his chores, we won’t have time to go fishing this weekend.” Nate felt a vibration in his hand, and looked back down at his phone.
Don’t you know a lot of women through wrestling? You can ask one of them.
“You’d have more time if you weren’t going to New Orleans, just to keep an eye on your sister.”
I don’t date wrestlers
it’s a rule I have
“I’m not wild about it either, but Jennifer is an adult, and can make her own decisions–”
“–and We Have To Respect Those Decisions, Even If We Don’t Like Them,” Nate finished in the sing-songy voice he used to mock Benjamin’s lectures about sexual autonomy. He freely admitted that his brother wasn’t wrong…just very annoying.
“If anything, you should be spending time planning for your next match. Hell, your first real match, far as I’m concerned.”
“I’m sorry, who was it that told me,” and he switched back to the mocking voice, “When You’re First Getting Started, Do Whatever You Can To Get Attention, Even If It’s Not What You Want To Do.”
“I know what’s in the book,” his father snarled. “I wrote the damn thing, after all.”
But you just said it’s not a real date.
The response from Filmix caught Nate off guard, and he laughed softly. Nathan had a remarkable way of taking a complicated issue, and uncomplicating it.
gave me a great idea
“What are you laughing at?”
“I think Nathan just helped me solve one of my problems.” Nate scrolled through his contacts until he found the one he had in mind. Someone he’d known most of his life, who understood him better than anyone outside of his family…and who had once hit him so hard, he had to let Benny drive his car home.
“How’s he doing, anyway?” Jake asked.
“He’s okay. I know he’s upset about Survivor, but if I know Nathan Filmix, he’s going to be laser-focused on training to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I’m sure by the time I get back, I’ll have to bust my ass just to keep up with him.”
The elder Colton nodded. “Good to hear. Losing always sucks, but it ain’t the end of the world.”
“Right,” Nate agreed. “Anyway, he’s given me a really good idea for this fundraiser deal.”
“Oh, your date? Who?”
“Shit,” Jake laughed. “Be careful; her dad is more protective than you are. Bigger, too.”
“Not that kind of date, Dad. Besides, maybe this will help get her name out there, maybe get some attention on what she and her dad are doing.”
As he pressed the “call” button, Nate made a mental note to wipe down the wall before his mother woke up.
“Melissa? Hi! I know, it’s been too long. I’ve got a favor to ask…are you busy on Friday night?”
The brightness from the screen was the only illumination in the immediate area for Nathan Filmix. He clutched the phone mightily. Talking to Nate took his mind off his own failures.
See? Nate was moving on and focused on more important things. So why was Nathan so hung the hell up on being eliminated from Survivor?
“Hmph,” Filmix grunted as he continually texted with his tag team partner.
He still hadn’t moved from the spot where Hark left him. Call it self-punishment, but Nathan definitely didn’t feel like he had earned the right to go anywhere just yet.
“I need some sleep,” Filmix recognized.
Sunday noon (ish), May 29.
Years ago, Jake Colton found a great spot for fishing at Bayou Creek, just outside of Evansville. It had all the hallmarks of the best fishing spots.
First, it was secluded. Nobody came around to bother him; he could sit by the water, hold the rod, and drink beer in peace.
Second, there were hardly any fish, which were a pain in the ass and cut into his drinking time. If he actually wanted fish, he’d go to Long John Silver’s.
Naturally, he took his kids here any chance he got. Never more than one at a time–any one of them could be quiet (except Benny); any two would fight. It was his favorite way to spend quality, one-on-one time with his children.
Today was much the same, only Jake wasn’t taking part. Instead, the oldest and youngest of the Colton kids made the trip. They approached a sprawling tree which provided shade; Blake carried the poles and tackle box, while Nate brought the cooler.
“Beautiful,” Nate said as he set the cooler down, the ice and water sloshing inside. “Couldn’t ask for a nicer day.”
“Nope,” Blake said, and quickly worked on getting the poles ready. He had quick, nimble fingers; probably from all the time he spent at the computer.
Nate opened the cooler and grabbed one of the Bud Lights left over from the graduation party. “Need a cold one, buddy?”
“I’m only eighteen,” Blake said as he finished baiting the hooks, then wiped his hands on his pants.
“I won’t tell the cops if you don’t,” Nate replied, and tossed him a can anyway. Grins on their faces, the brothers cast their lines and opened their beers, then sat back and waited for nothing to happen.
“So…how’d that fancy dinner go?”
Nate nearly spat out his beer at the event’s mention. “Don’t really want to talk about it. Honestly, I’m just glad it’s over with. It was really good to see Melissa again, though.”
“Mom showed me the pictures you sent. She’s really pretty.”
“Yeah, she is,” Nate replied, then smirked as he turned toward this brother. “Sounds like someone’s got a little bit of a crush.”
Blake’s cheeks went red in an instant. “Shut up.”
“I could give you her number if you want. I think you’re a little young for her, though.”
“Not as young as Jenny is, compared to Jon Rhine.”
“Annnnnnnnnd I really don’t want to talk about that. How about you, buddy? Excited to spend time with some college girls?”
The kid blushed again. Jesus, he’s shy, Nate thought. “Best advice I can give is to just be yourself. It’s not going to work with everyone you meet, but it’ll work with the right people. Also, don’t date anyone in law school; it’s literally all they can talk about.”
Blake nodded, and took another drink, making a face as he did so. “I dunno how you can stand this stuff,” he said.
“You just gotta get used to it. Hell, I threw up the first time dad gave me a beer on this trip. Of course, I was thirteen.”
“Jesus. Dad let you drink back then?”
Nate shrugged. “Old man used to have a lot more redneck in him. That was probably normal for where he grew up.”
“Where was that? Kentucky, right?”
“Yeah, somewhere in Kentucky. Starts with an R, I think? I dunno.”
Blake reeled his line back in and recast. “It’s been good having you back home this week,” he said.
“Hell yeah,” Nate agreed. “Feel like we’ve barely got to hang out since…hell, since I started college. Eight years, seems like yesterday.”
“Well, you’ve been busy.”
“Don’t I know it. School, then dad’s shows, then road gigs, and now PRIME…I just wish I’d carved out more time to spend with you, kid.”
“Love you, big bro.”
“Love you too, little bro.” Nate threw an arm around Blake’s shoulders and smiled. “God, ain’t this just the best?”
Blake nodded in agreement. “I wish this could last,” he said softly.
Nate grinned. “I know, right? I remember coming out here with Dad back when I was your age. When school and wrestling and everything was getting to be too much, we could always come out here and just…be, y’know? I always felt the same way; I wished it could last forever.”
But that’s not what I said, Blake thought, as his memories rolled back to the previous weekend.
The shower water ran down Nathan’s cold body. What happened at Survivor kept running through his head, over and over again.
“Family,” He muttered as water poured into his mouth from the showerhead.
That’s definitely one thing Colton had that Filmix didn’t. It wasn’t something to be jealous of but rather, the main reason to understand why his partner was always so busy. He had a life. An actual life that revolved around real things more so than just wrestling.
“Gotta get out of this rut,” Filmix grumbled. He just wished he knew how.
His hand reached to turn the shower off. Filmix stood there as he drip dried before he grabbed a towel.
“I know we BOTH see the world a little differently,” He spoke with despair in his voice.
But that’s the thing about Blake Colton. He always saw the world a little differently.
When he looked at this collection of memories from the last eighteen years, he didn’t look at his varsity jacket or his medals and trophies from high school wrestling meets. He was a Colton, he was supposed to have those.
He barely noticed his prizes for academic achievements–his Honors Society cord, his awards for speech and debate, his first-prize science fair project. That stuff came to him easily; it didn’t really count.
Even the people in the building didn’t seem to register. Most of them were family; the rest were friends of his parents or the younger siblings of his classmates, sent as emissaries. Everyone was there out of a sense of obligation.
Instead, he focused on other things. First-place wrestling trophies. His closest friends. His oldest brother, who had always been his hero.
Blake Colton looked around the room, and counted all the things that weren’t there.